BY DOUG COOPER
SYDNEY, Australia - More than 2,700 miners returned to work at a huge Queensland copper, lead, zinc, and silver mine May 23 after being laid off May 8 and then locked out by Mt. Isa Mines Holdings Ltd. (MIM) four days later.
They returned with heads high as they prepare for the next stage in the fight. The Mt. Isa mine, with boundaries equal in size to Switzerland, is one of the world's largest and most isolated, with annual production valued at $Al.26 billion [$A1 = U.S. $0.73]. The mine is closer to Indonesia than it is to Sydney.
Determined resistance by the miners forced MIM to back down from its intransigent "final offer" stance and allow workers to return to their jobs. Unionists held mass pickets focused on MIM's Mica Creek power station, where they cut off electricity to the mine but maintained it for the town of Mt. Isa, with its population of 23,000. Shopkeepers arrived daily with food donations for the locked-out workers.
A solidarity strike by coal miners at three MIM mines and a coal loading facility in central Queensland and the threat of a national coal strike put additional pressure on the company. MIM stock suffered a steep drop in value on both the Australian and London stock exchanges.
Three months of protest action
The 15-day lockout, which cost MIM some $A3-5 million a day, was preceded by three months of rolling strikes and overtime bans at the mine aimed at forcing MIM to restore benefits conceded in 1993.
The series of job actions began after workers rejected a second company offer at a February mass meeting. They rejected an initial offer December 1994. Both deals had been negotiated with the MIM bosses by state officials from the Australian Workers' Union (AWU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).
The AWU and the AMWU represent the majority of workers at the site. Three other unions, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), and the Federated Clerks' Union (FCU), also represent workers at the Mt. Isa mine.
Philip Wright, MIM general manager at the mine, played a divide-and-conquer game before and during the lockout.
He insisted he would not negotiate with the CFMEU, ETU, or FCU, using as a pretext a 1994 Queensland Industrial Relations Tribunal ruling granting coverage of the site to the AWU and AMWU. The ruling was the result of a jurisdictional dispute between the AWU and CFMEU in particular.
Wright and big-business media pundits insist the dispute has been caused by a power struggle among the five unions. In fact, the conflict flows from concessions wrung from the miners in 1993 when MIM claimed to be operating at a loss.
The company's final offer consisted of a 10 percent wage increase over 18 months and an $A800 annual remote area travel allowance.
The Combined Unions Disputes Committee, consisting of elected representatives of all five unions, led the three- month campaign. The unions demanded a wage increase greater than 10 percent, reinstatement of annual free round-trip airfares for miners and their families to Brisbane - the capital of Queensland, restoration of the right to accrue sick days, and subsidized medical payments to make up the difference between doctors' actual bills and the standard fee paid for by Medicare. Workers also demanded to be allowed to join the union of their choice.
Wright has vowed to quit if the airfares are restored. During the lockout, he also demanded the unions call a mass meeting, which he claimed would vote to accept his final offer. The demand was ignored. Instead the unions organized daily open forums.
Many miners, working underground in 12-hour shifts, don't earn much more than the base rate of $A28,000 a year and have not had a wage rise since 1991.
Bosses bump into workers' solidarit
Wright and Nick Stump, a notorious union buster and MIM's newly appointed chief executive officer, ran head on into the unity and solidarity of rank-and-file miners and their supporters.
Some 1,200 Queensland CFMEU members at MIM's Oakey Creek, Newlands, and Collinsville mines, as well as its Abbott Point coastal coal loading facility, walked off the job May 12. The workers, who voted unanimously to ignore a Coal Industry Tribunal back-to-work order during their strike, began returning to work May 18.
Martin Ferguson, the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and Laurie Brereton, the minister for industrial relations in the federal Labor government, stepped into the MIM dispute, brokering a two-week cooling off period to be followed by new negotiations.
Memories of a militant seven-month strike at the mine in 1964-65, which electrified the labor movement here, were undoubtedly high on the list of motivations for their intervention. Also high on the list was the looming specter of a national coal strike in solidarity with the MIM miners.
Australia, the world's largest coal exporter, controls 36 percent of world coal trade. Last year the industry produced a record 180 million tons of coal with exports of 132 million tons.
Those figures are expected to be eclipsed this year by exports of close to 140 million tons and earnings in excess of A$8 billion, making coal once again the single largest contributor to Australia's foreign exchange earnings.
Under the plan approved by the miners, the Combined Unions Disputes Committee will be replaced by a "single bargaining unit" of MIM management, state union officials, and local union representatives chosen by the workers.
As miners voted May 22 on the framework agreement to return to work, Roy Harris, co-chair of the Combined Unions Dispute Committee, said of Wright, "The man that doesn't blink, blinked."
Doug Cooper is a member of the Australian Workers Union
at Alcan in Sydney.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home