Following a second failed effort by the BHP Billiton-Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) to force an unwanted enterprise labour agreement on 4,000 Queensland, Australia, coal miners, the tri-union Single Bargaining Unit (SBU) called a seven-day strike starting 23 May at six of the company’s rich coking coal mines of the Bowen Basin.
That strike, one in nearly ten inside a bitter 18-month dispute that has become the bellwether for trade union rights under the Labour government’s Fair Work law, will end tomorrow but an end to the long-festering contract battle appears nowhere in sight.
At issue is managing partner BHP Billiton’s longing to block union involvement over safety, work shifts, housing criteria for fly-in, fly-out miners, and equal work rights for contract staff. The SBU is composed on the majority union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), and the Electrical Trades Union of the Communications, Electrical, Plumbing Union (CEPU).
Last October, BMA used its Fair Work right to directly ballot miners on its regressive proposals. Then, 92% rejected an offer containing substantial pay gains but gutting union work rights. On 22 May, just four days after counting of a second company ballot that saw 82.7% rejection, BMA and SBU met in Brisbane to avert this latest strike.
But the company came to the table unwilling to amend its demands.
“With the same arrogant attitude and obviously on the back of two overwhelming ‘no’ votes,” CFMEU Queensland District President Stephen Smyth said, “it doesn’t seem to register with BHP that what they are selling, our members aren’t buying.”
Not only has BMA attempted to circumvent the intent of the Fair Work law over 18 months of futile bargaining, but it also was reprimanded by Fair Work Australia early this month in a failure to communicate legally with the SBU over closure and redundancies at a seventh BMA Bowen Basin mine, the 340-worker Norwich Park mine.
Also this month, the Congress of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) condemned BHP Billiton’s bad-faith bargaining in a formal resolution calling attention to a leaked e-mail in March stating the company’s terms “are not negotiable, not now, now next month, not next year.” The resolution also declared the company’s pursuit of safety deregulation “from qualified workers on the job to management” away from mine sites as the key factor leading to the Pike River mine disaster in new Zealand.