Workers at Glencore’s Oaky North mine have voted 70 per cent in favour of a deal they’d rejected in January by over 90 per cent.

This vote ended the bitter 230 day lockout. But the outcome was not good for workers.

The deal includes an 8.24 per cent wage rise over four years, a freeze on accommodation costs and maintains bonus arrangements. But the dispute was never about money. Earlier the workforce had volunteered to go without a wage rise if they could maintain their current conditions.

The central issue was the increasing use of casuals and contractors that undermine job security. As mine worker Brian Lederhose told the ABC; “It’s happening at every other pit in the Bowen Basin. Everyone’s trying to use contractors because it’s easy to supplement and get rid of when they don’t need them anymore”.

Glencore managed to keep the mine operating during this dispute using staff and contractors. Every morning hundreds passed the union’s picket. Glencore will continue engaging these contractors.

This isn’t just a loss for the Oaky North workers but for everyone in the industry. Other companies will follow Glencore’s lead pit by pit in the next round of bargaining and the union will remain on the defensive.

At every step the union fought within the law but this held them back. While the use of contractors and casuals is an industry wide issue, secondary boycott laws and the threat of being sued for massive damages ensured the union did not respond with industry wide action.

The contract workforce too were prevented from joining the action by the law even though they have an interest in seeing more permanency established.

But even these coercive secondary boycott laws weren’t enough for Glencore. They also turned to what employers call the “nuclear option” and applied to the Fair Work Commission to have the expired enterprise agreement terminated.

If successful all the wages and conditions the workers had accumulated over 25 years of enterprise bargaining would have been striped back to the much inferior Black Coal Industry Award allowing Glencore to retrench on the cheap.

This threat, combined with the union officials’ support for the January deal, wore the workers down. If the union movement is ever going to get back onto the front foot we have to discuss defying the law.

By Mark Gillespie

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