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Date: Thu, 16 Oct 97 10:45:18 CDT
From: NY-Transfer-News@abbie.blythe.org
Subject: Labor News from Australia/GL Wkly
Labor News from Australia/GL Wkly
id BAA19700; Thu, 16 Oct 1997 01:20:52 -0400

Rio Tinto attacks the right to picket

By James Vassilopoulos,
in Green Left Weekly
#293 (15 October 1997)

Coal & Allied, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, has begun its attempt before the NSW Supreme Court to severely limit the right to picket in the strike against the Hunter Valley No 1 mine.

The case began in the courts on October 7, after the Australian Industrial Relations Commission gave Rio Tinto the go-ato attempt to stop the picket line from being "obstructive" and potentially to sue 11 union officials and members.

Rio Tinto is concentrating on undermining the picket line in the Hunter Valley. According to the multinational's barrister, John West QC, "Protected action [industrial action permitted under the Workplace Relations Act] does not mean all action. It doesn't include picketing, and it certainly doesn't include illegal picketing."

If Rio Tinto wins this case, the Hunter Valley strikers will not legally be able to picket and to stop coal from leaving the mine. A strike in that situation would be almost completely pointless.

Workers' bargaining position will be severely weakened. The giant company, which is on track to make profits of $1 billion this year, will gut conditions and have free rein to sack workers.

In a separate attack on the right to strike, a Victorian Court of Appeal decision makes it easier for businesses to take common law action against strikers. This court on October 6 overturned a ruling by a Supreme Court judge that the right to strike was a basic element of industrial relations.

The case involved a dispute at some 40 labour-hire companies. The decision means that employers can more easily seek common law damages and other repressive measures.

Rio Tinto's strategy is clear. It wants to break the coal mining union, like it has broken other unions in the metalliferous mines. By signing enterprise bargaining agreements at its other mines, it seeks to pick off one mine at a time.

To break the picket line and get coal moving, Rio Tinto called on the AIRC to order train drivers in the Public Transport Union to cross the picket line, unless there are "reasonable safety concerns", which it did on October 7. The leadership of the PTU has left the train drivers to take their own position on whether to break the picket line.

The company has built a 60-metre-long fence on either side of the railway tracks, to stop the picketers from blocking the train and to neutralise concerns of safety. Now it wants the Supreme Court to rule that the picket is illegal.

On October 1, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union launched a 72-hour strike across 52 collieries, involving 8000 workers in what appeared to be major solidarity action for the embattled Hunter miners. The immediate cause of the strike was Rio Tinto issuing writs against 11 union activists and officials.

The strike was called off after only a few hours. The October 3 Financial Review reported: "CFMEU officials say they aborted the strike at the request of the NSW Premier, Mr Bob Carr".

Carr convened a meeting between the CFMEU and Rio Tinto the night the strike began. He had apparently put pressure on Rio Tinto to accept arbitration of the dispute, but it refused to do so.

A meeting of the CFMEU's mining and energy national executive then decided to call off the strike after an "intense debate", according to the Financial Review.

Another reason for calling off the strike seems to be that 20 coal companies where about to claim damages from the CFMEU under section 127 of the Workplace Relations Act.

The CFMEU has now changed its demand for "consent" arbitration to the Carr position of compulsory arbitration. The difference is that with consent arbitration the strike can continue while the AIRC decides the case. This means the miners would be in a stronger position and that miners could not be provoked or intimidated.

CFMEU national president John Maitland explained to Green Left Weekly on September 24, "Compulsory arbitration means that the bargaining period is terminated, that the protected action is terminated. Our people will have to resume work and they will be faced with considerable intimidation and provocation."

The ACTU is also supporting compulsory arbitration.

The leadership of the CFMEU recommended to the Hunter miners that they accept compulsory arbitration at a mass meeting on October 9.

It is likely that if the commission arbitrates, miners will lose significant conditions. However, Rio Tinto's tactics are for the commission not to decide the dispute, to keep the strike going, isolate the miners and extract the maximum destruction of conditions.

Rio Tinto wants to be able to hire and fire workers rather than the union recruiting retrenched miners, to allocate all overtime, to have individual performance assessment and to use contractors and casual labourers. In another attack on miners, ARCO on October 1 sacked its entire work force of 312 at the Gordonstone mine, 50 kilometres west of Emerald, Queensland. ARCO wants to hire about 100 workers, all on individual contracts. BHP announced about one month go the retrenching of 800 workers from its NSW south coast coal mines.

Unless the union movement as a whole develops a plan to fight the prohibition on solidarity measures, each workplace or industry will have to fend for itself, which will often result in conditions being lost and workers being sacked or casualised.

A plan is required to make the penal powers of Reith's industrial legislation inoperative. A plan like in 1969, where all unions fought against the jailing of Clarrie O'Shea, the Victorian Tramways Union official.

Six-month airmail subscriptions (22 issues) to Green Left Weekly are available for A$80 (North America) and A$90 (South America, Europe f Africa) from PO Box 394, Broadway NSW 2007, Australia http://www.peg.apc.org/~greenleft/ e-mail: greenleft@peg.apc.org