Tensions in Australia's coal sector are threatening to flare again, with Swiss company Glencore Xstrata on a collision course with unions over a plan to change the workplace deal at its Collinsville mine in Queensland.
The plan stems from Glencore's decision to dump Thiess as the mining contractor at Collinsville, and continuing efforts to return the mine to profitability for the first time in more than a year.
The decision to axe Thiess and bring mining operations in-house takes effect on September 1, and Glencore is seeking to use the changeover to reset the existing workplace arrangements for staff.
It has written to mine workers, saying that "flexible workplace agreements without restrictive work practices" were "critical to the mine's future viability".
The company said it believed it could continue to employ people who were "committed to our future vision for the mine".
"We have no set preference for any specific type of labour agreement but any agreement must be modern, flexible and without restrictions," the company told workers in a letter.
The message drew a stern rebuke from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, which warned Glencore not to make veiled threats to the workers.
CFMEU Queensland district president Stephen Smyth said Glencore would need to renegotiate the workplace deal "in the usual way" by talking to workers, if it wanted to changes.
"The industrial regulation at the mine will not be a matter of your preference. It is a matter of law and the law provides that the current agreement will apply," he said.
The marginal nature of the coal industry is exacerbating an industrial relations atmosphere that was tense long before the industry came under financial pressure. BHP and Mitsubishi had strikes over the past few years at their joint-venture coalmines in Queensland, and unions remain far more involved in east coast coalmines than the iron ore mines of WA.
A Glencore official told a Senate inquiry in April that more than 30 per cent of Australian coalmines were unprofitable in the current economic conditions, although falls in the dollar since would have eased some of the pain.