Union hails landmark talks

The Australian Workers Union is hailing a return to collective bargaining at a Tasmanian smelter after nearly 20 years.

Mining giant Rio Tinto has agreed to resume negotiations after the industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia, agreed that most of the Bell Bay workers wanted to collectively bargain for pay and conditions.

Over the past 20 years, Rio Tinto has negotiated directly with the workers, with no union involvement.

The union says collective bargaining is back and it could have national implications.

AWU national secretary, Paul Howes says while discussions on a new collective agreement will start within weeks, there are much wider implications for the labour movement.

"Back in 1994, it was the launching pad of Rio Tinto's aggressive anti-union attacks in the early 1990s," he said.

"It's taken our union 19 years, but in particular, we've been running a campaign at that site for the last two years to get back in there and what it demonstrates is to bust the myth that once a company is de-unionised, that a union can't get back in there, and that's why it's so significant," he said.

"We've made it very clear that Rio is a company that we are targeting.

"We believe that there is a mood for change amongst their workforce." Wage push Mr Howes will not rule out a push for big wage increases at the smelter, but says wages parity is unrealistic in the short term..

"The aluminium sector is in tough times at the moment and we'll take that into consideration, but obviously this will be a decision for the membership of Bell Bay," he said.

"But there's no reason why in the long term these workers shouldn't be paid the same as their mainland counterparts." "After all, Bell Bay is a unique smelter in Australia by the fact that it's running on essentially clean power through a form of hydro-electricity.

"That means there will be trade advantage through carbon pricing in the long term, it's also got higher productivity levels." Rio Tinto's Pacific Aluminium subsidiary says it supports a return to collective bargaining, if it is backed by most of the workforce.

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