When a Queensland man said he had been locked out of work for 208 days, Q&A panel members were left discussing strike action and its place in modern Australia.
Last week, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) ruled that Sydney rail workers cannot resort to striking to push for a pay rise.
The ruling was condemned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), which said the basic right to strike in Australia was “very nearly dead”.
But Lachlan from Queensland said he was on the receiving end of strike action imposed by his employer.
“I’ve come straight from the picket line of Oaky North mine in central Queensland. Myself and 180 other permanent workers have been locked out of our jobs by Glencore for the last 208 days,” he said.
“With our families we have sat in the dirt at the front of our gate of our mine to see if we’ll be allowed back in. We were locked out whilst attempting to negotiate a new workplace agreement which included a 0 per cent pay increase.”
— ABC Q&A (@QandA) February 5, 2018
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus compared Glencore’s stance to a strike.
“For those who don’t understand it, that’s where the employer takes strike action and lock their workers out and don’t allow them to work,” she said.
“That’s what’s happened to all of these Australian families. Yet our system can do nothing about it.”
Lachlan asked why a foreign-owned company should be allowed to treat workers in that way.
“The Fair Work Commission can cancel a union’s application for a work stoppage. Why can’t they stop a company from locking its workers out?”
Almost 200 Glencore-owned Oaky North miners have been legally locked out of their workplace after a series of strikes and stop-works.
The employees have overwhelmingly voted down the latest Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, and the company has been using contractors to keep the production going.
Former RBA board member Heather Ridout said while extreme action was crude, the right to strike was enshrined in industrial law.
“The right to strike does exist. It is enshrined in Australian industrial law. The laws in Australia really haven’t changed much since Julia [Gillard] was the PM. So, we’re dealing with a series of laws which were made looser by her. And I was part of those arguments,” she said.
“So, we’ve had this system and what has changed is the fact that people are much less willing to take this extreme industrial action in Australia.
“That goes to that word I used, crude — it’s been a psychological change. We’ve seen industrial disputes at record lows.”
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO James Pearson said workers withdrawing labour was inconvenient for both businesses and consumers.
— ABC Q&A (@QandA) February 5, 2018
“You talk about the right to strike, but all of the people in Melbourne, businesses and consumers whose goods were held up for weeks and weeks in Melbourne by a strike?
“What about the fact that this morning in the paper we read childcare workers next month are just about to go on strike,” he said.
Drawing on the FWC ruling on the Sydney rail workers’ industrial action, he said the primarily Labor Party-appointed employees banned the strike.
“People do have the right to withdraw their labour. It is enshrined in Australian law and the independent industrial relations umpire, the Fair Work Commission,” he said.
“A body [which was] set up by the previous Labor government, and primarily staff are Labor-appointed employees, [they] said no.
But Ms McManus said while striking was disruptive, it had led to significant wins in the past.
“Going on strike is inconvenient. It does cause inconvenience, it does. Working people went on strike and what did we win? We won superannuation. It would be inconvenient to retire without superannuation,” she said.
“We went on strike to defend Medicare. Pretty inconvenient if we didn’t do that too. No-one takes that lightly. No-one does. But we need to have it as a human right. The right to withdraw your labour is a last resort.”