TOMORROW marks the first day of what is shaping as a bitter industrial dispute in Queensland’s coalfields. At its heart is Glencore Xstrata’s push for lesser conditions at the historic Collinsville coalmine. The Swiss-based multinational is gunning for WorkChoices-style individual arrangements or a lesser collective agreement for the 400 mineworkers at Collinsville.
The company claims publicly that it has no such plans and just wants an agreement that is “flexible and without restrictions”. Its actions however reveal management is anything but laidback in trying to get workers to take less. Collinsville mineworkers and the union representing them – the Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union – have vowed to stand up to the multinational, and the town’s mining community are rallying behind them. So how did it come to this?
Glencore already owned the Collinsville mine. But amid the backdrop of cost-cutting across the industry, the company recently announced it was taking over from contractor Thiess as mine operator. ESSENCE OF WHY DISPUTE HAS HAPPENED. In union meetings, Collinsville mineworkers made it clear they rejected a return to WorkChoices, and the conditions fought for and won would not be given up. So while it sought individual agreements the company then attempted to reclassify the 100-year mine as a new project, and bring in a ‘greenfield’ agreement with lesser conditions.
But Glencore failed to convince the Fair Work Commission that this was a genuine greenfield, so it settled for plan B: shutting the mine indefinitely and locking out workers. The union sees it as a clear-cut issue: if one company takes over from another as operator any existing agreement and workplace conditions are transferred along with the rest of the business, as per the law. Legal loophole
One concern for the union is that Glencore could exploit a legal loophole and keep the mine closed until it can be reclassified as a new greenfield project. While the mine is closed workers, are also concerned the company will continue to hunt down a replacement workforce. These suspicions are backed by recent reports of the company approaching mineworkers from outside Collinsville.
Locals have heard reports the company intends to drive the new workforce to and from the mine in a bus with blacked-out windows. DIDO DRIVE IN DRIVE OUT, FIFO FLY IN FLY OUT Current CEO Ivan Glasenberg – ranked fifth in Australia’s rich list – recently raised eyebrows for giving corporate mate Mick Davis a golden handshake of $110 million in Glencore’s recent takeover of Xstrata. He later said he’d paid $8.8 billion too much in the deal. Amid such corporate largesse it’s difficult for Bowen Basin mineworkers to accept Glencore’s ruthless cost-cutting drive.
“This is not the corporate behaviour of a modern Australian employer, this is a return to the dark ages of industrial relations, of trying to intimidate workers into accepting less, cynically timed with a possible Abbott Government that will turn a blind eye to such behaviour,” said Stephen Smyth, the President of the CFMEU’s Queensland mining and energy division. “Mineworkers across the Bowen Basin should be concerned that this a sign of things to come post-election with multinationals continuing the push for a return to WorkChoices-style contracts.” Tradition at stake
As one of Australia’s oldest continually operating coalmines, Collinsville has been a pioneering trade union town for almost 100 years. As Glencore management attempt to find a new workforce, locals report scouts boasting this history “was about to come to an end”. But as locals will tell you, generations of Collinsville miners have worked at the mine, during the lean years and the boom, while mining companies have come and gone. And the locals are ready for a fight.
A landmark workplace struggle will kick off on Saturday when Swiss mining giant Glencore stops production at a historic coalmine in Queensland and forces workers to sign a new agreement if they want to keep their jobs. The Collinsville mine has been operated by Thiess under contract for about 17 years, but the deal expires on August 31 and Glencore plans to take it back “in house” using direct employees. Glencore argues the mine has been unprofitable for the past 18 months and that workplace arrangements need to change to boost productivity and cut costs. It plans to install higher capacity equipment, with fewer employees and changed rosters.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union argues Collinsville has been operating for about a century and Glencore cannot hire workers for the mine under a greenfields agreement, which is used to cover new projects. The president of the CFMEU’s Queensland mining and energy division, Stephen Smyth, said the Fair Work Act made it clear that when a transfer of business occurred, the existing pay and conditions transferred to the new employer. “We say they’re locking out the permanent workforce and they are bringing in a new workforce.” “The mine has got a future – it’s just that they don’t want the current workforce or the current enterprise agreement.” DE-UNIONISING CLAIM
Mr Smyth alleged the plan was aimed at de-unionising the mine and had echoes of the corporate restucturing by Patrick stevedores during the 1998 waterfront dispute. Glencore rejects it is union-busting, arguing that a greenfields agreement with higher pay and superannuation can be used because the mine’s overhauled operations will be substantially different.
“We already have similar agreements in place at our other operations in Queensland but, despite numerous approaches and discussions with the state officials of the union, we have not been able to move this matter forward,” a spokesman said. “We believe we will be able to employ people committed to our future vision for the mine from the local communities of Collinsville, Scottsville, Bowen and Glenden.”
Thiess had about 400 employees at Collinsville but workers have been progressively laid off since the plan was announced in February and it is affecting the town, which has a population of just 1501, according to the 2011 census. ACTU secretary Dave Oliver claimed the mine’s closure before the federal election was deliberate and would be repeated in many other workplaces under a Coalition government. “This is not a genuine greenfield situation, it’s simply that operations are being brought back in-house,” he said. TRANSFER OF BUSINESS
“But Glencore is banking on a change of government a week after it shuts operations and sacks workers – a government that will back them by promoting anti-worker greenfield agreements and individual contracts.” Under the Fair Work Act, the transfer of an existing business from one employer to another can mean that they retain their terms and conditions, which then become binding on the new employer. A partner at the labour law firm Holding
Redlich, Charles Power, said that the Glencore plan might be classified as a transfer of business, with the crucial factor being whether existing employees and the union disagreed with it. Mr Power said it was likely that Glencore would have to ask the Fair Work Commission to “switch off” the existing enterprise agreement with Thiess, by arguing the company faced significant economic consequences. Glencore, which recently merged with Xstrata, owns the mine with Japan’s Tochu and Sumitomo.