Union flags cooperation with Bluescope Steel to prevent closure of Port Kembla plant

2 September 2015

The Australian Workers Union (AWU) has said it is willing to work with Bluescope Steel to prevent the closure of the local plant at Port Kembla.

More than 500 steelworkers are at mass union meeting in Wollongong, south of Sydney, to discuss the future for employees.

Australia's biggest steel factory at Port Kembla is in trouble, and the company last week announced a profit but a bleak long-term outlook.

It flagged its intention to shed 500 jobs, which would make the equivalent of $200 million in savings, or to mothball steel making at Port Kembla.

AWU branch secretary Wayne Phillips told workers there was a way forward in the form of intense mediation with Bluescope.

"What else can we do or how can we do it differently to save as many roles as possible... but at the same time deliver the savings – pretty bloody close to it or more – that he's looking for?" he said.

"We'll spend the next few days trying to develop what we see is the way forward... which is part of this mediation. We'll sit down and try and resolve the issue between the parties."

Mr Phillips said if the parties could not reach an agreement the issue would be handled by AWU National Secretary Scott McDine and Bluescope Chief Executive Mark Vassella.

"If they can't resolve it will go to Iain Ross, the boss of the Fair Work Commission. And if he can't resolve it, then we're in the shit," he said.

Mr Phillips said members did not like the prospect of job losses.

"Members don't like it. We don't like it, but reality says that we have to save our industry," he said.

"We know there's going to be less of us by the end of this process and we know that management is going to take a hit as well.

"To lose a number of jobs now is better than closing the whole plant, which will devastate this region."

Steelworker Joe da Silva said employees have a range of views on their prospective futures.

"We've got a lot of older employees that really don't mind leaving if they have to. But then you've got young employees and people with big mortgages," he said.

"So, their views are different and we sort of try and cater for all those views, and there's a lot of emotions."

AWU says recent talks were 'positive'

While the initial union reaction emphasised the company's preferential treatment for shareholders, the AWU is now saying recent talks were "positive".

Ahead of the meeting AWU National Secretary Scott McDine said his members would approach mediation with a cooperative spirit.

"What we have here is Bluescope and the union needing to work together through a conciliation process in the interests of workers in the Illawarra region, and those interests for the most part are actually aligned," he said.

A statement from BlueScope Steel said "constructive discussions" were underway with unions.

NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley said the Government should be doing all it could to prevent the steelworks closing.

"We've put a range of options on the table including relief from state government taxes and charges for the company, at least in the short term," Mr Foley said.

"And of course the question of minimum Australian content in major government projects is something that the Government ought to be considering."

The steelworks in New South Wales may get financial support from the Federal Government.

Earlier this month, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane flagged that the Commonwealth was prepared to intervene, given the impact the job losses would have on the Illawarra region.