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Industrial Relations Minister welcomes the Freeport-McMoRan company's decision to employ only non-union labour; Maritime Union of Australia warns of a long protest to regain the positions of its members

PETER CAVE: Federal Industrial Relations Minister, Peter Reith, says he wishes the company luck and he's warned the Maritime Union to get out of the way and let the company get on with business. But as Matt Peacock reports, the union is unlikely to let the challenge to its power go unchecked.

MATT PEACOCK: Mr Reith's been quick to hail the Cairns initiative as a fine example of his workplace legislation at work.

PETER REITH: We offer them the support of the Federal law which allows people to make choices about what's the best way and most efficient way of managing their work force. In this particular case they've had apparently seven to nine employees through the local stevedoring company doing the work. They've been able to efficiently manage that work now with only two.

MATT PEACOCK: Now, this also breaks the MUA's control over the pool of labour, does it not?

PETER REITH: Well, in that particular instance it may, but, I mean, that should....

MATT PEACOCK: Well, it does, though, doesn't it, because the MUA's had nothing to do with this and has been told by the company that there's no role for them there?

PETER REITH: Well, that's entirely a choice for the employees themselves as to whether or not they want to be a member of the union. If they choose not to, well, that's fine; that's a matter for them.

MATT PEACOCK: But what's this....

PETER REITH: ...the law and the law provides them with fuller protection in the choice that they make.

MATT PEACOCK: And what's the significance of this if the company continues to do this -is there any reason why companies around the rest of Australia can't do the same?

PETER REITH: Well, there's no reason why other companies around Australia can't do this today, whether or not it happens in Cairns. It's entirely a matter for the individual employer and employee.

MATT PEACOCK: The union knows this too, but it also knows that lurking in the wings of what it sees as a Canberra-inspired plot, are the draconian legal penalties it could face with any kind of industrial action. So, no national strike - an automatic response of days gone by - it's keeping its cool, a long patient game aimed overseas at the company's owners by a clearly angry National Secretary, John Coombs.

JOHN COOMBS: Why don't they have a crack in Sydney or Melbourne and see how they'd go getting a non-union operation up on the wharves in Sydney and Melbourne? They know they'd never succeed and so I don't consider it to be a threat. And my only concern is the fact that decent young Australians who work in Cairns have their jobs put now in jeopardy. I would suggest to you that they'll be terminated by a rogue company such as Freeport that doesn't have one single interest in this country other than to source its goods to take to its Freeport mine, which is absolutely racked with human rights abuses and was up before ... it's been up before a number of international bodies on charges of human rights abuses in respect of the conduct of that mine. And here we have Reith coming out in support of a rogue company like that, and suggesting that that's the future for his industrial relations Act in this country - an absolute disgrace and he ought to be ashamed of himself for even been seen to be supporting a company that was charged recently in the G-7 summit in Denver Colorado for crimes against humanity.

MATT PEACOCK: Mr Reith for his part says it's the union that should be looking at itself and stop impeding improvements in productivity.

PETER REITH: They apparently are flying people up from Brisbane to Cairns to sort of voice their protest, but the fact of the matter is there is no dispute between the company and its employees and they're entitled to go about their lawful business. Now that is the law of the land and obviously in the event that there was some serious attempt to prevent the company from acting in the lawful way that it is, then there are certain remedies available.

MATT PEACOCK: But the Minister won't be drawn any further on the remedies that both he and the union's lawyers are contemplating. Meanwhile, the MUA is settling in for the long haul. John Coombs happily agrees that he's flying in the picketers and he says he's got a roster of a thousand volunteers to run this campaign well into the future.

JOHN COOMBS: Don't break the champagne out too early because, you know, we're not without some ability to influence this decision up there. We do have a picket up there and I can tell you now, and make a note of it, the picket will stay there and our ability will continue in the direction of regaining this work which we believe properly belongs to our members in Cairns until such times as we succeed.

MATT PEACOCK: So what's the next step?

JOHN COOMBS: [inaudible] Reith's got the staying ability; but I've demonstrated mine -he's yet to demonstrate his.

MATT PEACOCK: What's the next step?

JOHN COOMBS: We'll just wait and see. There's three or four days yet before the ship arrives and, you know, what outrageous claims in the press release to suggest that what this has done is improved productivity. I mean, they haven't worked one ounce of cargo yet and yet we're supposed to assume that automatically because of the non-union operation that there's going to be improved productivity. I'd suggest to you that from the very moment that they conceived this idea, the question of the future of this cargo being sourced out of Cairns has been put under great jeopardy because there is no way that you can put untrained people into this area and expect that they're going to be able to load this ship as efficiently and as effectively as it was loaded by the union labour working for Northern Shipping Services.

MATT PEACOCK: Mr Coombs says it's absolutely ludicrous to suggest that two people can now do the work that was done by more than seven locals over the last two decades.

PETER CAVE: Matt Peacock reporting.