The Guardian 19 October, 2005
Thugs R Us
Peter Reith and Patrick Stevedores’ Chris Corrigan would have got away with their assault on maritime workers if the Howard Government’s WorkChoices laws had been in force in 1998. The tactics of sacking a workforce and using balaclava-clad guards with dogs on chains to remove them from the job would have been lawful under the proposed changes, legal experts have warned.
Under government proposals, an employer suspected of planning to dismiss workers in a situation like the 1998 waterfront dispute can sit silently while unions attempt the near-impossible task of proving discrimination.
The government intends turning current practice on its head when it comes to injunctions stopping employers from sacking people on the basis of union membership.
"The employers are the ones with all the information and the ones at the meetings", says law firm Turner Freeman partner Steven Penning. "Because such decisions are made in a clandestine way, it is extremely hard for unions to find witnesses or documents to back them up."
Back in 1998, when Patrick Stevedores tried to use security personnel to keep unionised workers out and bring contract workers in, the law said bosses had to prove they weren’t sacking the Maritime Union members just because they belonged to a union.
That law stopped Patrick in its tracks because the company could not convince the court that this was not their plan. As such, the MUA was able to get a court order stopping the sackings.
"The importance of this requirement has been recognised by the High Court", says barrister David Chin. But in a couple of obscure sentences in the back of the Government’s latest 67-page industrial relations document, Howard has revealed his plan to make sure the bosses get their way in the future.
Under the planned changes, when someone comes to the court asking for a court order to stop workers from being sacked for being members of a union, the employer can sit back and say nothing while the person bringing the complaint has to prove it.
"It is very easy for an employer to say nothing the unions suspect ever happened", says Penning and Chin.