The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says the Labor Government’s Fair Work Act faces a key litmus test after the industrial umpire granted a transport union the right to hold a secret ballot to approve industrial action, despite the company involved claiming bargaining between the union and the employer had not even begun.
The case, involving waste management company JJ Richards and the Transport Workers Union, saw Fair Work Australia Commissioner Greg Harrison approve the unions application to hold a protected secret ballot, which is the first step in the process of taking protected industrial action.
But while Harrison agreed with JJ Richards claim that bargaining between the two parties had not commenced (mainly because JJ Richards rejected the union’s request to start bargaining back in March) he ruled the union had been trying to reach an agreement with the company, and therefore the ballot application should be approved.
But ACCI’s director of workplace policy, David Gregory, says the fact that two sides were not involved in actual cooperative bargaining, and the union had not even submitted its log of claims to the company, should mean there are no grounds to approve industrial action.
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“We should not accept a situation where a union can make an initial contact with an employer and then nine months later, with no further dealings with the business, move to initiate industrial action. That is not a cooperative and collaborative system at work,” he says.
“Something is wrong with the Fair Work laws if a union that has not actually made its claims known to an employer can take industrial action – especially when the tribunal has found that bargaining between the parties has not commenced.”
“This case is an important litmus test as to whether the Fair Work laws make it too easy for unions to go on strike.”
IR expert Peter Vitale says there is a growing sense within the IR community that the tactic of applying for secret ballots under the Fair Work Act is becoming increasingly common among unions, although he says this appears to be more a strategic move rather than part of an aggressive push towards more strike action.
More than 270 secret ballots to approve industrial action have been held since July 1.