Which way to the lunchroom?

Craig Buckley

Even after the end of John Howard’s WorkChoices laws, one issue that remains a big problem is union right of entry. There have been some positive changes in his area, of course. Under the old WorkChoices legislation, employers would prevent union officials from entering a workplace to hold discussions with  workers if the workers were covered by AWAs or by non-union agreements.

The Fair Work Act introduced by the federal Labor government has remedied that situation. The law now allows an AMIEU official to enter any workplace where there are AMIEU members, or workers who are eligible to join the AMIEU. As a result, the AMIEU has been trying to increase the Union’s strength at workplaces from which we have been kept out during the Howard years.

The biggest obstacle to rebuilding that strength is the fact that employers can still use the law to limit our contact with workers when we get on to a site. Employers adopt the tactic of refusing the Union Organiser permission to go to the meal room or canteen where workers spend their breaks.

Instead, they tell the Union Organiser that any discussions with employees have to be held in another office or room. Usually, the room the organiser is told to use is one near the manager’s office, where the manager can get a good look at anyone who goes to speak to the organiser. Or a room so far away from the workers’ meal room that they don’t have enough time to eat their meal and go see the organiser - if they even know the organiser is at the site.

There is no question that employers do this deliberately to discourage workers from meeting with Union Organisers, and to intimidate them from joining the AMIEU.

The AMIEU is confident that if we have the opportunity to speak to workers we can convince them of the benefits of joining the Union and helping them fight for better wages and working conditions. All we want is the opportunity to speak to them. Employers understand this as well as we do, and that is the reason why many want to prevent us from speaking to their employees as much as possible.

This is not really a problem at those sites which are already organised and the vast majority of people are Union members. But, at those sites where membership is only beginning to grow, employers do what they can to prevent the organiser from getting into the lunch room to speak to workers as a group.

The AMIEU has recently taken some disputes about “right of entry” to Fair Work Australia (the new name for the industrial relations commission). One of those disputes was taken by the Victorian branch of the AMIEU against Somerville Retail Services (SRS). SRS is a manufacturing plant that produces “retail ready” meat for supermarkets. For many years its workers were on AWAs. SRS management refused to allow the AMIEU organiser access to the lunch room.

The AMIEU argued that its organiser should be allowed access to the lunch room, and the Commissioner agreed. The Commissioner inspected the worksite, and formed the view that the lunch rooms were large enough that the Union Organiser could speak to a group of workers there without disturbing those who do not want to participate in a meeting. See what the Commissioner said in his decision. However, the employer appealed the decision (to a panel of three Commissioners, called a “full bench”).

The employer won the appeal, arguing that their requirement that the Union Organiser use a training room for discussions with workers was a reasonable request. See the majority decision

The AMIEU has decided that the issue is an important one, important enough to take further. Consequently, the AMIEU has decided to take the matter to the Federal Court of Australia.

We need to find out if the new Fair Work Act can be used effectively, to give Union Organisers a genuine right to go to the lunch rooms and speak to workers collectively. If so, well and good. If not, the AMIEU and other unions will need to campaign for further changes to the law.

We will keep members informed of what develops.