In 1980 when Howard was Treasurer, the Fraser Government tried to tax mining workers on the benefit they received from subsidised housing in remote Central Queensland. A form of Fringe Benefits Tax (FBT) on housing paid by the workers themselves.
As a recent article on the Miners Union (CFMEU-mining division) website points out:
The Fraser Government had first tried to introduce the housing tax in 1978 and again in 1979 but through strike action were successfully rebuked both times. However, Howard thought that the time was right for another attack on workers rights and in 1980 the battle was on again.
The response from the miners was to go out on strike, this is why John Howard hates unions —
When Howard moved to impose his housing tax on 30 June, miners at Gregory and Moura mines went out on strike. Others at Moranbah and Dysart followed.
Around 4,000 mining families in Central Queensland were targeted by Howard’s housing tax and they were prepared to fight for their rights.
Mass meetings and a street march in Moura (at the time illegal under Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s anti-civil rights laws) were held. Interestingly, Bjelke-Petersen supported the miners opposition to the tax, but when he attended a mass meeting in Blackwater and told the striking miners to return to work, he was booed and jeered.
In other parts of Queensland miners not involved in the dispute rallied behind their comrades. In Collinsville and Ipswich levies were struck in support…
In August, into the seventh week of the strike, Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony and Treasurer John Howard clashed with miners at a Blackwater meeting.
The dispute was estimated to be costing coal companies $28 million a week and $5 million a week in lost corporate tax. And yet the Government was holding out for an estimated $1.5 million in increased tax revenue.
Finally, in September, after 10-weeks on strike … the miners returned to work victorious.
The victory did not end there, as there was a flow on to other communities.
At the beginning of October, with a Federal election looming, the Fraser Government announced that families living in remote areas all over Australia would receive tax reductions on housing provided by employers.
The mining unions tamed
Contrast this to the recent dispute over housing reported in Common Cause under the heading — BHP must end housing discrimination in Central Queensland.
The article reads:
In the minds of greedy coal companies, mining towns like Moranbah only exist to support them. But to the workers who have helped build these communities, it is our home, it is where we nurture and sustain our families.
… BHP can afford to do the right thing by all its workers, their families and our community. BHP Billiton has just recorded the biggest ever profit in Australia’s history – $13.7 Billion.
Most of that staggering profit came from its mining operations and much of it from coal mines in Central Queensland.
Beattie to focus on coal town problems
Queensland Premier Peter Beattie has confirmed he will send the directors-general of key government departments to coalmining towns to see infrastructure problems first hand…
A group of six mayors and Labor backbencher and former coal miner Jim Pearce have been pushing for the meeting so politicians can gain a better understanding of the housing and infrastructure problems facing the coal mining communities of Central Queensland.”
— C F M E U Mining and Energy Bulletin, 6 September 2006 Volume 9, No.15.
During the 1980s the Labor Party delivered aspirational voters to the Liberal Party. The Accord between government employers and workers produced a 15 percent decline in wages over the decade Labor was in office.
In the 2004 federal election election many members of the CFMEU forestry division in Tasmania voted Liberal. Many workers left their union.
To get the workers back in the fold Labor led unions have resorted to gimmicks like union shopper, advertising, and fear of WorkChoices legislation.
The greatest challenge facing Australian unions is not recruitment but the re-creation of the notion of solidarity. While unions will grow in the short term — based on the fear of Howard’s IR agenda — recruitment will mean nothing unless the ethic of solidarity re-emerges.
The mineworkers tax revolt in 1980 is one example of the kind of solidarity that has to be re-built, where union power is exercised by the workers themselves.