HR lessons from Aussie blockade dispute

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Yesterday the CEO of Australian entertainment company Grocon triumphantly announced that its workers had crossed the picket line and returned to work on the inner Melbourne jobsite. Having learnt the lessons from a previous dispute, the company hasn’t fallen by the wayside in selling its message.

Grocon chief Daniel Grollo yesterday released an unsigned letter from workers which served to crystallise the message of the company. “We have no argument with our employer and do not support the blockades against our workplaces” the letter read, and according to Grocon, that sentiment is supported by 53 workers out of 90 workers – a significant blow to the CFMEU.

Just one decade ago in the midst of a similar dispute with the same union, Grollo was less successful in communicating his message. According to Australian Financial Review reports, he had wanted his workers to be covered by non-union agreements, but the CFMEU leadership sold their message better and three-quarters of the workforce rejected Grollo’s non-union deal.

In rallying his workers, Grollo has communicated with his staff at a grassroots level, and in turn has been rewarded with a significant win, both in having the workers back on site, and by undermining the message of the CMFEU.

For many in HR, there are questions over what can and cannot be said to workers when discussing unions. A spokesperson from the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) told HC that under the Fair Work Act, employee’s union involvement is protected under both general protections and the right of freedom of association. Fundamentally, an employee has the right to choose whether or not to join a union and is protected by law from discrimination or victimisation because they have or have not become a member.

The Act sets out that the following activities are unlawful:

  • Taking or threatening adverse action against a person because a person is or is not a member of a union or because they have or have not engaged in industrial activity
  • Organising or taking action with the intention of coercing a person to engage or not engage in industrial activity
  • Making a false or misleading representation about a person’s obligation to engage in industrial activity or disclose their involvement with unions and industrial activity; and
  • Inducing an employee to be, or not be, involved in a union.

Industrial activity has a wide meaning under the FW Act and includes taking, or not taking, activities such as:

  • Becoming or remaining a member of a union
  • Organising, promoting or participating in lawful union activity
  • Advancing the views, claims or interests of a union
  • Paying fees to a union
  • Taking part in industrial action

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