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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4906

Senator SHERRY (5:55 PM) —The contribution by Senator Murray has been very constructive, as was his contribution to the debate on the previous bill that we considered this morning. The Australian Democrats and Senator Murray have made a strong attempt to bring a balance to the legislation that we are considering—in this case on industrial action. Industrial action is a serious matter. It causes dislocation to industry and to the public. Importantly for workers, industrial action leaves a hole in their pay packet. From experience and the knowledge that I have gained from conversations with individual workers and their representatives throughout the trade union movement, I know that industrial action is not undertaken lightly. We have a former Secretary of the Tasmanian Trades and Labor Council, Senator Brian Harradine, in this place. He and I have talked about these issues over many years. From Senator Harradine's contribution as a former Secretary of the Trades and Labor Council in Tasmania, I know that industrial action is not entered into lightly by any group of workers, even when the action is lawfully protected action.

A decision to go on strike is a serious decision; it is not a step that should be or is taken lightly. It is right that there are discussions, debate and a vote before workers take that step because the consequences of a strike are severe. Again, from my knowledge of and contact with workers and union officials, I know that that occurs. There is always a considerable debate—as robust a debate as would occur in parliament—when these actions are being considered. I do not have the statistics with me but if we look at the incidence of industrial disputation and strikes in this country over the last 20 years we will see that there has been a steady, significant decline in industrial action. However, in this parliament we have repeatedly heard the government tell all who will listen that they believe workers should be free to make their own decisions, free from outside interference or intrusion, bureaucracies, outside interventions and straitjackets.

However, in this bill—and it has been debated extensively—there is the strong implication that workers are incapable of independent thought about whether they should participate in industrial action. There is the assumption by those opposite in the Liberal-National Party that the so-called union bosses—we hear this term all the time—say, `Strike,' and the members just follow blindly and walk out. That is simply not the case. In reality it does not happen. Workers can and do vote with their feet. The decision to participate in industrial action rests either with the workers or, in the case of a lockout, with the manager of the business and the manager alone. The so-called union bosses know that. The universal practice is for unions to call a meeting prior to workers deciding whether industrial action will occur. The meeting decides whether industrial action takes place.

As I said earlier, I know of no union official who would be powerful enough and, frankly, stupid enough to simply get up and say to workers, `Walk out,' without any debate, and tell them that they should strike because the union supposedly knows best. It simply does not happen. Labor says that it is appropriate to leave it to workers and their associations—unions—to determine how they make a decision to take a strike.

There are checks against coercion. Firstly, union membership is voluntary; workers need not be in a union in the first place. That is always a decision that workers in a union have to weigh up when they contemplate industrial action. Secondly, union members can—again, from my experience and knowledge—ignore a so-called union directive to go on strike if one is given. Thirdly, union members need not follow what a meeting decides—there is no compulsion to strike. Fourthly, a secret ballot can be ordered by the commission on the application of a small proportion of affected members under section 136 of the Workplace Relations Act.

Prior to coming to the chamber to take part in the debate I checked whether there has been any case before the commission where the commission has had to determine whether alleged coercion has taken place by union or non-union members in respect of industrial action. Apparently, there has not been any.

In these circumstances Labor will vote against the bill and against the Australian Democrats' amendments. We have given the matter a lot of thought. As I said earlier, we believe the Democrats—and Senator Murray in particular—have made a constructive and positive attempt to deal with the very difficult issues that are faced as a consequence of this Liberal government's legislation. The amendments do take the rigidity out of the bill, as well as the absurd requirement that there be a preindustrial action secret ballot even if no-one wants one. This Liberal-National Party government is foisting draconian interference—and that is all it can be described as—on workers and indirectly but quite clearly is slowing down the efficient enterprise bargaining process.

The Democrats' amendments are a positive step. A very significant amount of work has gone into them, and I acknowledge the contribution that Senator Murray has made to the debate on these amendments. Labor's position is that the amendments create a system that is unnecessary given the checks I referred to earlier. For that reason we will vote against them.