BMA v Union war may not be over yet

Norwich Park Mine, near Dysart, will be shut down on May 11. Some workers say they only heard of the closure through the rumour mill.
Norwich Park Mine, near Dysart, will be shut down on May 11. Some workers say they only heard of the closure through the rumour mill. Contributed

A DEAL between the unions and the mines should be seen not as a peace treaty but as a momentary ceasefire, according to an industrial relations expert who warned of more skirmishes to come.

Griffith University Associate Professor of Business Bradley Bowden said the very public and occasionally-vitriolic attacks launched during the fight between BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance and a trio of mining trade unions would only intensify as each side saw their own victory as being essential to their survival.

BMA and the CFMEU took on each other in at least nine Federal Court battles since the dispute began in late 2010.

Of those, four are yet to be finalised although some may be on the verge of settlement or withdrawal.

The new enterprise agreement between all four finally was signed on Monday - however this was not expected to put an end to the sparring.

Prof Bowden said the unions and BMA were destined for tense and consistent confrontations as the company put cost-cutting at the top of its priorities and the union fought any move towards more contract labour or redundancies.

He said the fall in coal prices meant BMA was keeping an eagle-eye on its books, while the unions still wanted to lock in the kind of assurances that could have been on the cards when prices were good.

If BMA puts workers on contracts to slash costs, Prof Bowden said, this could also weaken the unions' power at the six Central Queensland mines.

"Despite the settlement, we're going to see more intense and quite nasty small battles all over the place for the next couple of years," he said.

If BMA opted to re-open Norwich Park with contract labour, that too could provide an ignition point.

"Their relationship is not good and my expectation is that it will get worse.

"I suspect (court cases) will not be settled and may drag on."

A CFMEU spokesman said the union would focus on housing and rostering in future negotiations but would now ensure BMA held up its end of the newly-signed enterprise agreement.

The spokesman said the union was waiting for decisions "on a small number of legal issues" but would not comment further until they were resolved.

BMA declined to comment on Prof Bowden's views, nor issues before the court.

Kieran Salsone

Topics:  bhp billiton bma cfmeu industrial action mitsubishi unions

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