Putting The E Back In The CFMEU


As workers bear the brunt of government and industry’s lack of planning for the new economy, coal companies are showing their true colours. Facing terminal decline, they are now making almost daily announcements of job losses and efficiency measures.

Recent statements by the CFMEU that job losses at BHP’s Mount Arthur mine – 500 in one year – are based on profits, not necessity, are absolutely right.

While mining companies cry poor, they continue to make profits, and continue to develop new projects which will lead to a further coal glut in the market.

It’s time for the unions to stand up to these companies, not just on industrial issues, but also on backing the transition to renewable energy manufacturing.

The potential for a new, unionised energy industry awaits.

BHP’s 2014 annual return, released in August, indicates it made a profit of $174 million before tax. In the first half of 2014, Glencore Xstrata reported a net profit of $1.86 billion. Rio Tinto increased their underlying earnings in the first half of the year by 21 per cent to $5.1 billion.

These are not companies that are up against the wall, desperately trying to support their workers and their communities. They are pushing for new coalmines – often unwanted by local communities – alongside job slashing ‘initiatives’ like the move to automated trucks that appears headed for the Mt Arthur mine in the Hunter Valley, sometime in the next 12 months.

These are the kinds of harsh decisions being made to prop up the resumes of managers at the top end of these coal companies.

It has been widely publicised that Glencore Xstrata is forcing its workers to take leave for three weeks in mid-December. Announced only one month before the event, workers who do not have enough paid leave to cover the three weeks will be forced to take unpaid leave.

The thousands of contractors who thought they would have work over the Christmas break will receive nothing.

Glencore Xstrata employs 8,600 people nationally. This raises the question, how many of these employees, many of whom have families, will have no income over the Christmas – New Year holiday period.

Perhaps even more outrageous – Glencore Xstrata’s management have said that the reason for this nasty Christmas present is an oversupply of coal.

Surely, it should then be the managers who have failed to plan properly, who should take unpaid leave.

As the union has argued, if the industry were serious about responding to this, companies would work together to co-ordinate a slow-down in production, or even consider closing down on public holidays.

They should also slow down the destructive projects they are forcing onto communities. Indeed, they should be heeding the international signals that are coming through loud and clear.

Despite the best attempts of coal companies, climate change is still on the agenda, and communities are sick of putting up with the impacts of coal.

It’s time for companies and governments to get out of coal.

Yet companies are reluctant to do this. Rather, they are pushing the industry to go harder and faster. As the glut of coal continues, the race to the bottom for worker’s rights is well underway.

Workers at Chevron’s Gorgon LNG plant in Western Australia are struggling to negotiate a family friendly roster of 20 days on, 10 days off.

In the Hunter region in NSW, Glencore Xstrata has offered a $1000 cash bonus and $300 supermarket voucher to contractors if they vote for a new enterprise agreement that cuts their wages.

The timing of this, along with the Christmas shutdown, raises very serious questions about how genuinely the company is engaging with their workforce on these changes.

To some extent, this is a return to business as usual. The workers and the unions have always fought the bosses, as the latter tries to squeeze as much out of them as they can.

While the coal industry was on a high, there was less conflict. This is largely because of the excellent work unions have done, securing a living wage, job safety and family friendly hours.

Companies have attempted to appropriate many of these achievements as their own legacy. The truth is that these rights were hard fought for by unions and their members.

Some of the battles have been tough. This year is the 65th anniversary of the 1949 seven-week strike of 23,000 miners, crushed when the Chifley Labor government brought in the army to load coal and break the strike.

December 16 is the 85th anniversary of one of our biggest industrial clashes, the Rothbury riot, in the Hunter Valley, where miner Norman Brown was shot dead by police.

Workers at the mine had refused a 12.5 percent pay cut and the plan for managers to hire and fire at will. They were also fighting for their right to organise and to be in a union.

For this they were locked out of work for months.

The state government used the dispute to introduce unlawful assembly laws in an attempt to prevent the miners organising for their rights. The outcome of this was a tragedy, an appalling example of a Labor government backing corporate interests rather than workers.

This important part of our history is a reminder that mining companies are not the worker’s friends.

The rights workers have are a result of great struggle, sometimes, as we see, with a high cost. It may have seemed, for a while, that there was a sharing of the wealth – with good wages and the companies ever present campaigns to present a positive a positive face of mining to the community – a park here, a swimming pool there, a community event.

That time, it seems, is over. How companies operate in hard times reveals the truth of their agenda.

If there was ever a question about this it could not be made clearer than BHP’s decision in the Bowen Basin, where all workers will be fly-in fly-out employees.

Communities are constantly told throughout the approvals process that the local mine will bring an economic benefit that will offset the damage – the coal dust, the increased truck and train movements, the devastation to the land.

In return for this, communities are promised jobs and prosperity.

Well this is not what is happening in the Bowen Basin. There will be no jobs for the locals – the workers will be flown in from across the country.

This, too, is the issue for so many mine workers in the Hunter and Lithgow coal fields.

The CFMEU, as one of the most progressive unions in the country and one that recognises the threat of climate change, can give leadership here for workers facing unemployment and the energy industry at this time of transition.

The issue of jobs has long pandered to a false distinction between environmentalists and those working in the mining industry. A sustainable income and job security are as essential as a sustainable environment.

While the coal industry is in terminal decline, there is real jobs growth potential in renewable energy delivery and manufacturing and also in energy efficiency.

CFMEU officials and members could play a very valuable role in assisting the country to move away from the polluting coal industry to the jobs rich renewable energy industry. The CFMEU already cover energy workers.

This union – as the early Lodges, then the Miners Federation and now the CFMEU – has been standing up for workers and their communities since the 1850s. Their experience in battling coal companies could now be applied to the most urgent issue of our times climate action.

Surely it’s time for the CFMEU to take up the E in their name, and start focusing more on energy production, to create jobs that are truly sustainable and that would assist the all-important reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Lee Rhiannon is the Greens NSW Senator in Federal Parliament.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.