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Unions join together in new Pilbara fight

A NEW mining union is emerging in the Pilbara to fight for the hearts and minds of mine workers who have turned their backs on the un-ion cause.

The Pilbara Mineworkers Union, an amalgam of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Australian Workers Union, the Electrical Trades Union and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, is not a fully-fledged union or even a registered entity.

However, it is quietly making inroads among workers who have shunned the union road for nearly a decade, and is focusing on Hamersley Iron and other Rio Tinto operations.

Mine operators in the Pilbara say they are keeping an eye on the PMU. However, they believe it poses little threat because they are recording high take-up rates of Australian Workplace Agreements.

There is also some concern among the unions involved in the coalition that the PMU will be used as a vehicle for the CFMEU to gain greater coverage in an area where it has little membership.

A Hamersley Iron spokesman said the company enjoyed a good relationship with its workers and was not concerned about the creation of the PMU.

“We haven’t received anything on the PMU at this stage,” he said.

“My understanding is that a significant proportion of our employees have elected to take up individual contracts.”

The AWA take-up rate at Hamersley Iron is understood to be 85 per cent.

BHP-Billiton spokesman John Crowley said the idea of a co-operative covering several different unions had been around for 30 years on the company’s Pilbara operations.

On those sites there is the United Mine Workers that represents the AWU, AMWU, CFMEU, ETU and the Transport Workers Union.

Mr Crowley said the UMW had troubles three years ago when the CFMEU and the AWU started fighting over who had coverage over 350 workers at BHPB’s Nelson Point site.

“I think that helped draw our workforce towards individual contracts,” he said.

BHPB’s AWA take-up rate is understood to be around 75 per cent. Last year it was 50 per cent.

Hamersley’s initial attempts to deal with the abolition of work-place agreements have been credited with creating the PMU.

The company attempted to pursue a non-union certified Federal agreement with its workers – something the workers voted against. Unions ran a blitz on the Pilbara around that time to try and attract workers back into the collective. The PMU sprang from that.

Union leaders are among the first to admit that the union ex-cesses of the 1970s and ’80s led to a high level of dissatisfaction with employee collectives.

Australian Workers Union WA secretary Tim Daly said many of the workers in the Pilbara had never been part of a union.

“I don’t think there’s any great love to go back to the unionism of the ’70s and ’80s,” he said.

Mr Daly said he was concerned that the PMU could be a way for the CFMEU to gain access to areas that it did not have coverage over.

However, CFMEU minerals and energy division WA secretary Gary Wood said that was not part of the union’s plan.

“There is nothing sinister in it. It’s about providing effective representation to the workers. We need to work together,” he said.

Mr Wood said Pilbara mine workers had been happy with their individual contracts but believed that satisfaction was waning.

“Workers voted against the Hamersley non-union agreement. I don’t claim that it indicates sup-port for unions but it showed that there could be a place for the right union,” he said.

Minter Ellison partner Andrew Burnett said he believed the unions had been advised that it was better to create a loose employee society to get workers used to the idea of a union.

“It’s something that employers have to take into account,” he said.

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