On April 8 workers at the Port Kembla Coal Terminal (PKCT) unanimously voted to accept a revised management offer. The offer included a job security clause which had been the key sticking point in this long running dispute. The offer included a 10% pay rise over four years, the first increase since 2015.
This surprising turnaround by the bosses comes after a deepening of the dispute occurred on April 1 when the workers were sent yet another lockout notice – the sixth in a row.
The workers had not entered the plant since January 17 which meant they had been locked out for 50 straight days, and 82 days all up since the dispute started. Basically, each time a ship arrived management locked out workers and replaced them with scab labour to operate the terminal.
The workers fought hard to retain the following clause in their enterprise agreement: “The company will not terminate the employment of an employee on the grounds of redundancy to replace the employee with a contractor in the same position”.
Clearly if the bosses were able to remove this clause, they would have had a licence to sack permanent workers and replace them with casuals.
The last lockout came after heightened concern about safety on the site due to a recent serious accident which resulted in the death of a truck driver. Ongoing industrial action had meant the permanent workforce, including health and safety representatives, had not been on site for two months.
The terminal continued to operate even though the accident had not been properly investigated.
The South West Labour Council placed a ban on trucking movements due to the fatality as there was every indication management was operating unsafely. The union also issued Provisional Improvement Notices.
It had been suggested that the ban was a form of ‘secondary boycott’ which is illegal under the Competition and Consumer Act, but Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris said: “There are times when you have got to set the rules aside and this is one of them”.
The terminal has more than 100 truck movements a day and the drivers were acting within their rights to ensure there was a safe workplace.
As the dispute dragged on the PKCT bosses successfully applied for the existing enterprise agreement to be terminated.
This is a well-worn corporate tactic used to try and get the upper hand in negotiations. Used in a number of recent disputes, the threat is made to either accept the bosses offer or risk losing much more by dropping back onto the Award.
Documents leaked to the ABC’s 7.30 program suggested the company was considering a “continuous” restructure that “could result in approximately a third of the workforce being redundant”. No doubt union delegates would have been first in the firing line.
Before the agreement was terminated the PKCT bosses provided written assurances “offering long-term job security for its blue-collar workers”. Then with arrogant duplicity they insisted on removing the job security clause once the old agreement was terminated.
As Bob Timbs from the CFMMEU said: “Our members have negotiated in good faith, attending over 100 meetings with the company to try and reach a new agreement. What’s the point in negotiating pay and conditions when the company can just terminate people’s jobs?”
Over the last five years enterprise agreement terminations have trebled as bosses push to cut wages and conditions and replace once permanent jobs with insecure casual positions.
As it stands the industrial courts give the bosses unfettered powers to lock out workers at will and terminate agreements while the unions are hamstrung by the need to conduct formal ballots before any strike action can be taken.
It is more and more evident that these rules are stacked so far in the employer’s favour they are unworkable. The rules must be ignored and pickets must be mounted to stop scabs doing the work of union members who are in dispute with their bosses.
As the PKCT dispute drew to a close, Tony Maher from the CFMMEU commented that this “win highlighted the importance of workers standing up to mining companies’ push for cheaper, outsourced labour”.
This is true but some wider lessons should be drawn. We need a united industrial campaign that pushes back against attempt to cancel agreements and force workers into submission. Groups of workers targeted in this way should break the rules and know that they have the support of the entire union movement.
This is the only way to really break the power of the bosses.
By Michael Naismith