Rudd’s new work laws, like Howard’s, are designed to criminalise effective strike action—and intimidate workers out of using it.
In January up to 1600 workers defied court orders and calls by the Rudd government to end strike action at Woodside Petroleum’s Pluto gas site in Western Australia.
Their action only halted after eight days on strike when the company finally agreed to meet union representatives for talks.
Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard called the strike “completely unacceptable”, declaring, “This industrial action that’s been taken now is not lawful…They need to sit down, have a think and get back to work.”
Rudd’s new “Fair Work” laws continue to criminalise any strike action that occurs outside official bargaining periods held over agreements on pay and conditions.
Defying legal intimidation
Under Rudd’s workplace laws individual Pluto workers have been threatened with individual $22,000 fines for their “illegal” strike action.
A Federal Court injunction againt the strike threatened further fines against them of up to $500,000 a day—the amount their employers claim they are losing. Legal documents delivered to workers claim they could even face imprisonment if they resume their strike.
The threat of fines meant the unions on site refused to officially back strike action—and shamefully one union, the CEPU, even publicly denounced it.
The anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) has also weighed in with an attempt to intimidate the workers. ABCC Commissioner John Lloyd warned “The workers are potentially exposing themselves to substantial penalties. The ABCC will do all in its power to ensure that workplace laws are enforced.”
But their eight day strike shows that unions can successfully defy Rudd’s anti-strike laws—and that this is often necessary to stop managements treating workers with contempt.
Action at Australia Post
Even when workers are able to take “protected” legal industrial action during enterprise bargaining, Rudd’s laws impose a legal straightjacket designed to impede effective strike action.
The new “Fair Work Australia” court has continually frustrated union efforts to organise effective industrial action at Australia Post.
Before taking any action unions have to organise a secret ballot of members to approve the action—and employers often play legal games to delay this process for months on end.
The union at Australia Post began organising to take industrial action back in August—but was not able to begin action until December!
Back in September Fair Work Australia made a bizarre ruling stopping a ballot on industrial action, finding the union had “not genuinely been trying to reach agreement” with Australia Post—simply because the union had said in an internal publication that negotiation with management were unlikely to deliver anything.
After the union’s 24-hour strike in December it ordered a halt to follow-up strike action for three days. It found that the notice of strike action the union gave to Australia Post was not specific enough because it did not specify which workplaces would be affected by strike action.
Australia Post management must be delighted with the extra time and information “Fair Work Australia” has given them to organise scabbing operations, and attempt to make the strikes ineffective. Rudd’s industrial laws are designed to make effective industrial action almost impossible.
Defying future orders to stop strike action will be necessary to win a fair agreement—both at Australia Post and elsewhere.
By James Supple