The Guardian March 14, 2001


Qemos decision attacks right to strike

Last week's decision by the Federal Court to accept the sacking of key 
workers in industrial disputes has major ramifications for Australian 
workers. Faced with an industrial dispute, plastics and chemical 
manufacturer Qemos announced a "spill and fill" redundancy program which, 
according to the National Union of Workers, was aimed at removing shop 
floor organisers from its Victorian plant.

The "spill and fill" process, in which workers are regularly told they must 
reapply for their jobs, has long been used by government organisations to 
intimidate their employees. However, the tactic of Qemos management to 
implement the process in response to an industrial dispute was a 
significant new development.

The Court decided that the Qemos move did not constitute an attempt to 
discriminate against or coerce union members, since it could not be proved 
that action was taken against a disproportionately high number of union 
members. The Court claimed it would not affect any particular employee, and 
was therefore within the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act.

In effect the decision means that employers now have a golden opportunity 
to dismiss militant employees, providing that, as one commentator noted, 
management "can make a credible business case for their removal".

If employees take any action adversely affecting their employer's profits, 
action can now be taken to sack them.

The Court's statement that the union was at liberty to reapply "if the 
redundancy process proved to be discriminatory" will come as cold comfort 
to the Qemos workers and to other workers whose employer will see the 
decision as a heaven-sent precedent to punish those who step out of line.

In a workplace where most or all of the employees are union members, it 
would be virtually impossible to prove that individuals were. being 
targeted as union members. Nor would it be any easier to prove 
victimisation of individual shop floor militants. Despite evidence that 
Qemos intended that certain employees would "never set foot in the plant 
again", the judge hearing the case concluded that the "spill and fill" 
action was not related to impending industrial action by Qemos employees, 
and that it "could not give rise to an injury of any particular employee".

The union is expected to pursue an appeal against the Court decision.

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