Three hundred coalminers at the Xstrata-owned Tahmoor coal mine in NSW have been fighting for their rights and conditions since late 2008. After ten months of seemingly constructive negotiations in 2008, Xstrata suddenly pulled out of negotiations, citing the global economic crisis as an excuse. The company then sacked 100 full-time workers and 60 contractors. This was despite the fact that Xstrata had managed a profit of $28 million during the worst of the economic crisis and $200 million the year before.
Coalminer and CFMEU delegate Bob Timbs told Solidarity that the union had taken three-hour stoppages and imposed restricted duties through 2009. When Xstrata again decided to cease negotiations with the union and draw up its own agreement, workers decided to step up the fight. In a secret ballot, they voted to 235 to 1 to reject the offer from management. Unhappy with the vote Xstrata locked them out for a week. Workers then decided to go on strike for another three days in a counter punch that received widespread press coverage and solidarity messages from coalminers around the country. 
Xstrata has offered a small pay increase and demanded that workers abide by a list of twenty-three clauses. These included promises not to take industrial action, unsafe crew-manning numbers, and a loss of conditions from the existing agreement. Xstrata claims its pay offer is an increase of 25 per cent over four years. But workers say Xstrata have included previously existing entitlements and bonuses based on unrealistic workloads. The CFMEU calculates the increase is only 5.5 per cent over four years. 
Officials say that management is still refusing to budge. Despite the fact that Tahmoor workers are on the lowest rate of pay amongst any coal mine in Australia ($25.96 per hour), Timbs says that safety and job security are their main concern:
“When you’re down in the mines it’s important to have your mates around you and that they are experienced and have the right training”, he said.  Workers are being asked to accept fewer workers in a crew which means less assistance in case of accidents. They are also worried about losing their jobs to less experienced and lower-paid contract workers.
Despite the resistance and courage shown so far, more action will be needed to convince Xstrata to come to the table with a reasonable offer. The workers want safety, protection against job losses and to maintain existing conditions. They should also receive a wage increase in-line with other workers in the industry. 
With negotiations also in train at other Xstrata mines, there needs to be a company-wide campaign to force Xstrata to negotiate. CFMEU officials have been reluctant to broaden the campaign and instead prefer to bargain separately at individual workplaces. This can only weaken the union’s fight.
By Matte Rochford

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