The Guardian November 28, 2001


MUA fine. Warning lights flashing for unions

by Peter Mac

A conviction and heavy fine imposed on the Maritime Union of Australia 
(MUA) raises serious issues for the whole Australian union movement.

A combined fine of $210,000 was imposed following a complaint brought 
before the Court by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission 
(ACCC) for an alleged breach of the Trade Practices Act.

The fine relates to strike action taken by Maritime Union of Australia 
(MUA) in support of Australian workers carrying out the cleaning of ships' 
hulls, work which ship owning companies have long sought to have carried 
out by foreign workers. 

The union was convicted for alleged breaches of two sections of the Act. 
One is Section 60, which deals with undue coercion in the area of trade and 
services, and which until now has related to breaches of the Act by 
businesses.

The other is Section 45D of the Act, which deals with secondary boycotts, 
and which usually relates to union activity.

Both sections of the Act were mentioned in the ACCC's submission to the 
Court. The fine was imposed under Section 45, but also by implication under 
Section 60, which was also treated by the prosecution as relating to the 
union's strike action .

The union intends to appeal against the decision with regard to the 
applicability of the Act, in particular against the imposition of fines 
under Section 45 of the Act, but also against the extension of the 
"coercion" provisions of Section 60 to apply to industrial action.

As Professor Fels noted in commenting (with evident satisfaction) on the 
verdict, the imposition of fines on a union for a breach of the Act is 
highly significant . However, as Paddy Crumlin noted, the fines raise 
fundamental issues regarding the basic human right of workers to take 
strike action. "Is that undue coercion  that you're going to withdraw 
your labour to protect your position?", he asked.

If the courts take the view that industrial action is coercion as defined 
in the Act, the implication is that any strike action is illegal, in which 
case Australia is likely to become a police state. 

Moreover, the significance of the case lies also in the penalising of a 
union for attempting to ensure that work carried out in Australia is done 
by Australian labour and is subject to Australian legal provisions 
regarding terms and conditions of work.

Commenting on the judgement, Paddy Cumlin described the ship owning 
companies as preferring "guest labour on foreign ships that pay no tax and 
aren't subject to any occupational health or any other regulation".

There are major implications for Australian unions in the judgement, not 
only in the right of workers to take strike action but also with regard to 
the potential destruction of award wages and conditions by the importation 
of unregulated labour.

The Court may have convicted the union of harassment and coercion, but in 
reality these are things Australian workers are now facing on a massive 
scale because of the Court's judgment.

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