The Port Kembla Coal Terminal (PKCT) – owned by five mining companies in the Illawarra District of the New South Wales southern coalfields – has unleashed a union busting campaign in an attempt to terminate a long-standing Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA).
As part of a bitter battle, PKCT locked out its workforce for four days on January 8, and then again for five days on January 15. The lockouts were an attempt to stonewall and manipulate new EBA negotiations.
The company wants to tear up 25 years of hard won conditions and revert back to the minimum standards in the Award. The workers, who are members of the CFMEU, know the coal companies that own PKCT are behind this attack.
The very same companies are opting to ship export coal through Newcastle instead of their own Port Kembla terminal so as to avoid a levy imposed to fund an infrastructure upgrade.
In effect these companies have manipulated a 50% drop in production for PKCT in an attempt to argue that workers’ conditions must be smashed in order for the company to be more competitive. This is yet another example of the boss class colluding to drive wages down and take bigger profits.
PKCT are attempting to ‘divide and rule’ by trying to exclude 20% of the workforce from any new agreement as well as reduce workers superannuation and sick leave benefits. Significantly, PKCT management have stated that one of their main issues was their right to manage.
This is code for the removal of historic union consultation and dispute powers. Management wants to move away from self-managed work teams to ones under management direction. Clearly the bosses want to drive the workers harder with ‘speed ups’ in order to boost their own profits.
Since March 2017 the CFMEU has staged 50 protected industrial actions, mainly two-hour stoppages, in addition to 22 work bans, mainly on company vehicles. These have been relatively minor actions when compared with the bosses’ lockouts.
In response to this attack picket lines were mounted, but PKCT still used scabs to load ships during the lockout.
In a promising sign of solidarity, the Illawarra branches of the CFMEU, MUA, RTBU, ETU and the South Coast Labour Council established a Port Kembla Ports Committee.
As one MUA member on the picket line said: “If it goes through a port like Port Kembla it’ll go through everyone. If one company gets away with something as horrible as this each company will try it out as well”.
The local union branches are doing their best to get organised but they are up against some formidable foes. They need the backing of the union movement more broadly. So far, the ACTU have done little to organise real support, instead limiting themselves to calls to “change the rules”.
The idea that just changing the rules will maintain, let alone advance, working conditions is complete naivety. The whole capitalist system is rigged in favour of the bosses. Regardless of the rules that are in place workers need to engage in a struggle to wrestle back a bigger portion of the wealth created.
What the ACTU should be doing is organising cross union action to break the power of the companies. This is best done with direct action aimed at undermining the companies’ profits. The current EBA conditions must be protected, especially since it must be one of the last agreements in Australia that enshrines workplace self-managed teams.
While trade unions should fight for a more amenable legislative framework, this will be best achieved by standing up to bad laws and breaking the rules. Workers already have the power to negotiate better wages and conditions, they just need to unite and use that power effectively.
By Michael Naismith