The dispute between Alcoa and workers at their Western Australian bauxite and alumina operations took a turn for the worse in December. The company were successful in their application to get the enterprise agreement cancelled.
This came after more than 18 months of failed negotiations between the company and the Australian Workers Union (AWU).
The dispute has included a 52-day all-out strike in August and September. The union agreed to end the strike action after receiving vague promises about job security from the company. At the time, the union leaders mistakenly presented this as a ‘victory’. Clearly this is nothing more than a manoeuvre by the company.
Once the pickets were dismantled, and the workers back at work, the company gained the upper hand. They went on the front foot and began proceedings to cancel the existing agreement as a way of weakening the union’s bargaining position.
Alcoa has made monumental profits in recent years but claim that the old agreement was a hindrance to them operating competitively. This is a lie given that they booked an annual net profit of $1.1 billion in 2017 alone. Despite this, the pro-boss Fair Work Commission ruled in favour of the company.
The AWU say they will appeal the decision, but this dispute will not be won in the bosses’ courts. The workers showed where their power lies when they had the company under extreme pressure during the strike. The pickets should have been maintained, and in fact expanded to other Alcoa sites.
The broader union movement should have mobilised in support of the Alcoa workers highlighting their blatant corporate greed. ‘Change the Rules’ rallies could have been used to target the company and workers across Alcoa’s supply chain should have been encouraged to take solidarity action.
The agreement was formally scrapped in early January but the company has given the workers an undertaking that they will maintain their existing conditions and wage levels for six months. They say they want to get a new agreement in place before then.
Clearly, their aim is to maintain the threat of dropping the workers back onto the Award during the negotiations, hoping to force the workers into accepting an agreement that includes pay cuts and diminished conditions.
The workers should not accept this blackmail. The cancelling of the agreement should be used as a trigger to restart the strike action. This time around, the pickets should be maintained until all of the workers’ demands are met. While it is clear that Australia’s industrial relations rules are ‘broken’ the union movement has to move beyond complaining and adopt a strategy to make these rules unworkable for the bosses.
Strikes and solidarity action are the best responses to companies like Alcoa.
By Anthony Main