“The fight we had to have” – The BMA Battle in the Bowen Basin

This has never been a David vs. Goliath battle in the coalfields. 
It has been two equal power butting heads for the right to choose how the BHP Billiton Mitsubishi (BMA) coal mines in the Bowen Basin are run, and who holds power on site. 
In one corner we have the operators of the mines, BHP Billiton, the mining giant with a global footprint, but curiously most of its coal mining eggs in a single basket in the Bowen Basin. 
In the other corner we have the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), which represents workers on and off site, as all unions should. 
In the middle of all of this we have the coal mines of Saraji, Peak Downs, Goonyella Riverside, Blackwater, Gregory Crinum, Broadmeadow, Caval Ridge, and Daunia, and we have the surrounding communities of Moranbah, Emerald, Dysart, Collinsville, Blackwater, and many more. 
We also had the Norwich Park coal mine, which was the first real victim in all this. 
It began nearly two years ago, and according to BHP Billiton coal CEO Marcus Randolph, this was "the fight we had to have". 
The previous enterprise agreement between BHP and its workers, signed in the era of John Howard's Work Choices, was winding down and a new one was due on the table. 
At the same time Australia was one of the few countries to making it through the global financial crisis (GFC) relatively unscathed as its mining industry went from strength to strength and looked to start a new mining boom; after the last was interrupted by the GFC. 
Commodity prices were rising off the back of an unstoppable China and Australia had the goods and the industry to ensure that China stayed that way. 
The future was looking bright for BHP and its coal division. 
Was. 
When it came time to renegotiate the enterprise agreements the workers demanded a greater share of this future. 
BHP declined. 
And then the unions stepped in. 
 
Communities and BMA had already butted heads over FIFO camp issues.

Early tension 

Relations between BHP and the unions had already been strained before this point as the miner sought to get its new Caval Ridge and Daunia coal mines of the ground. 
Previously promising more than half of jobs at the mines would go to workers within the region, BHP later changed its plan and proposed to make both mines 100 per cent fly in fly out (FIFO), building a workers camp instead of sourcing locals. 
Backsliding on its previous promises caused fury within the local communities and the CFMEU; mining union district president Steve Smyth condemned the miner's actions, labelling it a betrayal of the communities. 
BHP amended its plan to include sourcing some local workers, but kept the majority as fly in fly out. 
Many locals were angered, with a group of Moranbah coal workers wives sending a letter to BHP Billiton chief executive Marius Kloppers, inviting him to visit the town and see the way that miners were forced to live. 
Kloppers did not reply. 
It was into this atmosphere of underlying anger and distrust that the enterprise agreements were first negotiated. 
Unsurprisingly neither party found the other's first proposals attractive. 
Rolling work stoppages began soon after. 
Early on the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), Construction, Forestry, Mining and Engineering Union (CFMEU) and Electrical Trades Union (ETU), which were representing the workers via the single bargaining unit (SBU), rejected BHP's enterprise agreement, saying that the terms outlined in the agreement "weren't right for us". 
The EA was voted down by 90 per cent of workers. 
 "They've got to start listening to what we're putting forward," CFMEU district vice president Glenn Power said in July last year. 
The SBU claimed that BMA was failing to listen to workers concerns, asking for more of a say in rostering, stating that the miner is attempting to change the work place and make it less family friendly by introducing different shifts and employing more fly in fly out workers. 
These statements were to come up time and time again. 
The miner quickly hit back at the unions, branding their actions 'irresponsible'. 
"The unions' decision is inexplicable and inconsistent with their statements at the time of employee ballots that 'protected action is only assessed by members as a last resort'," a BMA spokesperson said. 
"They remain unable to explain to the company the reason for the current action. 
Workers at BMA mines like Saraji demanded a greater say in rostering and shifts.
 
"In response to a request from the unions for further paid, report-back meetings, BMA confirmed its agreement to the request, offering an additional set of paid meetings at the end of July (2011)," the spokesperson said. 
Since the beginnings of this strike action positions have not changed much. 
The negotiations continued throughout the months as rolling strikes at the various coal mines halted production, forcing BHP to eat into its existing stock piles of coal and watch its supplies dwindle. 
Each time discussions were held the SBU claimed that BHP failed to take its demands seriously, adding that the miner was stripping workers of their rights, and would even force its employees to work on Christmas and Boxing Day. 
BHP countered this by saying unions were purposefully slowing down negotiations and had taken to scaremongering, 
"A couple of weeks ago we reached a point with the unions that they weren't willing to compromise on some critical issues, and neither were we," BMA president Stephen Dumble said. 
In an email leaked earlier this year it was revealed that Randolph believed that many parts of the agreements were "non-negotiable¬ not now, not next month, and not next year". 
The CFMEU leaped on this, with president Tony Maher stating that the miner was "never prepared to listen to its workers in Central Queensland. 
"This shows the com­pany went in with a strategy to purposely ignore its workforce, to enter negotiations with no intention what­soever of listening to employee concerns," he said. 
BHP countered this, stating it was committed to negotiating with the union and had already made progress on most of the concerns. 
"We have had numerous meetings with the unions over a period of more than a year and have resolved the overwhelming majority of issues during this time," it said. 
The miner said most of the remaining issues in the dispute were not related to workers but to areas where unions wanted to extend their power. 
It said it would not negotiate on these matters and this had long been its position. 
"The company cannot, and will not, diminish its rights and obligations to manage the business, nor will we accept productivity-destroying arrangements as currently proposed by the unions. 
"Strike action will not change our position, as has been the case for the past eight months." 
In the midst of BMA's negotiations, Rio Tinto was facing a trial of its own which would have an affect on the coal miner's future. 
 
 

High court, high stakes 

In July last year the Federal Court ruled that the non-union collective agreement for Rio Tinto's Pilbara operations were invalid, and allowed the CMFEU onto the site to bargain for pay and conditions. 
Mining unions were ecstatic with the result, CFMEU WA divisional secretary Kevin Reynolds said businesses that refused to bargain with employees on non-union agreements would now be in trouble.  
It was during this time that Australia recorded a rise in the number of industrial disputes. 
Sixty-six disputes took place in the September quarter of 2011, ABS figures revealed. This was 13 more than in the June quarter of  2011. 
September quarter figures also showed that the number of employees involved in industrial disputes was 66,400, an increase from 14,700 in the June quarter of 2011. 
A reported 101,300 working days were lost due to industrial disputation in the September quarter of 2011, which is an increase from 66,200 in the June quarter of 2011. 
The coal mining industry had the highest number of working days lost per thousand employees (155.8 days lost) for the quarter. 
On the back of this the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) called for legislation to ban strikes that 'offend public interest or are designed to pressure employers to cave in to union demands'. 
The AMMA reportedly called for the law amongst a number of other proposals it submitted for the Federal review of the industrial relations laws in January. 
AMMA spokesperson Minna Knight said legislation is needed to ban some strikes as existing laws are too lenient. 
Following a survey of more than 700 union applications for industrial action, it was found that Fair Work Australia granted the right to carry out strikes in all but six cases. 
At the time Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout said the latest ABS industrial dispute statist should serve as a huge wake up call for the Government. 
She said the current industrial scene is deeply worry­ing, particularly worry­ing because of its growing adverse impact on the flexi­bility and performance of key industrial sectors, especially at a time when we need to be increasing our flexibility and responsiveness. 
 "We all knew the Fair Work Act would increase union power but there has also been a discernable negative change in union culture and behaviour. This was something which we warned may happen when the Act came in," Ridout said. 
 "When the Act was introduced into Parliament we prepared a list of over 60 areas where union power had increased. This list would be twice as long if we had prepared it today, given the way that the unions have pressed the boundaries of the Act over the past two and a half years and the interpretations which the Courts have placed on some of the sections, for example, the General Protections. 
"It has been several years since we have seen so much industrial action taken against multi-national companies and in the public sector." 
Rio Tinto's CEO Tom Albanese warned against the rising tide of union action. 
He said that militant type relationships' and aggressive stances by unions threaten mining companies' performances and future, and his prediction was played out recently with BHP reporting a slow down in its coal production figures and a threatened future supply as industrial action chokes it output. 
Rio Tinto's Tom Albanese warned of increasing union action on mine sites. 
 
In the miner's production report for the March Quarter BHP blamed industrial action and heavy rainfall for the drop, adding "the extent to which industrial action will continue to affect production, sales and unit costs is difficult to predict however with inventories now severely depleted the impact on future quarters may be significant. 
"Force majeure was declared across all BMA sites in April 2012 and remains in place," the miner said. 
Albanese commented that he thinks "we have a risk in Australia that the aggressive IR (industrial relations) agenda against mining companies could further reduce productivity in an environment of very high wages". 
These comments were echoed by Jacques Nasser who said aggressive industrial action, coupled with a poor industrial relations policy and framework in Australia is damaging for businesses. 
"In recent years, it's hard not to feel as if our industrial relations system has been like a pendulum, swinging from one approach to another," he said at the Australian Institute of Company Directors lunch. 
"I am not casting blame here, either at management, the government, unions, or the workforce. I basically believe the framework is just not appropriate and doesn't recognise today's realities," Nasser said. 
"It is imperative for companies to have the ability to be represented but it also recognises the right of management to run the business without the constant threat of a veto over operational decision making. 
"It has been 17 months of constant issues when really it should be growing in this time of strength," he told Australian Mining. 
"While BHP respects the roles of unions in the industrial relations landscape¬we do not believe that the influence of unions should be disproportionate to the level of union membership which today accounts four around 15 per cent of employees in Australia's private sector." 
And the impact of this industrial action was only set to continue. 
 
 
  

Strike stagnation? 

While all this was happening the rolling strikes at BMA continued, with negotiations reaching a stalemate. 
Again the situation remained the same, with rolling work stoppages, failed talks between BHP and the Single Bargaining Unit, and the same accusations flying back and forth. 
However a massive change was soon to come in the form of BMA closing its least successful coal mine Norwich Park. 
In April the miner made a shock announcement – that it would officially close the Norwich Park coal mine. 
Despite many pointing the blame at the ongoing union action across its sites, both the miner and unions denied this was the case. 
BHP said the mine closure was an inevitable event and that poor weather and falling commodity prices were the real culprits behind the shut down rather than industrial strife. 
Unions immediately con­demned the closure, stating that it was merely bullying action by the miner to force its hand. 
The local community of Dysart looked to be the real loser following the closure of Norwich Park, with many workers' jobs up in the air and only so many places available at other nearby BMA coal mines. 
BMA chief Stephen Dumble said "this decision was not made lightly. However, the impact of last year's floods, combined with lower coal prices and high costs, has resulted in an operation that is just not currently viable". 
This did nothing however, to move negotiations forward at other coal mines across the Bowen Basin. 
One response it did usher in was from those in the community themselves, who urged the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union and the SBU to come to an agreement with the heads of BMA before further damage was inflicted upon the local communities around the mines. 
The Moranbah Mine Workers' Support Group's Megan Austin called for an end to the long running industrial dispute, saying compromise is possible. 
"We have worked together over previous years so it is not like it cannot happen," Austin said. 
"In every [EBA] there has always a bit of tit for tat and it happens every time they come to this time in the agreement." 
BHP has also seen strikes at its Port Kembla Coal Terminal and Illawarra coal mine however it was able to negotiate an end to industrial action in these cases. 
Austin pointed to instances such as these as proof an end can be reached, saying that the ongoing industrial action in Queensland is taking a heavy toll on the community. 
"It is not just about the workers, there are families at home who are sitting behind our guys and our girls who are working out there," she said. 
"Whatever happens throughout this [EBA] is ­going to affect all of us. 
"It is not going to just affect the union members; it is going to affect the whole community," she said, again calling for end to the stalemate. 
However she later voiced her worries to Australian Mining after meeting with BMA CEO Stephen Dumble. 
"I attended a meeting with Mr Dumble, who states he's the man who runs this company, yet when asked any question about the EA his response was 'I Can't Answer That! – what a joke! 
"He wasn't very informed for someone who 'runs' the company…seems he knows a lot about nothing and even said he hasn't read the EA agreement so he couldn't say what was or wasn't in it. If people are going to believe this man then our communities – workers and families – are in a lot of trouble," Austin added. 
Tensions escalated soon after the closure, when unions claimed that BMA was looking to quickly reopen the mine and replace the entire unionised workforce. 
A job ad for unspecified positions at the coal mine drew anger, however BHP claimed that it was simply a job advertised through a third party which was ­unaware of the mine's ­closure. 
The ad was taken down soon after. 
Yet this did not stop claims of secret plans to restart the operation. 
In May the CFMEU said it had obtained a document that indicated BMA had a five year plan to restart ­operations at Norwich Park with different employees. 
CFMEU district president Stephen Smyth said BMA needed to "come clean" on its plan for the mine and its staff. 
BHP said the union's comments were the "latest attempt to mislead BMA's employees" and needed to be viewed in the context of other union battles in the Bowen Basin. 
 

Going postal 

Another attempt to bring the strikes to a conclusion, another enterprise agreement was put forward, via a postal vote, to BMA workers in April and May. 
The CFMEU was angered by this, believing that a postal vote was unlikely to reach all of the workers in time. 
It approached Fair Work Australia to halt the postal ballot, stating that it was unfair and that it would deny some miners a vote. 
"Under Fair Work laws, employees should have the information about a proposed agreement for seven days before a vote begins," it said. 
"Many of our member haven't received the information pack sent out by BHP, which means they also won't get the ballot in the post," CFMEU general secretary Andrew Vickers added. 
He went on to say that "postal ballots have a poor track record of participation. Site ballots are the method mine workers are used to participating in. The postal service is notoriously slow and unreliable in central Queensland, for a ballot as important as this one we need to maximise participation – not rush through a hit and miss postal ballot that will leave many employees unable to have their say". 
Fair Work Australia dismissed the claims and gave BHP the go ahead to send out the vote although it did force the company to extend the voting period by a few weeks. 
Once more the enterprise agreement was voted down by workers, with the CFMEU claiming a victory. 
However the latest enterprise agreement did swing slightly in BHP's favour this time, with only around 82 per cent of workers voting against it. 
CFMEU district president Steve Smyth said "BHP should take a good hard look at these figures and realise that it needs to start working with its employees rather than trying to take things away from them". 
He also criticised the miner after a number of workers failed to receive their ballots. 
"On top of all that we get BHP chairman Jacques Nasser last week saying Australian workers are treated too well," Smyth said. 
"No wonder Jac wants to change workplace laws, his company keeps getting caught out for ignoring them." 
Unsurprisingly, following this enterprise agreement negotiation failure a new series of week long work stoppages were called. 
 
BMA was forced to declare force majeure as the strikes had hit production so hard it had to chew through its coal stockpiles to reach contract targets.

Intervention 

In late May it seemed as though the stalemate may have finally been reaching its end as the Federal Government was rumoured to be looking towards its options to end the deadlock. 
The Queensland Government was pushing the Federal Government to take a stand after it announced that the ongoing industrial action had already cost the State more than $50 million in revenues from mining royalties. 
QLD deputy premier Jeff Seeney called on the Gillard Government to intervene after the new strike action that quickly followed the second failed enterprise agreement vote. 
"Every Queenslander should be worried about the prospect of industrial action in the Bowen Basin coalmines," Seeny said. 
"All of us depend on the money that the coal industry makes, for the schools and the roads and the hospitals that the state government provides. 
"Any interruption to that coal industry will affect every Queenslander individually." 
He went on to ask the unions to realise the impact the industrial action was having on the national economy, and said the government is now stepping in by reviewing its options for intervention. 
"There are some opportunities under Fair Work legislation, but at this point in time I don't want to speculate about how we might use these opportunities," Seeny said. 
According to The Australian the Federal Government had begun approaching Fair Work Australia in late May/ early June regarding its options for ending the industrial action. 
However at the time of publication no moves had been made by the Government as yet.  
 

The sideshow 

While the main focus has been on the larger battle between the unions and BHP Billiton has a whole, scuffles on the ground have been just as vitriolic.  
One of the incidents to come out of the deteriorating relations between the miner and unions happened at the now closed Norwich Park coal mine. 
Former miner Walter Meacle was sacked for allegedly calling a non-union employee a "scab c**t" and abusing the man as he attempted to enter the site during strike action. 
After investigating the incident BMA terminated Meacle's employment, but he and the Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union deny the event took place. 
However Meacle claims he was yelling "go home", a claim that judge Bruce Lander said was "difficult to accept". 
The most surprising aspect of it all was not that Meacle's lawyer, Warren Friend, denied the allegations of abuse but that coarse language, such as the word scab, was simply part of the picket line and therefore protected from BMA's code of conduct – which made his dismissal unfair. 
However it did go both ways, with BHP threatening to exclude a Blackwater worker who had a union pineapple stick on his car, stating that the stick was offensive and if he did not remove it then he would not be allowed to park his car in the lot.  
This would be a blow for the worker considering that there is no transport such as buses available for the Blackwater mine. 
CFMEU district president Steve Smyth quickly slammed the comments. 
"By targeting the one, they (BMA) are hoping to make an example for the rest," Smyth said. 
"It's simply un-Australian…. It is simply outrageous in this country to threaten workers for displaying their beliefs." 
BMA has not denied the worker's claims, stating that it acted within the Fair Work Act, which allows it the right to remove stickers it deems offensive. 
"In accordance with the Act, BMA will ask employees to remove or cover up any offensive stickers such as stickers using the word "scab" attached to vehicles parked in the mine site's car park," a BMA spokesperson said. 
 
 
 

Towards the endgame 

So what will be the outcome across the Queensland coal mines? 
Are the unions simply holding a gun to BMA's head, and using the threat of diminishing returns in what should be, as BHP Billiton chairman Jacques Nasser says, a "time of strength". 
By rejecting an annual five per cent pay raise over three years, as well as a massive bonus and superannuation increase they have shown that it is as they say "not about the money". 
Is it as they claim – an issue of worker rights and worker safety, as the unions continue to fight for housing rights, working hours, and their choice of safety officers on site? 
Are unions statements that BHP is out of touch with workers and don't understand the situation true? 
Or is it as BMA claims, simply a ploy to gain more power on site, and to put their cronies in positions of power; influencing and even vetoing management decisions? 
Similar union fights at Western Australia's Griffin Coal mine and on Christmas Island have many outside the industry thinking along the same lines as BHP. 
In both instances unions were asking for an increase in the average wage of workers of 20 per cent or more, as well as an increase in the district allowance to $9879 in the case of the Christmas Island workers; however the mining companies claimed that to increase wages to these levels across the board would simply send the company broke. 
Christmas Island miners were claiming that all they wanted was similar pay to mainland workers, but Phosphate Resources, which operates the Christmas Island mine, said "we've produced our books to the employees and to Fair Work Australia. 
"Quite clearly it would be beyond the capacity of the operation to provide that sort of return," Phosphate Resources CEO Kevin Edwards said. 
The mining company offered a pay increase of 7.5 per cent, adding that if it rose any higher it may make the operation unviable. These strikes reached a point similar to that of BMA's industrial action, where Fair Work Australia was forced to step in to solve the issue. 
However Griffin differed in one aspect in that it was also fighting against Indian owner Lanco over shift hour expansions, hot seat change overs on site and the associated safety risks that these may bring to workers at the mine site. 
One thing is for sure and that is that both State and Federal Governments are fighting back against unions across Australia as scandals amongst the Health Services Unions tarnish the perception of unions across the country in general, and weaken their positions. 
Only time will tell, and once the dust finally settles over these 'negotiations' and a deal is made, it will be up to history to judge whether the miner or the unions were right. 
For now, there are no winners and only losers in a fight that BMA "had to have".

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.