The Gordonstone mine dispute is a case study in why Tony Abbott must not be allowed to become prime minister, says former Victorian MP Denise Allen.
“They may have buried the statue, but they can’t bury the truth, and they won’t bury the Union.”
~Tony Maher CFMEU National Secretary, Gordonstone Mining Dispute, 1998.
COMING INTO election year 2013, it will be interesting to see how Tony Abbott and his associates approach the issue of industrial relations campaign. Will he try to try to keep a low profile, fearing a concerted campaign from the Government and Unions over a return of the dreaded WorkChoices; or will he go on the attack, dredging up the mother of all scare campaigns based on the Craig Thomson HSU stitch-up and the baseless ancient smears of the Prime Minister over her time as a lawyer for the AWU. Whichever way Abbott chooses to go, many in the Coalition are pushing for him to “go on the front foot” regarding industrial relations and to put the boot into the despised union movement. This attitude by a major political entity is sad and unfortunate, given unionism has played a deep and vital part in the history of this nation and in the fair treatment of some of its most vulnerable people.
Just over 1,000 kilometres northwest of Brisbane, and nearly 600kms inland from Rockhampton, in Barcaldine, Central Queensland, there once stood a magnificent 200 year-old gum tree known as The Tree of Knowledge. Its historic significance relates back to the 1891 Australian Shearers Strike that was to be the forebear of the Australian Labor Party.
It is said that in 1891 a group of protesting sheep shearers founded the Australian Labor Party under the tree. Meeting records of shearers striking for better conditions show they were held at the main strike camp at the edge of the town on Lagoon Creek.
Non-union workers would arrive in the town by rail where they were met by the striking shearers. These impromptu meetings arose at a Cabbage Gum tree near the station where the strikers attempted to rally union members to their cause and block non-unionists. In 1892, at the foot of the tree, the Manifesto of the Queensland Labour Party, a foundation document of the Australian Labor Party, was read out.
Fast forward 106 years and move 300 kilometres due east from Barcaldine to the mining town of Emerald, and once again the union movement ‒ this time a mining branch of the CFMEU ‒ has been forced to show its strength against the might and power of a multinational American owned mining company, Arco, and the 1996 industrial relation laws introduced by the Howard Government, which included Australian Workplace Agreements.
Gordonstone mine, 50km from Emerald, was opened in 1991 with the claim that it was the “most technologically advanced mine in the world”. The company was owned and operated by the USA owned ARCO, who was the senior partner with an 80% share in the mine. The other 20% being made up of Mitsui, a Japanese coal trader and an Australian company, MLC.
By 1996, the unionised workforce represented by the CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union: Mining and Energy Division) had record-breaking world production records for underground coal mining. The owners of the mine were so impressed by their employees, they erected a two metre statue in the workers’ honour declaring the workforce “the best miners in the world”.
On the 1 October 1997, Arco sacked all 302 Gordonstone miners in contravention of clause 24 of an enterprise agreement entered into between the union and Arco management on 23 April 1996 and which came into force on 13 August 1996. The U.S. based company’s intention was to “re-employ” 190 non-union workers under AWA’s provided for by the Howard Governments new industrial relations policy.
This action by Arco was entirely illegal and set in train one of the most protracted miners’ strikes – some 20 months and involving a 24/7 continuously manned picket line – which resulted in the miners winning the biggest unfair mass dismissal outcome ($4.65m) in Australian industrial relations history.
The dispute was led by John Allen, miner and President of the Gordonstone Lodge (branch of the CFMEU); supported by the Queensland and National CFMEU; local Labor MP Jim Pearce, Member for Fitzroy; and unions from around Australia.
In 1997, Allen had gone at an International Union Conference in the U.S.A. and had been assured by Arco management, prior to his trip, that the company had no intentions of closing the mine.
He came home to every miner being sacked.
Not only that, Arco had pulled down the statue it and buried it somewhere on the mines site.
The Gordonstone dispute was the precursor to the more widely known and reported April 1998 Australian Waterfront dispute but the same ruthless, arrogant tactics where employed by both Arco and Patricks – with the support of the Howard Government and, in particular, the then Minister for Industrial Relations Peter Reith.
Whereas Patrick brought in the dogs and recruited industrial mercenaries – trained secretly in Dubai – to the waterfront, Arco employed “private security guards”, some armed with concealed guns and who callously intimidated miners and their families by following their every move, photographing wives and children and setting up sensors in the front yards of miners’ family homes.
If you think this cannot happen here in Australia for a second time, well, think again.
Peter Reith, that brutal and heartless hard right conservative politician who, from his powerful throne as the minister for industrial relations from 1996 to 2001 instigated the 1997-99 war on unions, has recently publicly called for the Coalition to revisit its industrial relations platform. And so has Josh Frydenberg, the current Liberal MP for Kooyong, who in an opinion piece in The Australian on 9 January this year, called on the Coalition to “go on the front foot” in regards to industrial relations — presumably in an attempt to re-ignite the LNP’s ongoing resolve to destroy the union movement, thinking they are a shoe in at the 2013 election.
For over 120 years, unions in Australia have fought hard for and won the right for workers to be paid a fair rate of pay, and for everyone to work in a safe and secure working environment and have world class working conditions.
But since the Howard Government set in motion antagonistic industrial relations policies in 1996, culminating in the atrocious WorkChoices in 2005, there has been a steep decline in union membership.
There are many people in Australia who no longer pay their union fees and openly rebuff unions, but I have yet to see a non-union member reject a pay increase or an advance in occupational health and safety (OSHS) that the union movement have been successful in securing.
Yes there are corrupt and ruthless unionists – just as there are corrupt and ruthless bosses and multinational companies who will exploit workers at every turn given the opportunity – but both are in the minority. For the most part, employees and bosses work together co-operatively to maintain industrial peace and friendly working relations for the betterment and future prosperity of the nation.
But every time we have the Coalition in power at either a State or Federal level, it seems assured that they will try and crush the unions and their members. Unions are the backbone of the working class. Without them, business and conservative governments will almost certainly run rough shod over workers — reducing pay, entitlements and working conditions.
The Gordonstone Mining Dispute and Australian Maritime Dispute were two of the ugliest industrial clashes in recent Australian political history and both occurred as a result of draconian Coalition industrial relation laws.
And it can happen again if Abbott and his men ever get hold of the seat power — especially if they are given control in both houses.
Workers of this country must unite to prevent an Abbott-led Coalition Government and thus prevent irresponsible employers the power to screw over workers in this country.
(John Allen was Denise Allen’s former husband and father to their three children, as well as partner to Anne and father of their 2 children. John passed away from cancer on 21 December 2003, aged 53 and is a legend amongst the CFMEU mining unionists around Australia and particularly in Queensland.)