Patricia Todd, University of Western Australia
In Hard Ground: Unions in the Pilbara, Bradon Ellem provides a very readable narrative which, while being set in the mining industry in the Pilbara, deals with the fundamental issues facing unions today: can collectivism be re-ignited in workplaces where companies have imposed individualist bargaining structures and cultures? How should unions go about organizing such workers?
The book focuses on two particular struggles: BHP’s drive from 1999 to decollectivise bargaining arrangements in their Pilbara operations and, secondly, Rio Tinto’s attempt in 2002 to transfer their Pilbara employees to non-union collective agreements when the changes in the WA state legislation required them to find a new regulatory mechanism to replace the former WA-based individual agreements. Hard Ground is an important historical record, visually and in writing, of this period of industrial relations in the Pilbara. The book is written for a wide audience and presents the local human side of the IR practices of large mining companies such as these, aiming to maximize their economic position globally.
Following a brief introduction, Ellem outlines the contextual history relevant to the two disputes, including the development of the mining industry and union activity in the Pilbara. Whilst noting that on the eve of the struggle unions faced enormous difficulties with the mining companies’ drive to de-unionise, the broader political and legislative environment and overall low levels of union density, Ellem highlights the “rich tradition of local activism, community politics and Pilbara independence”.
The story of BHP’s drive to de-unionise their Pilbara sites is related in chapter 3. The focus is on the response by the workers and unions to the company’s offer of individual contracts. Ellem highlights two critical factors which contributed to the revival of the unions at this point: the burying of past inter-union divisions enabling a combined approach and, secondly, the local focus.
Chapter 4 details union renewal in response to the Rio Tinto workers’ rejection of the company’s proposed LK agreement. Union officials quickly found that the Hamersley Iron workers who had voted against the proposed non-union collective agreement also rejected the former style of unionism that had predominated in the Pilbara. They wanted a single united union that would develop from the grassroots and focus on local issues. This resulted in the formation of the Pilbara Mineworkers’ Union which subsequently lodged a claim for a state-based award.
Chapter 6 considers events subsequent to the development of strengthened worker collectivity in response to both companies’ anti-union strategies. BHP, like Rio Tinto previously, had to find something to replace the outgoing WA individual agreements. They too moved to the federal arena and offered AWAs. The workers built upon their unity, forming the BHP Pilbara Mineworkers Union and lodged a claim for a state-based award. On the other hand, the newly developed unity amongst unions at Hamersley Iron was ambushed by the national officials of the AWU who secretly negotiated a federal award with Rio Tinto “the very thing the local workers and state unions least wanted”.
Ellem uses this narrative, which at times seems very complex due to the interplay of the frequently changing federal and state industrial laws, to convey some straightforward messages to union officials: that there are opportunities for unions to organize within hostile environments but it must be on the workers’ terms and grounded in local issues. The need for a human rather than organizational focus, as presented by the book, is as applicable to unions as it is to the corporations. One aspect that I found particularly thought-provoking was that the unions’ past history (real and/or fabled) can be as much a liability as an asset when it comes to organizing workers today. The Hamersley Iron workers had to be convinced that the new union collective was not going to be like what they regarded as the former style of unionism.
A number of other themes are developed within the broader union renewal discussion. Ellem found plenty of material in the Pilbara to illustrate his passion for ‘location’ and ‘space’ in understanding IR. He explores how the Pilbara is claimed by those who live there, the contradiction between the companies owners and managers, who view it purely as a mining region, and the people living within the Pilbara who value the communities first and foremost. The interplay of work and community is intertwined throughout the narrative. The new union collectives included community issues in their brief and consequently were able to develop connections with community groups. Within this context, Ellem refers on several occasions to the development of Fly-in-Fly-out (FIFO) workforces, highlighting the conflicting interests of the community and the company in relation to FIFO. He points to the IR implications of FIFO, perpetuating a more divided workforce, a topic neglected in the FIFO literature and worthy of greater analysis at some other point.
Ellem also raises the global vs local debate that persists in contemporary IR, concluding that it is not a question of either/or but more a matter of understanding the interplay between the two. Both the unions and the companies have to rely on global and local strategies.
Finally, the impact of the regulatory environment is most apparent throughout the book. The legislative provision for individual agreements, and its subsequent withdrawal in the WA state sector, provided openings initially for the companies and later for the unions to pursue their particular agendas.
One could not conclude this review without commenting on the nature of this book. Bradon Ellem, as an academic, has published his research on union renewal in the Pilbara in several academic journals. This story is far too important to be confined to the academic community and Ellem must be congratulated for communicating his findings more broadly via this publication. Whilst it might be the academic journal articles that score points with an academic’s employer, it is work such as Hard Ground that ensures the relevance of academic research to the wider community.