- The Pilbara: From the Deserts Profits Come by Bradon Ellem
Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2017
250 pp., $39.99 (paper)
In this timely book, industrial relations historian Bradon Ellem outlines the process of de-unionization and the accompanying decline in working conditions in the iron-ore mining industry of Western Australia. Covering the period from the 1960s up to the present, The Pilbara charts the negotiations between the mining unions and the three big mining companies: BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, and Fortescue Metals Group (FMG). Ellem demonstrates that the fragmented mining unions had little hope of preventing the process of de-unionization, a turn of events made more poignant by the industry's past fame for its militant and powerful union movement.
The book opens with a map of the region. Ellem reminds the reader of Australia's proximity to Asia and the importance of first Japanese and then Chinese markets for Australian iron ore. Apart from brief mentions, there is no sustained global comparison in the book, even though the themes of mining and declining unionism might make such comparisons useful. Instead, The Pilbara places more emphasis on the local, in particular on the unique geography of the region. Located on the Indian Ocean, this hot, arid coastal area remains remote, maintaining a population of fewer than fifty thousand people. Despite this, it produces enough iron ore to generate up to one quarter of Australia's export income.
As Ellem argues, the extraordinary profits from mining have done little to develop the region. Today, with the mining boom over, the town of Karratha struggles with unemployment, mortgage forfeiting, and insufficient funding for social services. Following Erik Eklund's BHP history, Steel Town: The Making and Breaking of Port Kembla (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002), Ellem is critical of the way in which companies sought profits at the expense of local communities.
For Australian labor historians, the 1904 Conciliation and Arbitration Act marks the beginning of modern Australian industrial relations. The Award system, which laid out wages and conditions for particular industries, as well the introduction of compulsory arbitration in 1906 formalized the role of the unions in negotiating employeremployee relations. In this book, however, this system is revealed as flawed. The first mining Award was made only in 1967. Under the Award, distinctions were made between several categories of work: drilling, blasting, quarrying, crushing, and loading trains. As Ellem argues, these distinctions then led to "bitter disputes" among the unions as to who "had the right to cover which types of work" (35), which over time weakened the union movement. The decades after 1967 were filled with disputes, the most famous being the 1979 Hamersley strike during which a committed workforce supported strike action for a full ten weeks. By the mid-1980s a slower Japanese market led the Robe River and Hamersley iron mines to implement workplace changes. The employers' association, the Australian Mines and Metals Association, was pushing for nonunion, individual agreements [End Page 174] in an attempt to remove the unions. Starting in 1986 the Robe River company began changes that led to a dispute that would last for six years.
Today, mining unionism is all but finished. Ellem notes that "barely 5 per cent of the Pilbara's mining workforce now belongs to a union" (8). These kinds of dire statistics bring a distinctly somber tone to the book, which sets it apart from most earlier labor histories that tended to celebrate the successes won by the fighting spirit of the Australian labor movement. In the United States, a book like Joshua B. Freeman's In Transit (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), which covered the period up to 1966, could still be framed as a study of victorious unionism. Ellem's more subdued reflection on labor history seems appropriate given the current state of industrial relations. Other historians of the post-1986, post-arbitration era, such as Bradley Bowden, have similarly recognized that this period introduced a new paradigm of industrial relations in Australia. Much like Andrew Kolin's 2016 study of labor repression in the United States, The Pilbara brings...