‘A fight we must not back down from’ – Oaky North coal miners take on Glencore

Lachlan Jarrett is a CFMEU site delegate at a Glencore’s Oaky Creek coal mine in Queensland. The miners have been locked out since July for rejecting a cut to wages and conditions and an attack on union representation. He spoke to Red Flag’s Priya De about the dispute.

Tieri is a company town – established in the early ’80s by mining bosses who wanted a workforce on hand in a remote part of Queensland. Most of the 1,600 or so people who live there today have something to do with Glencore’s coal mines in Oaky Creek.

Lachlan has worked at Oaky Creek as a coal cutter, “the lifeline of the pit”, for 22 years. Underground coal mining is skilled and dangerous work requiring years of training in the operation of sophisticated machinery. “We extract the coal, and perform maintenance on the site”, Lachlan explained. “Our shifts are between 10 to 12 hours, day and night. The mine operates around the clock, 24/7. It only shuts down for two days a year, Christmas and Boxing Day.

“For Glencore it’s … about maximum productivity and profitability. At night, it’s you on the machine, with a light cap on your head, for 12 hours. There are highly flammable gasses in the mine, and the roofs can cave in.”

Glencore’s collective agreement with its Oaky North coal miners expired two and a half years ago. The workers, represented by the CFMEU, have been bargaining for a new deal since then. But the company has come to the table pushing a raft of attacks, including stripping the agreement of clauses about union representation rights, rostering and safety. It is also demanding that workers accept a wage cut and pay more for accommodation.

“Glencore are never, ever going to accept a permanent workforce; they want it fully casualised”, Lachlan said. “Tieri was purpose built for mining. Glencore owns everything in the town. If every worker is a casual, they don’t have to pay for the costs of maintaining Tieri.

“They want the ability to implement whatever roster they want without the union having a say. Nobody would want to move up to Tieri or fly out here for three night shifts on the weekend, but that’s what Glencore wants to do”, he explained.

Most of the miners who work at Oaky Creek have relocated to Tieri, while some fly in and fly out. “They want to increase the costs of accommodation as soon as our enterprise bargaining agreement expires. Glencore owns everything, so they could raise the cost of a house from $40 a week to $400 if they wanted, and we’d have to pay it to work”, he said.

The Oaky North coal miners have rejected the company’s terms. In May they started a series of week-long stoppages. Glencore responded in July by locking them out. Since then, every Tuesday at 12pm, the miners receive an email with an instruction not to return to work. A picket line has been maintained continuously outside the mine, which is now being operated by contractors.

Oaky Creek miners have a proud union history. “One hundred percent of our 180 permanent staff are with the CFMEU. We’re one of the only mines in the country with that kind of density”, Lachlan said. “Glencore want to absolutely smash the union. They have been trying to restrict our rights to union representation. They’re insisting that if someone gets disciplined, they have to attend the first meeting alone, without somebody from the union.

“We used to rock up to work every day in our CFMEU shirts and then change into our mining gear. Glencore have tried to ban us having any union branding in or around the site.”

The day before Lachlan spoke with Red Flag, the Fair Work Commission issued a comprehensive censure of Glencore’s use of military-style tactics to intimidate union members. The company admitted employing an army of private security guards to monitor and film union members and their families at their homes and around the town. A security contractor gave evidence to the commission, “We know where they all live”.

The company was ordered to stop surveilling union members and to withdraw a directive banning workers from wearing union gear. The commission found that Glencore’s conduct “undermines collective bargaining and freedom of association”. It was also directed to drop disciplinary action against 24 workers, including Lachlan, who had been accused of “inappropriate conduct” for calling contract labourers “maggots” and “grubs”. However, Glencore will face no penalties for its intimidation of workers and is refusing to relent on the lockout of its union workforce.

Lachlan explained how contract labourers are being used to undermine safety standards in the mine. “Our job as permanents was to enforce safety standards. Glencore has brought in contract and staff labourers who aren’t with the union to do the work. They don’t have the training or experience. Since we’ve been locked out, the mine has failed the industry’s dust limit standards twice. The mining inspector shut down the mine for a day because there was an electrical fault that started a fire”, he said. “Already there have been a few injuries, but somebody’s going to die. Unfortunately, that’s what will happen.”

Glencore’s safety record is appalling. Globally, nearly 100 people died between 2010 and 2014 while working on Glencore mines. Last year, seven workers were killed in one disaster at a Glencore copper mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Australia, earlier this year, Glencore’s Oaky North and Oaky No. 1 coal mines were among four Australian mines found to be in breach of dust monitoring standards introduced since the “re-emergence” of black lung.

“Two blokes in the mine have gotten black lung”, Lachlan said. “We were one of the sites that refused to go back to work without getting our X-rays. Glencore tried to stop a union rep from going along to our doctor’s appointments.”

It is precisely because these miners know how to fight that Glencore wants to beat them decisively. “Big multinational companies like Glencore can’t keep ripping off Australian workers. You can’t even buy shares of Glencore in Australia, and here they are ripping up our conditions”, Lachlan said.

Both Glencore and the miners are determined to win this dispute. “No miners have ever been locked out for more than 50 days – we’ve more than doubled that”, he said. “It is a big battle taking on a company like this, but it is a fight we must not back down from.”

The CFMEU has a strike fund to provide Christmas for the families: https://oakynorth-cfmeu.nationbuilder.com