Rank and file rebellion at Robe River dispute

One of Graeme Haynes’ favourite songs, one that sums up his feelings about the 1986 Robe River dispute, is Utah Phillips’ “All Used Up”.

He used up my labour, he used up my time

He plundered my body and squandered my mind

But the song isn’t only about the feeling of being used up, but also about fighting back, something Graeme has done all his working life.

They use up the air and they use up the seas

But as long as I’m breathing they won’t use up me

Starting in the local abattoir at 15 – “If you didn’t stick it out at school, it was the abattoirs for you” – Graeme worked some hard years learning the tools of the trade, and about working class organisation and solidarity. He went on to work in the Postmaster General (now Australia Post), but soon quit.

A stint in the air force, after he joined out of desperation for work, found him often at the pointy end of the force’s disciplinary procedures. “I’d had a long-time sense of social justice, but the time in the forces politicised me”, he says. Despite his best endeavours at insubordination, it wasn’t until Gough Whitlam was elected that he was able to get out without a dishonourable discharge and hit “civvy street” again.

The Pilbara in the 1970s

Now, trained as an electrician, he joined many others flocking to the remote West Australian Pilbara region as the mining boom was in full swing. They were heady times. There was a Labor government for the first time in 23 years. Serious rank and file organising in unions was having an impact, and strikes were common.

“When I first got up there in 1975, we were living in pretty terrible conditions. Some were ‘hot-bedding’ in construction camps and others in substandard caravan parks due to a housing shortage. At Robe River we fought for the 38-hour week, [we were] the first company to win it in the Pilbara.”

“Getting fellow workers to fight”, he adds, “in some ways wasn’t all that hard. The bosses were rubbing our noses in the class difference.”

One example typifies what he means: “We were doing all the shit work and dangerous work, facing the possibility of getting burnt, even electrocuted or minced up in the machinery, and you’d come in hot, sweaty and dirty for smoko. We’d be lined up for a packet of two salt cracker biscuits and a styro cup of coffee. The boss, not a sweat mark on him, was having percolated coffee and Tim Tams in an airconditioned office, in full view. We were dressed in ‘prison greens’; he wore pressed khaki clothing. It’s things like that that galvanise workers.

“And we were getting tangible results.” Organised and willing to down tools, Robe River workers were winning. “We got proper housing and set up a housing committee to stop ‘queue jumping’. We’d threaten a strike if they put a boss in ahead of the workers on the list. We got a child-care centre built, a workers’ club and cyclone committees that could override a boss’s decision.”

“If you didn’t like how things were, you withdrew your labour and you got the things you wanted, the things you needed.”

A decade of wielding this industrial power resulted in strong rank and file organising across the Pilbara. Each site had its own union conveners, who showed little respect for the boss, or for the union officials from Perth who tried to tie them to the “legalities” of Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) decisions.

Derisorily called the “Czars of the Pilbara”, these conveners made sure it was the rank and file who made the decisions. But Graeme, a deputy convener for the Cape Lambert port site belonging to the Robe River company, emphasises that the workers at Robe River weren’t different from workers anywhere else. “There’s no special gene pool that we came out of that made us militant … It came from using our labour power and getting tangible results.”

With this history behind them, Labor again in power from 1983 and the Accord between the ACTU and Labor promising industrial harmony and higher living standards, few predicted that the period would decimate union strength across the country and de-unionise the Pilbara.

1986 dispute – Robe River ‘bully-boys’ want control

The Accord started to turn sour for workers early on. There were a number of critical disputes. Dollar Sweets, Mudginberri, SEQEB and deregistration of the BLF, all became code words for working class defeat.

In July 1986 it was Robe River Iron’s turn. New management, Peko-Wallsend Ltd and CEO Charles Copeman, had taken over in January. With them came a root-and-branch review of operations and at the end of July a clean sweep of local site-level management. Critically, the company declared that it no longer recognised more than 200 “restrictive work practices” (conditions on the job). There would be a “whole new way of working”.

While some workers rejoiced to see the local bosses go, Graeme was more cautious. He knew of Copeman’s actions elsewhere – summarily dismissing workers, driving down wages and conditions, fighting against OH&S standards. Also that Copeman was a co-founder of the H.R. Nicholls Society, a new group of employers, politicians, judges and academics committed to stripping back workers’ rights.

But, Graeme says, “At that stage we were feeling fairly confident we could knock off these bully-boys who were having their own way in less organised sites.”

Meanwhile, the state union officials appealed to the Industrial Relations Commission, which ordered a 30-day moratorium on job changes by the company and that the unions take no industrial action.

The unions abided by the order. The company ignored it. Managers refused to recognise usual working conditions and ordered workers to take on whatever work they were directed to. People were shifted around, their jobs changed – a canteen worker was ordered to work on the ore conveyor belts. It was chaotic, and more than 60 workers refused the new orders.

Robe sacked them. And when the IRC directed that they be reinstated, management sacked all 1160 workers. Now that they were out the gate, the workers set up picket lines. Graeme recalls, “There’s nothing like the solidarity of all the workers locked out. I thought ‘You beauty, we’ve got the biffo on now.’ We had strike funds; we were pretty self-sufficient.

“What we needed was the industrial support of other sites across the Pilbara and we’d organised to visit them to argue our case.” But, he says, “then the real treachery began”.

“The union bureaucracies came down and said ‘You’ve got to hold back’, ‘You’ve got to be squeaky clean’. We were locked out of the other sites as the officials did deals with the companies to keep us out.”

Despite the obstruction of some officials, they got backing. There was a ship ready to take ore at Cape Lambert, but the waterside workers and seamen were refusing to cross the picket line. Along came the officials, telling workers, “Be good guys in the eyes of the media, let the ship go.” The seamen responded, “We’re not letting the fucker go”,  one told Rob Meecham, the WA TLC secretary.  But a group of 40 conveners and organisers, in the name of “good PR”, eventually agreed to let the ship sail.

After much to-ing and fro-ing in the industrial courts and the workers being hamstrung by their officials, the company finally agreed to re-employ, but not reinstate, the workforce. And Robe continued to do just what it wanted.

For the militants who still refused to comply with the new practices, there were the “grot squads”. Workers were paraded around the town, outside their kids’ schools, doing the street cleaning, with a manager at each end, holding a parasol. Graeme ended up being put in a cage of “rio” steel. “I was allowed out for toilet breaks, no one allowed to speak to me as I sorted nuts and bolts, fixed up angle grinders and the like.”

The job blew up again in December, when Robe insisted on a single operator for a two person power shovel. Their union went out and six days later the entire Robe workforce was out again. “The seamen played a fantastic role too”, says Graeme, refusing to load ships after staff labour filled the ore trains.

But again the real fight was with the officials. Graeme explains, “We were in dire position. We couldn’t widen the dispute, and the officials were alienating other workers by putting a fucking levy on them to pay for lawyers instead of organising solidarity action.”

When the maritime workers again tried to hold the line in banning the loading of the ship, their union was slapped with a secondary boycott writ.

Graeme recalls, “They had to get everybody and Uncle Tom Cobbley up to get the ship loaded. At the meeting they had Crean, Gandini (from the ETU) and ‛Back to Work Jack’ – the AMWU’s Jack Marks. Apparently [according to the officials] we were going to be responsible for the destruction of the trade union movement.” Again the officials prevailed and the boats sailed.

Then came the workplace sell-out. ACTU leader Simon Crean and Charles Copeman cobbled together a rotten deal, hailed in the media as “peace in our times”. The workers had other ideas and unceremoniously dumped it. But as the pressure rose, a slightly modified deal got up in January 1987.

The cost of losing

The dispute was over. For the workers, it came at a terrible cost. Four hundred lost their jobs; wages and working conditions were driven down. Suicides, miscarriages and family break-ups followed. Soon the Pilbara was de-unionised and now, as Graeme says, “We see the importation of labour under 457 and FIFO.”

“It’s just magic stuff for the bosses. There’s no real townships, just demountables that can be taken away on the back of a truck. They can close it down as demand rises and falls … it’s supreme control of the workforce.”

The victory was for Peko-Wallsend and Charles Copeman. The tonnage of ore was tripled with half the labour force. The company even won an award for productivity, presented to it by then Labor premier Brian Burke at Burswood Casino.

Graeme’s still angry, but says we have to understand the way the system works to fight it. “I’m seeing the full cycle. The same conditions that we fought for can be easily be taken off us – partly because of incompetency and treachery from our officials.”

Blacklisted from the industry, Graeme didn’t work until offered an organiser’s job with the meatworkers union (AMIEU). He understands that “Unions, at some level, have to sustain the office, provide a basic service to members, to avoid bankruptcy. But when that becomes the backstop, the overall pervading point, when you decide you’re not going to break the law, then industrial activity ceases, you cease to be a union, you simply become some sort of welfare, service provider.”

His message is more hopeful. “Workers everywhere need to be aware that the rank and file is the key to success.

“You can win and you can continue to win and make ground – a ragtag bloody bunch of workers, 1600 kilometres from Perth, in the driest mongrel place on earth were able to win, and it was only the political apparatus that prevailed against us. We demonstrated that the power of labour could triumph over the strength of capital. We actually proved it.”

But it will take more, Graeme argues, to topple the system. “Until we can convert the struggle on the shop floor into a political advantage, you remain fixed in a paradigm in which you can’t change anything. There has to be some way of breaking out of that stricture, developing a class consciousness.”