November 7, 2023
Train drivers at BHP’s massive iron ore mining operations in Western Australia have forced the mining giant back to the bargaining table with an overwhelming vote in favour of protected industrial action to secure fairer conditions.
In a ballot held in October, 95% of MEU rail crew at WA iron ore voted yes to a range of actions from stoppages to work bans.
The strong vote reflects drivers’ frustration after two years of bargaining failed to result in an offer that meets their concerns. It is a significant development for unionism in the Pilbara iron ore industry, where industrial action has not been taken for 15 years.
BHP were keen to get back to the bargaining table after the ballot results showed drivers’ unity and determination.
Western Australian Secretary Greg Busson said a further attempt would be made to secure an acceptable deal with BHP, with the strong ballot result boosting members’ bargaining power.
MEU and BHP Iron Ore have been bargaining for nearly two years for a replacement for the BHP Billiton Iron Ore Locomotive Drivers Agreement 2014. BHP initially refused to bargain for a new agreement; and had to be forced to the table by a majority support petition.
The agreement covers about 500 drivers who operate trains carrying iron ore from BHP’s Pilbara mines around Newman to Port Hedland.
Drivers want action in a range of areas including guaranteed annual pay increases and consistent standards in areas including training, consultation, accommodation, application of flight assistance, dispute resolution and the process to change rosters.
Newman-based Pilbara driver and MEU member Dylan Chapman took drivers’ concerns direct to the top at BHP’s AGM in Adelaide last week. He questioned BHP chairman Ken McKenzie and CEO Mike Henry about why they were ignoring drivers’ concerns when they play such an important role in BHP’s highly profitable iron ore industry and had faced enormous personal upheaval during COVID to keep the industry afloat.
“We are simply seeking guarantees around our pay and conditions including rostering, flights, accommodation consultation – and not to be at the whim of individual supervisors and inconsistent policies,” Dylan told them.
“Last week 95% of BHP Pilbara Rail Crew voted in favour of taking protected industrial action. This result shows the depth of drivers’ frustration with BHP’s arrogance and refusal to take their concern seriously.
“What message do you take from this overwhelming protected action ballot result and what steps will BHP take to engage in constructive collective bargaining with your Pilbara workforce?”
The only message the BHP bigwigs take from the iron ore industry is how profitable it is, with Mike Henry bragging to shareholders about how BHP’s Pilbara iron ore operation is the world’s most competitive with the lowest production cost. He was less interested in answering workers’ concerns about bargaining and a fair go.
Greg Busson said drivers would give the company a further opportunity to address their concerns, before considering next steps.
Drivers’ top priorities include guaranteed wage increases so they are not at the whim of supervisors’ individual performance assessments, consistent application of flight payment policy and a fair dispute resolution process including arbitration.
“They are simply seeking a comprehensive Enterprise Agreement to give them certainty over important conditions that affect their lives,” said Greg Busson.
“Well done to our members for standing up to BHP and taking this important step towards rebuilding union power in the Pilbara.
“Our bargaining team including rail organiser Warren Johncock and BHP Pilbara Lodge executives Justin Parry and Hank Wiltschut are doing a fantastic job representing members’ interests.”