Latest union stoush leaves business scared stiff

by Stephanie Zillman30 Aug 2012

Violent scenes of union members clashing with mounted police outside a Melbourne worksite this week has left business leaders scared stiff – yet HR may have the power to mitigate the risks of union warfare by leveraging a back-to-basics approach: transparent communication with workers.

At a reported loss of $300,000 a day, construction firm Grocon today enters its third day of tensions with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Since Tuesday hundreds of union members have assembled outside an inner Melbourne worksite in organised protest, and are blocking workers from entering the site. Perhaps the most curious element of the clash was that apparently no employees from the company in question were actually protesting.

Despite a Supreme Court order for the CFMEU members to step aside, the union continues to illegally protest Grocon’s ban on employee’s wearing union colours at work, and what it says is attempts by company bosses to dissuade non-union members from joining the CFMEU. It also claims that the company has not allowed staff-elected safety officers on the site.

The blatant disregard for court rulings by union leaders have inflamed debate around Fair Work’s ability to cope with aggressive industrial disputes and illegal picketing. Victoria has been a hotbed for illegal pickets, and just last month an unlawful protest at Toll’s Somerton warehouse also prevented workers from attending work. Grocon senior leaders and CFMEU representatives are scheduled to meet with Fair Work this afternoon to negotiate.

Key takeaways for HR in communicating with employees about unions:

  • All employees have the right to join or not join a union. They must not be pressured by the union, their employer or any other person to make a decision about joining, not joining or leaving a union.
  • An employer cannot dismiss an employee based on whether or not they're a union member.
  • Likewise, employers cannot threaten or carry out an adverse action against an employee for exercising their workplace right to join and participate in union activities.
  • Employers cannot interview employees about their union activities, ask questions about their activities or query why they are interested in joining / or belonging to a union.
  • Employers cannot promise benefits to employees if they vote against the union.
  • Employers may not conduct surveillance of employees’ union activities – this is particularly relevant in cases where union representatives enter a job site.

There are also a number of areas concerning unions which employers can legally discuss with employees, namely:

  • Facts, experiences, and their opinions about unions.
  • Employers can say that a union will not guarantee better wages.
  • Employers can also let employees know what their experiences with unions have been. For example, they can tell employees when a local company was unionised, wages went down, not up.
  • Employers can explain that unions are costly—for example, they cost money in the form of membership fees.


  • by Soozy 30/08/2012 5:09:09 PM

    can you cite a real example of where wages went down as a result of union activity? Statistics I have seen indicate that unionised workplaces regularly have better wage outcomes. The last figure I remember was 8%. I don't have the figures to hand, but would be able to find them.

  • by Soozy 30/08/2012 5:10:11 PM

    oh and of course those fees are 100% tax deductible!

  • by Michael Cosgrove 31/08/2012 7:32:32 AM

    There is no need for the employer to talk to employees about unions at all. The key to mitigating the impact of unions is for employers to engage employees in meaningful discussions about their work, wages and conditions. The more you talk about a union the more it gets into employees heads that they may need to join one. The employer needs to position themselves as the key provider of IR information to employees so they have no reason to seek the assistance of the union at all.

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