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Queensland: striker at Comalco, Weipa, discusses his reasons for opposing employment contracts

ELLEN FANNING: We begin this morning with the worker the ACTU is hailing as a hero. Ritchie Armat is one of more than 70 employees at CRA's Weipa bauxite plant who have been on strike for a month over individual staff contracts. The company is paying workers who sign those contracts more than their colleagues who are paid under the award and it's an offer which has won over about 80 per cent of the workforce. But the ACTU views the contracts as a direct attack on the union movement and is threatening the biggest industrial campaign in the country's history in retaliation. That will begin tonight when thousands of coal miners, who also work for CRA, walk off the job.

Julie Pazetti phoned Weipa last night and spoke to Mr Armat. She began by asking him how he felt about the ACTU's description of striking workers as heroes.

RITCHIE ARMAT: I don't know if that's the way the ACTU wants to put it but, I think, we are just a very normal bunch of people who believe in collective bargaining and believe in their unionism. It is very frustrating, you know, they get new workers in and we have practically got to train the new workers up to a level as high as us, yet they are getting more money. We don't get any money for training them.

JULIE PAZETTI: Tell me, why did you decide not to sign on that dotted line?

RITCHIE ARMAT: Well, I've been here for 23 years in Weipa. I've always been a unionist; I'll always be a unionist; and I just don't trust Comalco. Well, I don't trust CRA. Just have a look at what happened in Bougainville. I don't think anybody signed Comalco's package because they love the company. I think they signed because of the extra money which they weren't getting in the few years before they offered their individual contracts.

JULIE PAZETTI: What's the feeling like between people like you and men who've actually signed the CRA document?

RITCHIE ARMAT: Well, a lot of them are on our side but, you know, you can't get them to speak out openly, which you can't blame them, but a lot of them are on our side.

JULIE PAZETTI: Have any of them been helping you financially?

RITCHIE ARMAT: Yes. We've got a lot of support from them. We even got support from Comalco's own superintendents and supervisors - donations - no names mentioned, but we've been getting support.

JULIE PAZETTI: How do you feel now that the ACTU has become involved? You feel like your campaign's been strengthened?


JULIE PAZETTI: And what was it like before - was there a sense of isolation up there?

RITCHIE ARMAT: Yes. There was a sense of isolation. Like two years we have been fighting this battle and nothing's been happening, now all of a sudden we've got the backing of the ACTU. I think everybody is sitting up and looking at this now.

JULIE PAZETTI: Well, according to the ACTU this is going to be the dispute to end all disputes. They are saying it's going to be the biggest dispute Australia has ever seen, in fact. How do you feel about that?

RITCHIE ARMAT: I think what they are saying is true. I really do.

JULIE PAZETTI: What message have you got for people that are being approached to sign agreements that give them extra pay for rescinding their membership to a union?

RITCHIE ARMAT: Well, I think - just think of your kids of the future - would you like them to go and work where they have got no say when they sign up for a job? I think that's what we are all fighting for - kids of the future.

JULIE PAZETTI: What do you tell your children about this dispute?

RITCHIE ARMAT: Well, they are backing me all the way, my kids. I am just telling them: 'Remember Eureka Stockade'.

JULIE PAZETTI: A lot of people say that these sort of agreements are an inevitability in workplaces in the 1990s and that eventually everybody will be signed up. What do you say to that?

RITCHIE ARMAT: Well, I think, if we put a stop to it now I don't think everybody will be signed up. If people believe in the ACTU and they know that they will get the backing from the ACTU I don't think people will sign.

JULIE PAZETTI: How do you feel about the fact that across the country there are plans for industrial action in support of you and your fellow workers?

RITCHIE ARMAT: I really think it's terrific because we know now we are getting the support that we never had. People are starting to think about the union movement.

ELLEN FANNING: Ritchie Armat, one of the striking workers at Weipa.