Unions unite to organise Rio’s workforce

Two of Australia’s largest unions will put aside their differences in an effort to re-unionise Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations.

The historic pact ends 30 years of hostility between the right-wing Australian Workers Union and the left-wing Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union which officials concede helped the mining house build its non-union fortress in Western Australia’s Pilbara, The Australian reports.

The newly forged alliance is aimed directly at Rio’s 15,000 non-unionised workforce, which is currently engaged in individual staff agreements, a strategy Rio has embarked on since the early 1990s.

Paul Howes, AWU national secretary, said the alliance with the CFMEU's mining and energy division follows "30 years of demarcation and conflict which has been successfully exploited by the company to de-unionise their operations".

"I have no doubt in my mind that disputes like Hamersley Iron and Robe River would not have been successful for the company had it not been for the fact that our two unions had been fighting," he said.

"The reality is those sites which were de-unionised were de-unionised on the back of pretty nasty internal demarcation disputes . . . The only people that win out of demarcation disputes are the employers and that's what occurred in the North West. Thirty years of conflict between our two unions has paid enormous dividends for the employers at the expense of workers in that industry."

Tony Maher, the national president of the CFMEU's mining division, said "it's amazing it's taken us this long to learn the lessons of history”.

The two unions' memorandum of understanding is modelled on a 2003 alliance struck between the AWU and the Maritime Union of Australia that has resulted in the unions working together in an attempt to organise the offshore oil and gas sector.

Union membership amongst Rio’s iron ore workers is “very, very low,” Howes said.

Maher added that both unions have their work set out for them with a "lot of history to overcome".

"The other thing you have got to bear in mind with the employees of Rio Tinto is a lot of them have never had a say in their wages and working conditions," Maher said.

The AWU and CFMEU are not strangers to high profile battles, but the officials said this move should not be seen as a threat rather warning it will test how “happy” Rio’s workforce actually is.

"I don't think this should be seen by anyone as a threat," Maher said.

"I don't think Rio Tinto should feel threatened by it. We are committed to productivity and fairness at work.

"What we're really doing is offering workers the option they don't have at the moment.

"Rio thinks that everybody is a happy little Vegemite. We'll see about that."

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