Strike action threatens Christmas trading as calls grow for review of workplace laws

Fears are growing that industrial unrest in the transport sector could have an impact on Christmas trading, with a transport union push for better pay and conditions expected to lead to strike action.

Transport giants such as Linfox, Toll, Asciano and TNT are currently involved in enterprise bargaining with the Transport Workers Union. In some cases – such as that of TNT – the union has already taken a ballot of workers to approve protected industrial action.

Bargaining rounds are also occurring across the manufacturing, nursing and construction sectors.

Packaging giant Visy Industries has already been hit with industrial action across eight sites over a pay deal.

IR expert Peter Vitale says threats of industrial action around Christmas time are not unusual, and says the apparent rise in strike threats could be more seasonal than anything.

“You can go back to the newspaper headlines in the 1970s – the biggest worry everybody had was that there was going to be beer for Christmas,” Vitale says.

However, he does agree that there has been a rise in the strategic use of secret ballots that allow the unions to gain approval for protected strike action.

Some employer groups have become concerned unions are able to hold the ballots without engaging in meaningful bargaining, and then use the threat of strike action as leverage.

Vitale says use of secret ballots does appear to be a tactic being employed by the unions, but says it appears to be more of a strategic move rather than aggressive push for more strikes.

“I’ve seen quite a few threats for ballots, but they do seem to get resolved.”

The concerns about increasing strike action comes as calls increase for a review of the Labor Government’s Fair Work workplace regime from employer groups and Coalition politicians.

The Australian Retailers Association and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry have called for an “informed debate” on the Fair Work regime and say the Government should not allow the debate to descend into an attack on the Coalition’s WorkChoices regime.

While ARA chief executive Russell Zimmerman concedes employers and unions will always push for changes to workplace laws, but says does need to be an informed examination of the FairWork laws.

“We call on the Government to ensure a focus back on the mandate it claimed when the Fair Work Act was introduced. At that time, the Government indicated the laws should be ‘fair for working Australians’ as well as ‘enable cooperation and collaboration in individual workplaces to be the means to deliver productivity, growth and sustainable Australian businesses’,” Zimmerman says.

“Employers can see that the laws are fair for employees but it is equally important to place emphasis upon productivity, growth and business sustainability.”

The Coalition appears to be heeding the calls, with Liberal Senator Christopher Back set to oversee a Coalition review of workplace relations policy next year.

Peter Vitale says that while Opposition leader Tony Abbott continues to declare WorkChoices is “dead, buried and cremated” the policy review could allow the Opposition to step up its attack on the Fair Work Act.

“It may be the stalking horse they use to justify some policy changes. That would be the most sensible way to get themselves out of the corner they have painted themselves into,” he says.

“They are in Opposition, they need to distinguish themselves.”

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