Employers urge calm as Abbott looks to High Court

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Employers urge calm as Abbott looks to High Court

Major employer groups have reacted to the damaging disputes that have crippled Australia's automotive industry numerous times over the past year by lobbying for legislative reform, and urging moderation and co-operation.

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Major employer groups have reacted to the damaging disputes that have crippled Australia's automotive industry numerous times over the past year by lobbying for legislative reform, and urging moderation and co-operation.

Coming as federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott steps up his vocal opposition to car industry unions, one of the employers, the Australian Industry Group, yesterday said the last thing it wanted was for the car industry to become 'another waterfront'.

The comments, made by the AiG's chief executive Bob Herbert, come in the wake of disputes over job security at BHP Steel (see 153 and 154/2002) and workers entitlements at exhaust makers Walker Australia (see 113 and 11). In the first case, a lay-off was narrowly avoided after police broke through a picket line to ensure delivery of steel. In the second, almost 13,000 workers were stood down as the auto industry ground to a halt.

And last year another entitlements dispute at Sydney steering parts company Tristar cost the industry between $400 million and $500 million (see 178/2001).

In the first two cases, action against unions in the Federal Court was dropped by employers as part of the settlement. Abbott was vocal in his disagreement with the plan, but Herbert said last night that it was 'not in anyone's interest' to inflame the situation, saying the auto industry's track record 'has not been all that bad - it has been performing reasonably well'.

A full-page advertisement placed in The Australian Financial Review today by automotive manufacturers and component producers re-emphasised Herbert's comments and urged compromise over amendments to the federal Workplace Relations Act.

The ad, headed 'a common sense approach to industrial relations', is addressed to all political parties and copied to the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and has been placed by the Australian Industry Group, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, and the Federation of Automotive Products Manufacturers.

It calls for two amendments:

  • Allowing the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to order a cooling off period by suspending protected industrial action to allow for conciliation or mediation of a dispute.
  • Enabling the AIRC to terminate the right to take industrial action where it is demonstrated that significant damage is likely to be caused to third parties, including employees who may be stood down.

In the ad, the employers say such amendments would be 'a big step towards preventing a repeat of recent crippling industrial disputes in an industry which is fiercely competitive and contributes so much to Australia: $27 billion in sales, $6 billion in exports and employment for 58,000 people'.

It also calls upon trade unions to demonstrate 'a commitment to work within the spirit and intent of the law' so as not to 'irreparably damage' the interests of Australian industry and workers.

Union fees issue

Meanwhile, Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott, who last night denied he was looking for a stoush in the auto industry, confirmed today he is seeking legal advice on appealing to the High Court against the Federal Court's decision green lighting union bargaining fees (see 165/2002).

He said had had been surprised by the full bench's decision as Justice Merkel's original decision, that union fees did not constitute part of the employment relationship and thus action taken on this issue could not be protected, had seemed 'good and strong'.

He said two likely grounds for appeal would be arguments that the decision breached freedom of association provisions in the Workplace Relations Act, and that more than just what he called 'legitimate industrial action', could be acted upon - including taking strike action over company donations to the Labor Party.

 

 
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