Industrial Action Ripples Across The NSW Coal Fields

The industrial climate in the Australian coal industry could be entering its own version of global warming in 2013. Australian Coal Report’s Terry O’Connor reports on the latest industrial action to impact the NSW coal sector.
Union Strike | BHP Billiton | Illawarra Coal | Hunter Valley | Australia | Coal
Union Strike | BHP Billiton | Illawarra Coal | Hunter Valley | Australia | Coal
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Jan. 28, 2013 - PRLog -- Already this year we have seen a strike by a union that had never struck before, a lock-out, another possible lock-out within days and a Hunter Valley rail strike waiting to happen.

On Sunday BHP Billiton (BHPB) locked out 52 mine supervisors, members of the Association of Professional Engineers Scientists and Managers Australia (APESMA), at Illawarra Coal's Appin mine in southern NSW for 36 hours over a pay dispute.

The supervisors were taking part-time industrial action, the first time they had done so. The strikes meant work at the mine had to cease for safety reasons, which was presumably behind BHPB’s decision to direct supervisors not to attend work for entire shifts when stoppages were planned.

The tactic – absent lock-outs – would create maximum disruption for BHP with minimum wage loss for supervisors. But either way the action results in disruption to production schedules.

APESMA called upon BHPB management to end the lockout immediately and restart talks to resolve the dispute, which began last November in support of a wage claim the union said was needed to bring its members into line with supervisors across the rest of NSW and Queensland.

Similar issues surfaced this month at BHPB's NSW Dendrobium colliery when supervisors walked out as part of protected industrial action that started the week before Christmas. The Fair Work Commission had approved a ballot of supervisors as part of a campaign for an enterprise agreement to replace the one expiring on December 31, 2012.

An APESMA spokesperson told Australian Coal Report the union expected BHPB to lock-out managers at the NSW Dendrobium mine this week also.

Unlike mine supervisors, coal train drivers are no strangers to industrial action, and last week Pacific National rail workers in NSW, members of the Rail Tram and Bus Industry Union (RTBU), voted to take protected industrial action. The union cited about 80% support in favour of five options, ranging from four-hour stop-work meetings to rolling strikes to bans on double-loco trains. The Australian Electoral Commission said 57.04% of eligible workers had voted.

RTBU Loco division secretary Bob Hayden said the strong vote in favour of action showed just how serious workers were about getting a fair deal. “We don’t want to have to take protected industrial action, but Pacific National has left us with no choice but to go down this path,” he said.

The RTBU had asked for a three-year deal. A spokesperson for Asciano – Pacific National’s parent company - said the union was publicly seeking one annual rise of 9% and two 7% rises, but in negotiations was actually seeking one 7% rise and two 5% rises.

Pacific National hauls most Hunter Valley coal to the Port of Newcastle and any prolonged strike could be devastating for exporters.

The Asciano spokesperson said management and the union would meet on Wednesday (January 23) to discuss the issues, and as yet there had been no sign of any industrial action. She said by law if the union decided to take industrial action it would have to give three working days’ notice, so nothing could happen until Tuesday, January 29, at the earliest.

The combination of APESMA and RTBU strikes, if they occur, could be devastating for NSW coal production for some time to come – not a welcome development for an industry struggling with low returns.

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