The Port Kembla Coal Terminal (PKCT) in the New South Wales Illawarra District is a facility that is used to load outbound coal ships. It used to be government owned but was privatised in 1990.
The terminal is now owned by a consortium of five coal mining companies, and for almost five years the workers there have been locked in a dispute over a new enterprise agreement. The main sticking point is a clause in the proposed agreement concerning job security and the use of casual workers.
The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining, and Energy Union (CFMMEU) represents the workers and wants to maintain a clause in the present agreement which prevents a sacked permanent employee being replaced by a casual worker.
The CFMMEU asserts that the removal of the job security clause will allow contractors and casual staff to replace long-term permanent workers. As CFMMEU district spokesperson Rob Timbs said: “…protecting workers’ rights to permanent, secure jobs is a matter of principle not just for our workforce but for the whole community”.
PKCT management tellingly says: “We can’t offer job security if our business is not viable”. In reality the company wants greater flexibility to sack people and for worker representatives to be stopped from having any direct control over rosters.
There are concerns that PKCT management wants to introduce a contentious restructure that would result in the loss of a third of the workforce. This would be a devastating blow to the local area.
In recent months management has locked out the workers at least four times in an attempt to get them to concede to the regressive changes. There has been a to and fro with lockouts organised by the bosses and the workers responding with strikes.
Pickets have been set up on occasion and they have been supported by steelworkers, coal miners and seafarers from the region. Unfortunately, scabs have been carrying out work during this time.
Despite this the pickets have had some impact with PKCT management providing a written assurance in relation to jobs, “offering long-term job security for its blue-collar workers” in the new enterprise agreement. But as Timbs from the CFMMEU said: “If they’ve got no intention of replacing the workforce with contractors, great news. Then let us maintain the clause…”
Clearly PKCT are playing silly games. They are offering hollow statements but nothing of substance. Things are still at loggerheads. Of the stalemate, Timbs said: “It’s early days for us, we’re in for the long haul”.
Like in a number of other recent industrial disputes, the company has applied to have the current enterprise agreement terminated. Their application has been successful and will come into effect in March. This is an attempt to get the workers to capitulate by threatening to put them back onto the Award with the corresponding pay cuts.
This type of blackmail cannot be accepted. If the company refuses to back down, the unions will need to be prepared to escalate their campaign. Further pickets, in order to stop scabs, will need to be mounted.
Illawarra workers are starting to see the writing on the wall; a number of other companies in the region have agreements that are up for negotiation. They are watching this dispute with interest. If management get their way it will boost their confidence. But if the workers can push back it can help to strengthen the unions elsewhere.
Now is the time to establish solidarity in action and fight a united campaign with other workers against these greedy companies that are hell-bent on destroying workers’ hard-won conditions.
By Michael Naismith