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Mining unions come out fighting

18 March, 2016Last week was a busy time for mining unions gathered in Bogotá to attend a series of meetings in the Colombian capital aimed at addressing the major challenges facing the sector.

Common threads running through the regional, sectoral and company network meetings included the need for a strong and coordinated union response to the commodities crisis, the need to build union power through organizing and effective collective bargaining, and ensure that union networks in the sector are strong, responsive and representative.

The regional meetings brought together participants from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay, who were joined for the global Anglo American meeting by delegates from Australia, Botswana and South Africa.

Says IndustriALL mining director Glen Mpufane:

We have to fight to defend decent jobs which are under threat as a result of the current commodity crisis, but we also have to be prepared for when the industry bounces back. Unions were caught on the back foot when the commodities industry collapsed, now we have to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen when it rises again from the ashes.

Based on the experiences of participants, a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the impact of the commodity crisis began to emerge. It includes using the crisis as an organizing issue; mobilizing to defend jobs; researching and articulating the counter-arguments for why the commodity crisis is not a blanket excuse to roll back worker rights; drawing on best practices from other countries as well as on the provisions contained in international standards; negotiating with employers and government to find alternatives to closures or layoffs; and as a last resort – if redundancies become inevitable – negotiating the terms and conditions of the layoffs in order to minimize the impact on workers.

Organizing and strengthening bargaining collectively was another major focus of the meeting.  Participants identified organizing strategies to bring precarious workers into their ranks as well as specific contract clauses to prevent the spread of precarious work and to ensure that precarious workers enjoy the same rights as their permanent counterparts. An in-depth analysis of collective bargaining agreements in Glencore and Anglo American is currently underway with a view to identifying common strategies.

In addition, regional network participants held a minute of silence for the many mining workers who have died in 2016 and planned for a day of action on 28 April to demand the ratification and full implementation of ILO Convention 176 on health and safety in mining.

Delegates also discussed strengthening their networks through improved coordination and representation, including the greater participation of women. The Anglo American global network agreed to incorporate women’s issues as a standing item on the agenda, as well as to distribute a sexual harassment policy and invite women speakers to address future meetings.

The regional network also held a press conference to express its solidarity with Sintracarbón, the Colombian coal workers’ union whose members at Cerrejón had voted overwhelming in support of strike action if the mining company, which is jointly owned by Anglo American, BHP Billiton, continued to demand concessions in contract negotiations. Sintracarbón has since successfully concluded the collective agreement.

The next meeting will be held in Bolivia as an indication of IndustriALL’s commitment to supporting mineworkers in the Andean country.

IndustriALL is grateful to SASK and Union-to-Union and its Swedish and Finnish affiliates for their support of the regional mining project and to FES for its support of the Anglo American network.