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PROFILE: CFMEU Fighting for Australian workers

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2 December, 2014Founded in 1915 as the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees Federation, IndustriALL Global union affiliate the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) has evolved into one of Australia’s largest national trade unions representing over 120,000 members.


COUNTRY: Australia

UNION: Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)

TEXT: Alexander Ivanou

Next year CFMEU will celebrate its 100-year history in the fight for workers’ rights, both in and outside Australia. The union was the first to secure a 35-hour week for mineworkers at Broken Hill in New South Wales as far back as 1920. This was later expanded to the entire coal industry in 1970.

Another achievement is one of the first industry wide pension schemes (now known as superannuation) dating back to the 1940’s. And thanks to CFMEU, workers in the coal industry are entitled to a benefit of 13 weeks’ paid leave after eight years of service, even if they change employer.

However, the fight is far from over. CFMEU is going through a period of great challenge caused by the downturn in the world economy and the increasing power of multinational corporations.

Andrew Vickers is General Secretary of CFMEU’s Mining and Energy division, as well as Chairman of IndustriALL’s mining section and a member of the Executive Committee. He explains:

“The union in Australia is facing a series of very testing scenarios. We are seeing dramatic declines in commodity prices, particularly in iron ore and coal. As a consequence, major employers – BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Glencore, Peabody and Anglo – are dramatically reducing numbers of employees and in some cases closing mines.

“At the same time, the economic strategy of Rio Tinto and BHP, in iron ore, is to continuously increase production, even though prices are falling because of oversupply. The strategy here appears to be to put pressure on other producers to fold.

“In coal, BHP is also increasing production in an oversupplied market and reducing the number of permanent employees. They are unashamedly replacing permanent employees made redundant with labour hire and contractor workers. This is clearly contrary to the ‘national interest’ we hear politicians in Australia talk about so much. But our politicians are too frightened of these giant multinationals to pull them into line.”

Vickers argues,

CFMEU has been instrumental in ensuring some of, if not the world’s, best health and safety laws in the coal industry. Indeed, at a time that pneumoconiosis - also known as ‘black lung disease’ - is again on the rise, Australia has not had a reported case since the early 1970’s.

IndustriALL’s global campaign for better worker rights at mining giant Rio Tinto is heavily supported by the CFMEU. Fighting against rampant precarious working conditions is also high on the agenda.

Tony Maher, CFMEU National President and member of IndustriALL’s Executive Committee, highlights an ‘insidious trend’ in the Australian mining industry of putting contractors under intense pressure to slash workers’ wages in order to maintain or win new work. Major coal companies are demanding wage levels from their contractors that in most cases are 30 per cent or more below the levels paid two years ago.

Solving the issue of precarious work is a challenge in Australia where laws preclude pursuing limits on contract and labour hire work. Sham arrangements see workers classed as ‘casual’ when they are in fact full time and permanent.

The CFMEU is tackling the present-day challenges head on, supported by an army of workers and a past rich in victories.