Reith moving to outlaw industrial action

July 21, 1999

By Vannessa Hearman

MELBOURNE — Industrial lawyer Adam Bandt from Slater & Gordon was interviewed by Jorge Jorquera on community radio 3CR on July 16 about the impact of the federal government's proposed "second wave" industrial relations legislation on workers' rights.

According to Bandt, the biggest changes will be to the laws governing industrial action. "Industrial action has always been against the law. Those taking part can be sued and the courts can issue orders stopping it ... The laws of conspiracy and of interfering with contractual relations have been used against industrial action.

"In the 1980s, the Labor government introduced the notion of protected action, where taking industrial action was lawful in certain situations."

Bandt explained that this was, however, a very limited reform. Employers were able to "go straight to the courts" in instances where industrial action did not fall within the confines of "protected action". [Industrial relations minister Peter] Reith's changes would mean a further restriction of this "protected action", he said.

"The secret ballot provision is one way of doing this. Before engaging in any action, for it to be considered 'protected action', you need to get the agreement of a majority of your members through a secret ballot held by the Australian Electoral Commission. This process could take up to three months to organise, prior to ballots being sent out to members.

"Employers can appeal throughout this process, so in effect the government has outlawed unions taking any timely industrial action."

Bandt pointed out that the proposed "second wave" changes are very similar to those in Western Australia, which sparked large protests. "The intent is the same, to destroy the power of organised labour."

Asked about possible opposition to the bill in Parliament, Bandt said, "The federal ALP said they would oppose the bill outright. But note here that a lot of what we are seeing in terms of industrial laws can be traced back to the changes to legislation that the ALP were responsible for implementing, such as the notion of protected action."

Bandt said that workers' action, at times unlawful, is needed for any changes in the legal system. "The law reflects certain interests and, at times, organised labour has been able to get certain gains by putting pressure on the system. If workers and organised labour had always complied with the law, children would still be working in coalmines and we'd be working a 10-hour day."

Bandt said that the maritime union dispute was a good example of how these laws could be turned successfully against employers: "Laws governing conspiracy, most often are used against unions, were used against Patrick Stevedores in this case."

Bandt said the legislation will be tabled in parliament later this year, "then it will depend on the strength of opposition from unions and the community".

Adam Bandt will be speaking at Green Left Weekly's Politics in the Pub on July 28 (see page 18 for details).

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