GREG RAY: King Coal’s legal stick

MY old mate King Coal is on the warpath again.

No, he’s not trying to dig up a flood plain, chop down a forest or remove a prime minister. Not this time.

This time he’s trying to re-write the book on Australian industrial relations.

According to media reports, Xstrata Coal NSW and Whitehaven Coal are unhappy about the possibility that train drivers working for Pacific National coal might go on strike for higher pay.

The drivers have been locked in negotiations for a year over their enterprise bargain. And as is the way in many such cases, the parties seem to have arrived at an impasse where the drivers feel they might have to resort to strike to make sure their points are heard.

Under the present law, if you want to go on strike and not get fined for your cheek, you have to satisfy various legal requirements before letting everybody know when you’re going and how long you’re staying away.

Presumably the drivers know all that.

Provided they keep within the law they are theoretically entitled to withdraw their labour, and you wouldn’t think it should have anything to do with a couple of multi-national coalmining companies.

But Xstrata has reportedly told the drivers and their union in a letter that any action they take “will cause significant harm to the business of Xstrata Coal”.

That can’t be denied. If the coal stops moving, orders might be delayed and some disruption to loading ships might follow.

Whenever somebody withdraws their labour as part of an industrial dispute with their employer, third parties are affected. Sometimes seriously affected.

Nobody enjoys that, but it’s always been seen as an unfortunate side-effect of the rough and tumble of industrial negotiation.

Not any more, according to Xstrata, which says it “is entitled to take all necessary steps to prevent any harm to its business”.

Whatever it takes, apparently.

“This may include the commencement of proceedings in a court or tribunal to stop or prevent industrial action from being taken, without further notice.”

So, does that mean that if journalists wanted to go on strike – for example – newsagents should be able to take legal action to stop them?

If this is to be the new rule in industrial law, there will be some tricky questions to settle.

Like, how close must the nexus be between the industrial action and the alleged damage to the third party, for a court action to succeed?

Could an oil company sue to stop airline pilots going on strike on account of reduced aviation gas sales?

And if this new principle of industrial law – that bosses of one company can step in and squash the pay rise claims of employees in another business – is accepted, does that mean unions will be able to do the same?

For years, secondary boycotts have been illegal. That has meant that unions can’t combine to help one another win their separate fights.

Will that now change?

Might a union be able to argue from now on that its members will suffer damage if unionists in another company don’t win a pay rise? Missing out on the flow-on effect, you see.

I suppose Xstrata and its friends would back the logic in that case.

One imagines that the federal Coalition wouldn’t be too keen to see stories like this one splashed across the press.

It only takes a few downtrodden workers to show the bootprints on their backs and mention the magic word “WorkChoices” to send cold shudders down the spines of most Liberal campaigners.

If it was anybody else writing these letters bearing on the employment conditions and pay rates of workers outside their own organisations you’d probably dismiss it as wishful thinking.

But this is King Coal.

Think about that before you scoff.

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