BRADON ELLEM The Pilbara: From the deserts profits come. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
The Pilbara is an important book for anyone thinking about the world of work and how it might be shaped in Australia.
Bradon Ellem tells us at the outset that his approach will be historical and geographical, that the past does not stay the same, and that the vast area of the Pilbara in north-west Western Australia is physically isolated. Without economics, however, there would be no modern story and this he relates in three phases: union dominance, intense conflict between mining companies and unions, and finally employer dominance through fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, changes to labour laws, and the geography of work.
This is a powerful history of a transformed landscape, which has had wider implications for the conduct of industrial relations in Australia.
It begins in the 1960s with ‘ore bodies which were millions of years in the making’ and will likely end with them ‘being mined out in just one century of capitalist intervention’. Iron-ore mining required massive start-up costs as there were no railway lines, few sealed roads and only one suitable harbour at Port Hedland. State and global finance shaped the area at the beginning but curiously the state then moved aside:
The Australian state opened the way for global giants to profit from the Pilbara’s resources; but, with that done, it walked away from the attempts to use resource exploitation to drive downstream manufacturing development, as even conservative policy makers had wanted to do before World War II.
While unions were powerful in the early years, they faced obstacles. Physical isolation with the mines hundreds of kilometres apart, workers coming from all over the country, and a high labour turnover meant that unity was difficult. There were grievances galore over heat, flies, long working hours, deafening machinery and the lack of air-conditioning as well as work fragmentation (quarrying, crushing, transporting, treating, storing, loading) which led to demarcation disputes and a large number of awards. Collectivism took precedence over unionism, as did men over women, although the arrival of women in the towns and their employment as teachers, health workers and in administrative jobs softened the previous macho ethos of hard living and hard drinking.
Through most of the 1970s the working operation of the Pilbara becomes what Ellem terms ‘contested terrain’, a shift in power from worker to manager, the noteworthy role of convenors – full-time union officials whose wages are paid by the company, and disputes which are not confined to work sites but spill over to the towns. The companies attempt new ways of regulating wages and conditions but face worker opposition based on the argument that the Pilbara is a special place. Hamersley’s managers attempt to bring the unions under control in 1979 produces a 10-week strike and nationwide union support, but the end result is state intervention by Charles Court’s Liberal government in favour of the transnational company, which underlines union weakness.
The 1980s and 1990s see the mining companies build on this gain: first Peko Wallsend at Robe River, then Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia (CRA) at Hamersley, and finally BHP. Peko’s strategy of restoring managerial authority begins in 1986 and the statement attributed to the company’s industrial relations manager Herb Larratt that ‘every worker should go to work each day expecting to be sacked’ was a loathsome expression of a changing industrial world. CRA’s rethinking of its relations with its workforce in the early 1990s followed Peko’s success and its process of de-unionisation led to new ways of working with 12-hour shifts, longer overall working hours, and employees signing individual worker contracts by the end of the decade. BHP’s offer of individual contracts to its workers in 1999 would mark a testing ground for the unions that, although they had success retaining members, found it difficult to attract new members.
The testing ground also had a moral component as voiced both by the union newsletter, Rock Solid and in the words of founding convenor of Action in Support of Partners, Colleen Palmer:
We were all a long way from home and living in a very remote and isolated environment that wasn’t exactly conducive to family living. We all had concerns about our future in the Pilbara and worried about our children’s future and the future of working conditions we were to pass down to them.
Unfortunately, as Ellem observes, multinational companies have other concerns:
The towns had long been trouble for the companies … If towns could be done away with, so much the better. Not one new town has been built after the 1970s despite the massive growth in the industry.
In the 21st century the companies have remade the landscape as ‘a site of production’ in a globalised network, one where, as one Rio Tinto executive explained, mining would be simpler without human beings. The rise of the Pilbara Mineworkers’ Union at Hamersley was a new type of union cooperation, seeking a collective agreement but broken by the Australian Workers Union deal with Rio. In the boom years, while 60 per cent of Australia’s export income came from mining, the sector employed only two per cent of the workforce and raised concerns about the ‘indifference of policy-makers to the question of what would happen post-mining’:
The mining boom generated not only billions of dollars in cash flow but a debate about the distribution of its benefits and the nature of its legacy. The Labor government elected in 2007 picked up on this and planned to tax what it and others referred to as the ‘super profits’ of the corporations and then set up a sovereign wealth fund. Chief among the models they had in mind was Norway, where such a fund, based on revenue from offshore petroleum, had driven massive infrastructure developments beyond the norm for so small a country.
The political influence of the mining companies, backed by an expensive media campaign, took its toll on prime minister Kevin Rudd ‘such that his colleagues replaced him and “his” tax’. At the end of the boom it might well be suggested that Australians have not benefitted much, nor have Western Australians sufficiently, nor the region under discussion:
The boom put the Pilbara, the FIFO worker and the mind-bending figures around the industry at the centre of national media attention and public conversation. On the fringes, both literally and metaphorically, lay the descendants of the first inhabitants of the Pilbara from whose lands the profits flowed. It was impossible to reconcile mining’s investment levels and profits with the conditions of these people. On the outskirts of towns generating the highest profits ever recorded in Australian mining lay the abject poverty. It was ten minutes’ walk, not a ten-hour flight, to the Third World.
In many ways this is a depressing story because the bad guys seem to have won. At the same time it is an important book for anyone thinking about the world of work and how it might be shaped in this country’s future.
The Pilbara makes strong play in its subtitle on the AD Hope line ‘From the deserts prophets come’ but perhaps even more aptly it reinforces Donald Horne’s original ironic meaning of ‘Lucky Country’. Once again Australia has sold itself short.
Bradon Ellem The Pilbara: From the deserts the profits come University of Western Australia Press 2017 PB 256pp $39.99
Bernard Whimpress is a historian whose most recent book is Adelaide Oval: A Photo-Document 2009.
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To listen to Bradon Ellem being interviewed by Phillip Adams click here.