RECENT statements by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union that job losses at BHP’s Mount Arthur mine – 500 in one year – are based on maximising profits are right. While mining companies cry poor, they continue to make profits and to develop new projects that will lead to a further glut of coal.
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 indicates it made a profit of $174million before tax. In the first half of 2014, Glencore Xstrata reported a net profit of $1.86billion. Rio Tinto increased its underlying earnings in the first half by 21per cent to $5.1billion. These are not companies that are up against the wall. They are pushing for new coalmines alongside job-slashing initiatives like the move to automated trucks that appears headed for the Mt Arthur mine.
Glencore Xstrata is forcing its workers to take leave for three weeks this month, and those who don’t have enough paid leave will have to take unpaid leave. Contractors who thought they would have work over Christmas will receive nothing.
Glencore Xstrata employs 8600 people nationally. Many of them are in the Hunter. The company has said the reason for the forced leave is an oversupply of coal. As the union has argued, if the industry was serious about responding to this, companies would work together to co-ordinate a slowdown in production, or even consider closing down on public holidays.
They should be heeding the international signals. 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.
The actions of companies in hard times are a reminder that they are not there to support mine workers and their communities.
It might be timely to remember the long history of struggle between workers and mining companies. December 16 is the 85th anniversary of one of our biggest industrial clashes, the Rothbury riot, where miner Norman Brown was shot dead by police. Workers at the mine had refused a 12.5per cent pay cut, a plan for managers to hire and fire at will and attempts to prevent the right to organise as a union. For this, they were locked out for months.
The government used the dispute to introduce unlawful assembly laws and brought in the army to load the coal and break the strike. The outcome of this was an appalling example of a Labor government backing corporate interests rather than workers.
The rights workers have now are a result of great struggle. This makes it even more concerning that 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 negotiating with their workforce.
The CFMEU, as a progressive union that recognises the threat of climate change, can give leadership here for workers facing unemployment and the energy industry at this time of transition.
Lee Rhiannon is a NSW Greens senator