Coalminers at the Wongawilli Colliery in Wollongong have scored an important victory against labour hire and casualisation using good old-fashioned strike action. 

Before the strike, which began on 14 January, labour hire firm CAS Mine Services employed the entire 100-strong workforce at the colliery on a casual basis. Because of this, the workers were the lowest paid coalminers in the Illawarra region, earning hundreds of dollars per week less than permanent workers at nearby mines. Following a federal court ruling last year that more strictly defines the nature of casual work and requires employers to give back pay to affected workers, CAS tried to place the workers on 12-month contracts that were still well below the going rate.

In response, the workers at Wongawilli Colliery geared up for action, during which CFMMEU membership rose from 13 to 80 percent of the workforce.

Right from the first day of the strike, the workers made it clear that they meant business, establishing a picket line and voting to extend the action from one to two weeks. 

The initial response from CAS was to reject the workers’ demands, finding support for this stand from jobs and industrial relations minister Kelly O’Dwyer, who chimed in to defend labour hire. 

Yet only three days into the strike, CAS was forced back to the bargaining table, and the CFMMEU was able to secure an agreement with significant benefits. The two-year agreement transitions the entire workforce from casual to permanent employment, gives workers a 12 percent increase in pay plus six weeks’ annual leave per year, carers leave, accident pay and long service leave, and increases the weekly production bonus from $400 to $450. 

CFMMEU mining and energy south-western district vice-president Bob Timbs told the Illawarra Mercury that the outcome of the strike is a “crystal clear example of union power … It takes guts to stand up to your employer and invest trust in your union. But they took the leap and now they’ve reaped the reward.”

Wongawilli Colliery workers have proved that it is possible to turn the tide against labour hire and casualisation. The Federal Court ruling on casualisation – the case of supposedly casual truck driver Paul Skene – has created the potential for unions to go on the offensive around this issue.

It’s important to seize this opportunity, because, while Bill Shorten has promised that labour hire workers would be paid the same as other workers doing the same job in the same workplace should Labor win the next election, he has also indicated employers will have an extended period, likely 12 to 18 months, to comply.

By using their industrial power, the Wongawilli workers have shown that we don’t have to wait for Labor or for Labor’s weak policies to kick in. Victories are possible now if workers are prepared to fight.