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"Defend Collective Bargaining" Mandela Tells World's Rio Tinto Unions

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11 August, 2005ICEM News release No. 7/1998

"We condemn in the strongest terms any government or multinational company that does not allow collective bargaining." That was the clear statement from South African President Nelson Mandela this morning in Johannesburg. He was meeting representatives of unions worldwide that organise within the biggest global minerals company, Rio Tinto.

l. to. r. former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, South African miners' President James Motlatsi, South African President Nelson Mandela, Australian miners' President John Maitland, ICEM General Secretary Vic Thorpe
(photo: Oscar G.)

As for South Africa, Mandela said, "Collective bargaining is firmly entrenched in our laws."

South Africa is one of the countries where Rio Tinto is under fire for anti-trade union policies.

Another is Australia, where the multinational is embroiled in major disputes over its attempts to de-unionise mines and halt collective bargaining.

Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke headed the delegation from the 20-million-strong International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) which met President Mandela this morning.

The ICEM's aim is to make Rio Tinto "a good corporate citizen," Hawke told a press conference. The minerals giant, which operates more than 60 mines in 40 countries, employs some 51,000 people directly, and many more through subcontractors. Its anti-union stance in many parts of the world has made it a priority target for ICEM trade union networking.

Hawke mocked the company's "psycho-babble" about its "relationship" with its workers. In fact, Hawke said, Rio Tinto are "mining our resources while they undermine our unions."

The Hawke-Mandela meeting will come as a blow to Australia's anti-union federal government, which has given political and legislative support to Rio Tinto's union-busting.

Organised by the ICEM, the Johannesburg conference is continuing until Monday 9 February. It involves some 40 representatives of unions from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Namibia, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Portugal, Sweden, South Africa, UK, USA and Zimbabwe. All represent workers in major Rio Tinto operations.

Hosting the event is South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The union's President James Motlatsi, who is an ICEM Vice-President, said the NUM was targeting Rio Tinto and other mining companies operating in South Africa because of the "atrocities" in their work practices. The Johannesburg conference is part of something new and big in world trade unionism, Motlatsi said. "We realise this will be a long-term process, and we are ready for the long haul."

"It is time that we called Rio Tinto to account," ICEM Australian Vice-President John Maitland told the Johannesburg conference. Maitland is General President of the ICEM-affiliated mining and allied workers' union CFMEU, which has been the main target of Rio Tinto's anti-union strategies in Australia.

Rio Tinto "says it plays by the rules, but where it doesn't like the rules it gets them changed," Maitland told his international audience. "Mike Angwin, a senior Rio Tinto manager, was lent to the [Australian federal] government expressly for the purpose of rewriting Australian laws to make it harder for unions to represent workers."

And Maitland warned unions from other countries: "If Rio Tinto hasn't come for you yet, it is only a matter of time until they do." Globally, Maitland insisted, "we must say that fundamental labour rights are not negotiable. That the right to freedom of association and to bargain collectively should not only be a right but should be actively promoted. That as a global corporate citizen Rio Tinto must respect these basic labour rights."

All this implied that unions must organise globally, as well as nationally and locally. The ICEM is, Maitland said, "an international union which has repeatedly proven its worth in taking on the big and the unaccountable of this world."

The call for global union organising around the Rio Tinto issue was backed by ICEM General Secretary Vic Thorpe. The Johannesburg meeting would develop strategies to tackle Rio Tinto's practices, Thorpe said. This would entail mobilising the ICEM's 20 million members on all continents, but would also mean building alliances with other groups that identify Rio Tinto as a "rogue company." The minerals giant has come under growing attack by community groups worldwide over its poor social and environmental record.