Charles Copeman died on June 27. At the annual conference of the H.R. Nicholls Society eleven days later, his role in the 1986 Robe River conflict was remembered by former president Ray Evans. He described Charles as the Daniel confronting a den of the great and good of Australian politics.
Charles was also remembered in the award of this year’s Copeman Medal for service to freedom of employment to Dr Chris Roberts, chief executive officer of Cochlear Limited. In years past, Charles himself was present for the award of the medal. This year, the award was honoured by the presence of Charles’s widow, Alison.
As recalled at the Thanksgiving Service for his life on July 3 at St James’s Church, Sydney, Charles Copeman was a “business leader of lasting impact”, due in part to his reform of work practices at the Robe River iron ore mine. This brief note is to recall the Robe River affair of twenty-seven years ago.
Charles Copeman was a refined and reflective man. After a first-class honours degree in Mining Engineering at the University of Queensland and graduate work at Rio Tinto Zinc, Charles was awarded the 1953 Queensland Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics. In 1956 he graduated Bachelor of Arts (Honours) and later Master of Arts.
From there, his career was international: at RTZ in London, at Blakehurst, Sydney (as a base) and Tehran. It covered both mining and manufacturing (at Peko Wallsend) and education (as a councillor of Australian National University).
Charles was not a “union buster” as he was described after his death. In the Robe River affair he did not target unions but, rather, management acquiescence in union excesses.
Peko Wallsend, of which Charles was managing director, became majority owner of the Robe River iron ore mine in early 1986. By the middle of the year Charles needed to act against ballooning wage costs, operation at just 60 per cent of capacity, and the company’s income falling to a third of what it had been a year earlier.
The management of the Robe River mine, at the time Charles came on the scene, in fact implemented absurd union requirements. When the Robe River power station shut down during a strike at the end of May 1986 and stopped power to the town, a member of staff, who flicked the switch back on—in the absence of the workers, who were on strike—was officially reprimanded by the management and suspended for two days without pay. In her 1995 book, Strategic Choices: A Study of the Interaction of Industrial Relations and Corporate Strategy in the Pilbara Iron Ore Industry, Pam Swain notes, “The management sent a letter of apology to the union.” She adds:
The incident was no different to hundreds over the life of the project, but it appears to have acted as a catalyst for Charles Copeman to decide that the project management philosophy was incompatible with the types of approach required.
Charles acted decisively, not against the union but against the management. At 7.30 a.m. on July 31, 1986, he went to the corporate head office of Robe River in St George’s Terrace, Perth, and fired most of the chief executive team before staff arrived for work. The twenty union representatives at Robe who were “full time convenors with their own offices and telephones” were not sacked but were required to return to their designated jobs. The security boom gate which the union required to be kept open was made operational again to allow departing vehicles to be inspected.
Under Charles, management and workers performed the roles for which they were employed, with the result that Robe River became very successful and, as Charles pointed out in his 1990 paper to the H.R. Nicholls Society, production increased from 12.5 million tonnes in 1986 to some 20 million tonnes a year later, and lost time due to industrial relations or to injuries plummeted.
It was not only the unions that opposed Charles’s salvation of his own company. First there was his board, who forbade him from public speaking engagements, even though the media had a huge role in the Robe River affair. He was opposed by the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, whom he knew personally from their Oxford days, and who claimed the Japanese would not buy Robe iron ore in protest at Charles’s management. In fact the Japanese customers knew Copeman and did not question his judgment. Charles told me some years ago that Hawke shunned him.
The industrial relations club opposed him. For example David Parker, the West Australian Minister for Minerals and Energy, had ex-union convenors appointed as temporary mines safety inspectors, to give them access to mines ostensibly to monitor safety. Chief Industrial Relations Commissioner Collier had Charles personally fined $250 for not attending a compulsory conference in Perth despite his explanation that he had just arrived at the mine and his Executive Director and General Manager Operations would attend. The federal government’s industrial relations committee wrote to shareholders of Peko Wallsend requesting that they apply pressure on the company to change its practices.
Five years later Charles described the Robe River dispute as “quite unpleasant at the time”, but he expressed no bitterness.
Jeremy Barlow, a mining industry consultant, knew Charles for thirty years. He writes:
Charles had strong business ethics. He loved the mining industry and recognised the contribution it makes to the country’s prosperity and indeed to everything we do in life, one way or another. He was fearless, prepared to speak out, had strong values and would speak the truth. He could present an argument very clearly and simply … Let us hope that the next generation of mining leaders will have the values and courage of Charles Copeman.
With business, government and unions opposed to his changes, Charles needed support, not just from the Japanese and from the shareholders. He would have got this support from the continuing workforce at Robe River, who though reduced by 480 from a total of 1680 before the Copeman changes, were now employed by a profitable company rather than one making a loss and which was predicted to close.
He also received support from the H.R. Nicholls Society. Only a year after the Robe River affair, Charles concluded his paper to the society with these words:
In conclusion I should say how much I was inspired by that memorable weekend in Melbourne early in 1986, when this Society had its first meeting … You all played a vital part in giving me the encouragement to initiate what we did at Robe River, and in turn to give encouragement and support to the wonderful team of people who carried it through.
Had Charles Copeman not acted, Robe River would have become an early Ansett Airlines. Uncompetitive Australian businesses should look to Charles Copeman’s example to turn around their fortunes, and thus provide more local employment.
Adam Bisits is the President of the H.R. Nicholls Society.