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Unions must adapt or perish

A LOSS in the battle with BHP in WA’s North West could spell the end of the stronghold that Australia’s unions have traditionally held there.

BHP wants to put its workforce on individual work contracts, something one of its biggest rivals, Rio Tinto, has already managed.

Since the 1980s union strength in the region has gone downhill.

No longer can a union go on strike because the same flavour icecream was served for two days in a row in the lunch room.

Nor is the supply of one carton of milk instead of the customary two in the smoko supplies sufficient reason to down tools.

Robe River Iron Associates fired an early shot in the industrial relations battle when it underwent a major workplace restructure.

It virtually halved its workforce while doubling productivity.

One of the last union bastions left at Robe – the tug operations – was broken on 10 September 1991.

The company now uses private operators and processing plant crew to man its tugs.

Chamber of Commerce and Industry director operations Brendan McCarthy believes the unions have already lost any stronghold they held in the North West – except perhaps in the construction area.

“Unions will lose more and more influence until they recognise individual workplace agreements,” Mr McCarthy said.

“Around twenty years ago, 50 per cent of the private sector workforce was unionised. Today less than 20 per cent of the private sector workforce is unionised.

“A loss at Port Hedland will certainly have a cumulative effect on the losses unions have already had.

“It will be symbolic as well, given BHP’s attitude to unions and the unions’ attitude to BHP.

“They’ll start thinking – ‘even the one we got along with turned against us’.”

Mr McCarthy said unions had to supply services their customers wanted.

“They have to look at what their members want. These days a lot of them want things such as mortgage and financial information,” he said.

Mr McCarthy said the CCI, which is virtually a union for employers, had been forced to change its ways considerably to remain relevant to its membership.

However, Trades & Labor Council president and Australian Manufac-turing Workers Union officer Keith Peckham said job security was still a major concern for union members.

“We recently held a survey of our members and the number one issue was job security. Workplace safety was next,” Mr Peckham said.

“This is largely due to insecurity created by the industrial relations climate.”

Mr Peckham said, besides their traditional role, unions were branching out into other member services.

The Trades & Labor Council has been operating its own building society for the past twenty years.

“We’ve also branched out into things such as Union Shopper, which allows members to buy certain goods at lower prices,” Mr Peckham said.

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