by STEPHEN LONG
A potentially bitter workplace battle with parallels to the ’90s docks dispute may be brewing in the coal fields of central Queensland. Workplace relations has not featured much in the election campaign, but at Collinsville, 1,200 kilometres north of Brisbane, it is the talk of the town. Coal has been mined at Collinsville for more than 100 years, and mine owner Glencore will suspend operations there at the end of the week.Glencore says the mine has been losing money. It is re-engineering it with new technology which should make the mine more productive. But the company is also insisting it will only reopen if there are more flexible working conditions, under a collective agreement or individual contracts.Glencore is refusing to give preference of employment to the existing workforce, which has operated the mine under a contractor for 17 years.
Locals fear that current workers will be replaced by non-union workers from out of town. Steve Smyth from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CMFEU) is alleging that the company wants to break the unionised workforce. “Obvious parallels to what happened with Patricks on the waterfront, with the replacement workforce,” he said. “The view there was to replace the unionised workers on the docks, and we’ve got the similar situation here where we’ve got Glencore want to bring in replacement workforce, and on the back of that, bring them in on an agreement which offers less. “The end goal that they want is to de-unionise the place and have a replacement workforce there.”
Glencore proposes ‘greenfields’ site deal. Glencore wants what is known as a greenfields site deal at Collinsville. That is an enterprise agreement that normally only applies to new ventures.”Glencore have come back to us and said that they’ll only employ people if there’s a greenfield agreement in place, which obviously a greenfield agreement doesn’t apply to a mine that’s been operating nearly 100 years,” Mr Smyth said. “So, at this stage, because the union won’t capitulate to Glencore’s demands on a lesser agreement, and not offering employment to the current Theiss employees, Glencore’s going to shut the mine.” He says Glencore does not have the right to put in place a greenfield agreement. “The law is quite clear is that it’s a transmission of business, which means transmission of the industrial arrangements go across, and any employee going across would be picked up on those transitional arrangements,” he said. “And Glencore obviously want to do it on what we say a reduction of conditions and entitlement and offer a greenfield agreement, which isn’t the law anyway.”
The law is one thing and bargaining power is another. With a downturn in the coal markets, Glencore may be prepared to suspend operations until it gets the deal it wants. PM understands its hiring a big contingent of security guards, anticipating picket lines and a major dispute as workers are locked out. Locals fear that the plan is to replace the existing employees from the town with workers bussed in from elsewhere.
‘It churns my stomach’. Among them is Donna Bulloch, who runs a support group for miners and their families at Collinsville: “Biggest fear is that the answer’s no. I’ve heard through some of the people who are employed out there that they’re not even guaranteed an interview, let alone a job back there,” she said. “So, you know, from what I’ve found out there’s about 190 people that are living in the area that are going to be put out of work. “And no offence against the drive-in, drive-outs that don’t live locally but, you know, first option should be to these people who have homes, especially the ones that own their homes and have families here in Collinsville.” She says she is angered by Glencore’s actions. It churns my stomach to think that a multinational company like Glencore can … just come in and just rip [a community] to pieces. Donna Bulloch “It churns my stomach to think that a multinational company like Glencore can come into a community that has been built by the miners for families, that they can just come in and just rip it to pieces,” she said. “It just angers me so much that they don’t have any concern whatsoever for the local people that choose to live here locally in this community.”
Glencore declined to do an interview with PM, but did issue a written statement.
“We believe there can be a profitable future for mining at Collinsville, but only if we make certain changes,” the statement said.
“A critical part of the long term plan will be increasing labour and equipment productivity.
“We have no preference for any specific type of labour agreement but any agreement must be modern, flexible and without restrictions.”
Glencore would not specify what conditions it saw as restrictive.