By Liz Ross
During the 1980s and 1990s a series of campaigns saw workers fight back against attacks on their wages and conditions, jobs, unions and rights in Australia. Occurring in the context of the 1983-1996 ALP-ACTU Accord, a number of companies increased their union busting efforts. Disputes in the then highly unionised mining industry were common. After successfully cutting jobs, introducing individual contracts and de-unionising a variety of worksites mining giant CRA-Rio Tinto suffered a rare defeat at Weipa in 1995. In this extract from Stuff the Accord! Pay up!: Workers’ Resistance to the ALP-ACTU Accord, Liz Ross recounts how workers in this small Cape York community forced the company to accommodate collective bargaining by combining strike action and a port blockade while drawing on national solidarity.
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CRA (as Comalco) had already started to act against the unions at Weipa in 1991, cutting training and overtime pay and undermining conditions. The company and the Australian Workers Union (AWU) then did a deal which gave that union primary membership rights at the site, effectively shutting out the more militant Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). In mid-1992, the Weipa Industrial Site Committee (WISC) began negotiations with management at the nearby Kaolin operations. At the same time, management was directly contacting the blue-collar workforce and offering clerical staff individual contracts. By January 1993, all staff had switched over to contracts. Now the precedent had been set and the employer’s hand strengthened.
Initially, blue-collar workers at Kaolin approved a draft agreement, subject to union acceptance. The AWU took from April to September 1993 to reject the deal, but had no plan to tackle the company’s preferred option of individual contracts. The company began offering these in October. In November, when most Kaolin workers rejected individual contracts, the unions struck for six days. The company response was to delay responding to the unions and continue to offer slightly amended individual contracts directly to the workforce.
Instead of taking further industrial action, the unions applied to the Commission in May 1994 for a paid rates award that would be higher than the individual contracts. Comalco outmanoeuvred them, winning approval for two minimum rates awards for Kaolin and Weipa instead of a paid rates award. The unions agreed, and the Commission approved the new awards on 4 August 1994. Comalco was now free to offer workers the individual contracts because they were higher – up to $20,000 more – than the awards. Realising their blunder, the unions went back to the Commission, led by the AWU. Their appeal failed. The court-based campaign had been a total disaster; union membership fell dramatically, most workers were on contracts, and those few still on awards received lower pay and conditions. The employer had the upper hand.
Seventy-five die-hard CFMEU members who had refused to accept individual contracts and were on the 1994 minimum rates award, doing exactly the same work, turned the situation around. On 13 October 1995, they launched strike action. ‘It was all to do with equal pay for equal work’, explained Nigel Gould, CFMEU Weipa lodge secretary. Workers were attempting to defend their conditions, he added: ‘Those conditions were hard fought for by unionists, our forefathers and we weren’t gonna let them down.’ The strikers set up Weipa’s first ever picket, a vehicle blockade on Mission River bridge, which linked the town to the mine. When management ferried non-union workers across the river to the mine, the unionists devised another strategy:
Well, the WISC – that’s all the unions combined – we had our think tank there … working out where are the company’s weak spots, where are their vulnerabilities? And where was our expertise? And of course, we love our fishing up here! So we decided to hit their hip pocket. Of course, if they can’t get the ore out, they can’t make any money! – Nigel Gould, CFMEU Weipa lodge secretary
Shifting the focus squarely onto the company’s revenue, they set up a blockade of small boats, a floating picket aimed at the tugs and pilot boats servicing the huge ore freighters docked at Weipa’s port. For weeks, the strikers risked not only arrest but their lives, ducking and weaving their small, aluminium boats (‘tinnies’) around the colossal bulk carriers. Comalco went to the courts, seeking writs for damages, but the dispute was taken out of the company’s hands when maritime and coal workers around the country answered Weipa’s union calls for solidarity. ‘They were inspirational’, according to Nigel. ‘The coal workers were the ones that led … They were the ones who said, right, we’re not gonna let our comrades be screwed.’
More than 2,000 unionists at Blair Athol and Tarong coal mines in Queensland, along with the Dalrymple Bay coal-loading terminal, walked out on 8 November for 24 hours. Next day, maritime workers aboard the River Embley, a bulk carrier stuck at the Weipa port, stopped work for 24 hours. By 10 November, 3,000 workers at CRA’s coal and coke works throughout Queensland and NSW were on the grass.
Disregarding company threats, the unions were ‘as determined as ever’, said WISC secretary Wayne Holmquist. Port workers refused to handle any CRA export coal, and the union launched a three-day general strike on 15 November. The CFMEU announced a seven-day nationwide coal strike on the same day, to begin the following week. Other support flooded in. From Bougainville, where CRA had the huge Freeport Copper Mine, the Bougainville Freedom Movement sent a solidarity message. Local Aboriginal people whose land stolen had been stolen by CRA also backed the strikers. Ordinary people around the country, even pensioners, sent money and poems, and one interstate supporter videoed himself singing a song he’d written for the strikers. The ACTU announced that unions were ready to take action against CRA in other industries – including manufacturing, power, oil, gas and transport. Nigel was thrilled by this unexpected level of support: ‘Even the not so active unions said, OK, this is the line in the sand, we’re all gonna get behind you.’
Weipa was national news. With the mining and maritime unions ramping up their actions, and the shipping and stevedoring employers heading to the courts, the ACTU was forced to get behind them. On 13 November, Secretary Bill Kelty said, ‘These are heroes these people at Weipa … because they have said … on behalf of working people in this country, we won’t have a bar of individual contracts.’
Kelty, backed by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and CFMEU officials, hypocritically expressed desperation after the numerous union defeats (many engineered by himself), insisting: ‘We won’t be beaten, we can’t be beaten. For us to be beaten is for the Union Movement to lose its heart, its soul and its purpose.’
On 17 November – day 36 of the Weipa workers’ strike – there was a national maritime strike, an approaching national coal strike and a slated ACTU meeting to discuss spreading the campaign to other industries. By 19 November, 25,000 coal miners were out across the country, costing the bosses an estimated $20 million per day. Enthusiasm for the strike was so great that 2,000 coal miners across six mines walked off the job 30 hours early.
All this was soon dissipated, the momentum lost, as the ACTU ordered maritime workers back to work and put all other actions on hold from 19 November. They returned to the disastrous court strategy, the one that had weakened the unions, caused two years of delay and returned the advantage to Comalco. ACTU Assistant Secretary Tim Pallas had earlier appealed to the Labor government to ‘abide by its Accord commitments to stop the use of non-union agreements which de-unionise existing workplaces.’ The government did intervene, persuading the company to drop the millions of dollars in damages claims, but the parties returned to a compulsory AIRC conference on 20 November with former Prime Minister Bob Hawke as the ACTU advocate.
In the end, the Weipa workers did win what they were after – ‘equal pay for equal work’, back pay and the right to negotiate collective agreements through the unions – but at a cost. The award and contract conditions were equalised, enforcing 12-hour contracts; within a year, Comalco was again trying to compel workers to sign individual enterprise agreements. This time, unionists went out immediately, leaving management no option but to withdraw the demand within two days and negotiate a collective enterprise agreement.
The Weipa workers revived union militancy across the country for a moment in time, with a return to ‘old school’ unionism. They struck, setting up pickets and calling for solidarity – and getting it. In 2015, at a reunion marking the twentieth anniversary of the strike, one recalled
It was the best seven weeks of my life. The unity … having control over something. It wasn’t just about us, it was about the future generation.
Within two years, union membership had doubled from 78 to 150. One of those rejoining was Mal Loftes, a truck driver who had been praised by John Howard for being the voice of the future. In 1997, facing the insecurity of yearly renewals, six-monthly assessments and no guarantee of pay rises for those on contracts, Loftes admitted: ‘Without the backing of the union, then you really are heads in the chopper.’
Stuff the Accord! Pay up!: Workers’ Resistance to the ALP-ACTU Accord covers numerous examples of worker’s resistance during the Accord years. Copies can be purchased here.