As the government’s criminal case against Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) officials John Setka and Shaun Reardon ended in embarrassing collapse, unions called for the repeal of draconian secondary boycott laws.
Sympathy strikes are one of the most common forms of secondary boycott. They involve a union taking industrial action to force a company to cease trading with another company until the targeted company agrees to industrial demands. The law against secondary boycotts thus interferes with the right of workers to campaign collectively.
The CFMEU has been fined $10 million over boycotts and blockades it organised against concrete company Boral during the union's high-profile dispute with Grocon.
Setka said the law against secondary boycotts “means if a union or members are being oppressed you can't step in to help them out. I think it is a very bad law. It was brought in by ultra conservative governments and should be repealed."
The International Labor Organisation has warned Australia that the ban on secondary boycotts goes beyond a “permissible prohibition” and interferes with the right to strike. It said: “Under international law (International Labour Organisation Convention no.87), sympathy strikes are permitted, provided the original strike is lawful.”
On May 18, the ACTU said: “Australian law is out of step with global standards in our bans and restrictions on industrial action, including so-called ‘secondary’ action. The International Labour Organisation has called on the government to review these laws but they have not."
Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) national president Andrew Dettmer said secondary boycott laws could even prevent unions from negotiating across multiple sites. "It really militates against us bargaining across industry which is how other advanced capitalist nations, such as Germany, bargain," he said.
AMWU state secretary Steve Murphy said: "Employers are allowed to organise and build power across an industry or a supply chain, but workers are constrained from responding by secondary boycott laws.
"What we are seeing is the emergence of a new generation of union leaders across the country, who are more explicit about having laws reflect the natural right of workers to organise and to build power. In a way we are going back to basics: and the right to strike is part of that."
Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon said secondary boycott laws need to be changed to deal with companies that unilaterally outsource work.
"It's clear when employers can economically damage their own employees by outsourcing their jobs without notice, then employees should have a right to take action and that means secondary boycott laws need to change to allow that happen."