BY MARNIE KENNEDY
SYDNEY, Australia - Three hundred miners from across New South Wales rallied February 15 outside the offices here of Novacoal, a subsidiary of CRA Ltd. The rally marked six months on the picket line by 30 striking coal miners from the Vickery open-cut mine near Gunnedah in northern New South Wales. The strikers are resisting CRA's attempt to impose shifts of 12 and a half hours.
Late last year the Vickery miners, members of the United Mineworkers Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), rejected an agreement negotiated through the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) that included 12-hour shifts. The AIRC has recommended on several occasions that they return to work.
Bill Kelty, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and John Maitland, national president of the CFMEU, addressed the rally. Also present were CFMEU members Alan Verzeletti and David Rutherford, who had been on strike against CRA at its Comalco bauxite mine in Weipa in far north Queensland. They traveled to the Vickery picket line after the demonstration.
In Weipa the following day, workers who are members of the CFMEU went on strike for 48 hours after stopping work for a meeting. The evening before the strike Nigel Gould, the CFMEU lodge secretary at Weipa, said in a phone interview that CRA is stalling on negotiations following a January 23 decision by the AIRC that awarded the strikers pay increases and back pay and ruled that CRA must recognize the workers' right to union representation.
For seven weeks in late 1995 some 75 workers in Weipa struck demanding the right to union representation, and equal pay with the majority of the workforce at the mine who are on individual contracts.
Over a two-year period CRA had signed up a large majority of the workforce at Weipa to individual contracts by offering wage increases of up to A$20,000 (US$15,300). This was part of a company-wide union-busting drive. Some 11,000 of CRA's 16,000 employees are now on nonunion individual contracts.
The contracts deny workers the right to strike or to be represented by a union. Work hours, pay rates, and sick pay are at the discretion of the company.
Labor turnover at the Weipa mine is up to 30 percent at times, Gould said, with these contracts imposed on all new hires.
Gould described the January 23 AIRC decision as "a stepping stone." He said, "We have got to win the hearts and minds of the majority. When we have got the numbers, we can fight for a fair and equitable award [contract]."
The strikers' intransigence won them widespread solidarity, including national strikes of maritime and coal unions. During the strike they maintained a floating picket line that disrupted the shipping of bauxite. They defied an AIRC back-to- work order, legal action against their picket lines, and writs for damages against individual strikers and their unions. The workers refused to be intimidated by arrests of pickets and surveillance by private security cops. Strikers report that they were supported by many of the workers on individual contracts.
On February 15 miners from CRA's Argyle diamond mine in the far north of Western Australia also walked off the job for 24 hours demanding that CRA negotiate with the union. Paul Baker, convener of the Argyle Combined Union Negotiating Committee, and an Argyle miner for 10 years, said in a phone interview that of the 450 workers at the mine, 150 have refused individual contracts and are still union members covered by collective bargaining contracts.
Individual contracts were brought in by CRA at Argyle in late 1994. About half the miners signed individual contracts at that time, Baker said, and others signed under pressure later, or quit their jobs. "The guys at Weipa have been a real inspiration to us," he said.
Reflecting their determination to press the fight against CRA, Weipa miner Verzeletti told the Militant at the February 15 rally in Sydney, "Everybody's ready to go again now. The strike is not over yet."
Marnie Kennedy is a member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union at F. Muller in Sydney. Bob Aiken, a member of the AWU-FIME union at the Capral aluminium sheet mill in Sydney, contributed to the article.
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