BHP-Billiton Recognizes Diamond Workers

Submitted by Alternatives North.

What is BHP-Billiton so afraid of? That’s the question Mining Watch’s Joan Kuyek asked recently in Yellowknife, NWT, while speaking about the strike at the Australian mining giant’s Ekati diamond mine, 300 kilometres north of the city.

The strike at Canada’s first diamond mine began on April 7th, 2006. It ended on June 30 when the first union contract at a Canadian diamond mine was ratified, bringing significant improvements for workers. Ekati workers voted 66% in favour of the one-year contract that contains a full grievance procedure to protect workers from arbitrary and unfair treatment, wage increases, a signing benefit, more vacation days and other improvements.

Diamond workers, represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada, had rejected an initial company offer in a strike vote in March. The strike has been characterized by company efforts to undermine the union, made easier by the fact that some striking workers have returned to work. The strikers are trying to obtain a first collective agreement. Outstanding issues included pay equity, seniority, job security and vacation entitlements. The company’s earlier contract offer demanded that the union provide amnesty to strike breakers but offered no such protection for strikers. Kuyek wondered out loud why a company with 2005 profits of $7.5 billion is afraid of having a union at the mine.

Kuyek described communities’ experience with BHP-Billiton in Papua New Guinea, Colombia, the United States and other countries. Her examples showed environmental degradation and poor working conditions, but also some positive experiences where communities, indigenous peoples and workers stood united, and engaged in tough negotiations.

“No company is better or worse than others. The behaviour of any company depends on the local pressure brought to bear,” says Kuyek. This prompted a discussion about the difficulty during this strike of consolidating worker support in Yellowknife and surrounding aboriginal communities, where many of the striking workers live.

The ghost of the 1992 Giant Mine strike still hovers in Yellowknife. A striking miner is serving a life sentence for murdering nine replacement workers in an underground blast during one of the ugliest incidents in Canadian labour history. Many of the striking workers at BHP live in southern Canada, posing yet another challenge to community support. As well, the union faces community perceptions that BHP workers are already well-paid, and the labour movement has a historically uneasy relationship with NWT First Nations and Métis.

Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, was also in Yellowknife recently to offer the support of 3.2 million unionized Canadian workers. The Public Service Alliance of Canada had asked consumers not to buy Ekati diamonds being produced by strikebreakers under the Aurias and CanadaMark trademarks.