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Train drivers rebuild union power in the Pilbara

February 26, 2024

BHP iron ore drivers in the Pilbara are on track to secure substantially improved pay, bonuses and conditions after preparing to take the first strike action in the Pilbara iron ore industry for 15 years.

After notifying of a 24-hour strike and a week of slow-downs in their efforts to secure a new Enterprise Agreement, BHP came to the table with a package addressing many of drivers’ key concerns including a 20% pay rise and guaranteed bonuses.

WA District Secretary, Greg Busson said that the MEU and BHP reached an in-principle agreement with BHP on Thursday 15 February.

Mr Busson said that the proposed offer was an industry leading agreement and bargaining representatives made the decision to subsequently withdraw planned industrial action which was set to commence from Friday 16 February.

The MEU had notified of a 24-hour stoppage on Friday 16 February and slowdowns of some trains to no greater than 30 kilometres per hour for seven days beginning Saturday, 17 February.

Bargaining representatives said the new agreement addresses key concerns of MEU members which include renumeration, rostering, flight allowance and other key conditions including:

  • Increase to base rate and guaranteed 20% pay rise over four years (not attached to performance appraisal)
  • Guarantees around rosters (no employee will be made to work an overtime roster unless agreed)
  • New Rail Allowance locked into the agreement as an ongoing entitlement
  • 2 x $20,000 retention payments
  • Guarantees around flight assistance.

“Members should be incredibly proud of themselves for setting a new industry standard for workers in the Pilbara.”

Mr Busson said that members have been offered a great deal that reflects the unity and determination members have shown and that BHP Iron Ore train drivers had shown the power of having a strong union presence and high union density.

Secretary of the Pilbara Lodge, Hank Wiltschut said that when he came into a leadership position, the lodge made density a top priority. He said that having strong union density would be a key part of negotiating a strong new agreement.  

“We were able to build our density from around 40% to over 90% in around a twelve-month period.

“Personally, I was talking to every single person I saw and asking them if they were in the union and talking to workers about why they should join.

“We built up momentum from there, and at a certain point I could start to feel it snowballing.

“We also wanted to give our members some union merchandise such as backpacks, caps, campaign shirts and lapel pins and everyone wore them with pride and made the union very visible in the workplace.”

Mr Wiltschut said that having regular meetings for members and regular communications following enterprise bargaining agreements also helped bring people into the fold and when the prospect of industrial action arose, members joined so that they would be able to take part if things reached that stage.

Since the bargaining representatives and BHP reached in-principle agreements he said the response had been overwhelmingly positive.  

“Since we reached the agreement in-principle there’s been nothing but positive feedback and when members have had questions or wanted more information, we’ve been able to provide that to them.

“I’ve also had a heap of members reach out via text or phone at all hours saying that they’re over the moon so we’re very proud of what we have achieved and we’re going to go back into the negotiations next time and build on our achievements.”

Well done to our train drivers who are showing us how it’s done!

MEU bargaining representatives and BHP are working through the revised draft agreement, which will be reviewed by our national legal team before being put out to a vote.

Rio Tinto train drivers in the Pilbara also voted up a new Enterprise Agreement last week, winning 90% support. The MEU is pleased that the current proposed EA provides strong improvements for members including the removal of performance-based pay reviews, guaranteed equitable percentage increases, better processes to resolve workplace issues, and more rights for Delegates.

The gains were made at no expense of other conditions.

Rail organiser Warren Johncock said it was a big week for Pilbara drivers, who were in a good position to continue improving conditions.

“The Rio Tinto agreement is a very good outcome, but we have put the company on notice that we will be looking to improve our position in the next round of bargaining.

“These big mining companies are raking in billions from iron ore and they know they need skilled train drivers to continue operating. There is plenty of competition for skills and Pilbara drivers are becoming more confident to stand together for what they deserve.”

Profit results out last week showed that BHP profits from iron ore skyrocketed 27% to $US9.6 billion in the second half of last year while Rio Tinto made $US20 billion from iron ore in 2023 – both with earnings margins of nearly 70%.

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