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Marathon labour dispute ends at BMA in Australia

25 October, 2012A new three-year enterprise agreement was adopted by 60 per cent of balloted workers on 20 October to close 23 months of bitter bargaining deadlock at mining giant BHP Billiton-Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) in Australia.

The deal was the fourth to go to a ballot of the 2,600 unionized workers across the coking coal operations of the Bowen Basin, central Queensland. This was the first to have union support, and earlier ballots were voted down by 92 and 83 per cent margins. Workers stood together under the Single Bargaining Unit (SBU) comprising of IndustriALL affiliates Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) and Electrical Trades Union (ETU).

A key trade union priority in the stubborn negotiations was the maintaining of onsite safety and health representatives belonging to the union, not the company. The SBU held firm and that clause, as well as an important clause on work rosters, stays in the agreement. Local housing entitlements for workers are improved by the new deal, a 5 per cent pay increase for each year of the contract, and a pension contributions increase from 9 to 12 per cent were also won.

CFMEU’s, the union that led the charge on BMA, District President Stephen Smythe thanked union members for their solidarity during the dispute in the face of a hard-line approach from BMA’s managing partner BHP. He condemned the ideological aggression from the company:

“It could have been reached a year ago, had BHP not taken an ideological approach that prioritised picking a fight with its workforce over coming to a reasonable deal.” 

Improvements are still needed and will continue to be pushed for in the next round of negotiations on housing and rostering conditions, and the struggle will continue to move the employers away from the outdated WorkChoices-era approach to labour hire and contract workers. The unions will continue to fight for the equal pay for equal work principal.

The BMA workers’ solidarity in face of BHP’s bad-faith bargaining must be saluted. The protection of the trade union safety regulators is centrally important, following the New Zealand Pike River mine disaster which was in part attributed to the safety deregulation to management. Management now must work hard to rebuild a conciliatory working environment with much bitterness caused by their actions.

The agreement covers about 3,000 workers at operations including the Goonyella-Riverside, Peak Downs, Crinum, Blackwater and Saraji mines.