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Home > News > 2018 > February > Right to strike almost extinct

Right to strike almost extinct


A new ruling in the Fair Work Commission (FWC) has left the right to strike in Australia practically extinct.

Despite following onerous industrial action laws to the letter, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) last week saw their rail strike cancelled by the FWC following a challenge from the New South Wales state government.

A 24-hour strike by Sydney and NSW Trains workers planned for Monday, 29 January was ruled ‘unlawful’ if it were to proceed, following a challenge in the Fair Work Commission (FWC) from the NSW state government.

FWC Deputy Commissioner Jonathan Hamberger sided with the government’s claim the strike action would pose a great risk to Sydney’s economy and safety.

“I am satisfied, based on the evidence, that this industrial action taken together – or indeed separately – threatens to endanger the welfare of part of the population...,” Deputy Commissioner Hamberger said in his judgment.

Under the judgment, the RTBU was prevented from taking protected industrial action for six weeks and forced to rescind its ban on overtime.

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Sally McManus said the ruling demonstrated the basic right to strike in Australia was “very nearly dead”.

“Rail workers followed every single rule and law, and still the Minister of the day can get an order to cancel bans on working excessive overtime,” Ms McManus said.

“When working people and their union go through every possible hoop and hurdle and are still denied these basic rights, it is no secret why so many workers haven’t had a pay rise."

New research by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work reveals industrial action has declined by 97 per cent between the 1970s and the present decade. Between January to September last year, only 106 industrial disputes were recorded, representing a near postwar era low.

The research has connected declining industrial action with stagnant wage growth. Where the frequency of industrial disputes dropped by approximately 60 lost work days per 1000 workers, a one per cent decrease to wage increases was observed.

Ms McManus said the research demonstrated it was time to address the inequality of our workplace laws.

“Working people’s wages in Australia are so stagnant because the rules are stacked in the favour of the employers,” she said.

“We need to change the rules, because Australia needs a pay rise.”

How do our industrial laws stack up internationally?

IEUA-QNT Branch Secretary Terry Burke said Australia’s industrial action laws were some of the most restrictive among democratic countries.

“The right to withdraw one’s labour is regarded as a fundamental right within international law, yet in this country we have seen our right eroded over time to near extinction,” Mr Burke said.

Mr Burke said many in the community are unaware of just how difficult it is to take strike action in Australia, with restrictions going beyond laws in the UK and USA.

“Firstly, strike action can only take place during collective bargaining for a new agreement and only once a union proves in an application to an industrial body that genuine attempts to reach agreement have been made.”

“A secret ballot must then be conducted by an electoral commission in which a majority of union members approve the specific protected action.

“Unions must then give notice to the employer ahead of any planned industrial action and the employer has the right to challenge any action in the Fair Work Commission (FWC).

“Only after unions and their members jump through these hoops can workers engage in protected industrial action

“However, as last week’s RTBU strike cancellation demonstrated it is far too easy for employers to complicate and disrupt this process despite the best efforts of unions and their members.”

Australia has been regularly criticised by the United Nations (UN) for its restrictive strike action laws. 

Over the past few decades, Australia has repeatedly been warned by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) — the UN agency that oversees labour standards — that its industrial action laws are at odds with international laws which value the right to strike as a fundamental freedom.

Despite this, successive governments have ignored these warnings and allowed onerous laws to pervade, giving rise to the situation faced by RTBU members who are simply bargaining for fairer wages and working conditions.

“It is beyond time to change the rules for working people and restore balance to our industrial relations system,” Mr Burke said.

Authorised by Terry Burke, Independent Education Union of Australia – Queensland & Northern Territory Branch, Brisbane.