Huge ETU win as dodgy tunnel agreement collapses

In a huge win for workers, the ETU has welcomed a decision by the Fair Work Commission to refuse approval for enterprise agreements that would have covered workers on the Westgate Tunnel construction project.

For more than a year the Westgate Tunnel Consortium have been trying to force through a greenfields enterprise agreement without union consent. In doing so they have tried to deny the 2000 workers on the tunnel construction project their right to bargain for their pay and conditions.

Claims of a “New Enterprise” ridiculed.

A greenfields agreement is an enterprise agreement between a union and a new enterprise that does not yet have any employees. Because there are no employees to bargin with, the company negotiates directly with the appropriate union, with both normally being required to sign off before the agreement is approved by Fair Work.

In this case however, there were employees to bargain with. Thousands of them.

The constortium had attempted to use subcontracting through labour hire firms to claim these 2000 odd construction workers, some of whom have now been working on the project for close to a year, didn’t exist. Fortunately, the Fair Work Commission saw through their ridiculous arguments and sided with the ETU. The commission refused to approve the agreements that none of the unions covering any of the workers on the project had signed on to. More importantly, Commission Deputy President Val Gostencnik has struck down the consortium’s absurd claims that they are a new enterprise, rendering them ineligible for a greenfields agreement which will force them to the come to the table with the workers and their unions.

ETU Victoria Secretary, Troy Gray, slammed the consortium’s dodgy tactics.

“This consortium has tried to deny these workers their fundamental right to fairly bargain for pay and conditions,” he said immediately after the ruling.

Had the agreements been approved it would have left the large workforce with no rights regarding their working conditions, despite the likelihood that the project would be ongoing for up to five years.

Another example of broken rules

The Westgate Tunnel saga has been running for more than a year, with now two unsuccessful attempts to push through these non-union agreements. The consortium had been relying on provisions introduced in the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2004. This legislation was the brainchild of former Liberal Employment Ministers, Eric Abetz and Michaelia Cash. It was specifically designed to be exploited by big businesses who would prefer not to negotiate with working people or their unions in good faith.

Under these provisions, a “new enterprise” would be able to set a six month bargaining period, sit back and allow the clock to run down, and then lodge an agreement for approval with Fair Work without union consent. Such concerns were raised by members of the Labor Party, including Senator Doug Cameron, when the bill was debated in parliament. Yet the legislation was voted up by the Liberals and the Crossbench all the same. 

“This amendment is just one on a long list of rotten, anti-worker laws the Liberal Government has brought in during its time in office,” said Troy Gray. 

“These companies had no interest in negotiating with these workers or their representatives in good faith,” he said. “These laws were a gift to big business and need to be repealed. We need to Change the Rules.”

Scott Riches, ETU’s in-house Lawyer who oversaw the case told us this was the first time these provisions have been used to attempt to completely circumvent unions. But thanks to the ETU’s victory it will hopefully be the last.

“By winning this fight we have shown the big end of town they cannot simply roll in and decide they only want to negotiate with themselves,” he said. “This was a very important win for our union.” 

Consortium members called out

As well as calling on these laws to be appealed, Troy Gray also called for consortium members, John Holland and CPB Contractors, to be rejected from all future tender lists for major projects in Victoria.

“We can’t allow these foreign owned businesses to roll into town and roll all over Victorian workers’ rights,” he said. 

He pointed out there are now 2000 workers on the tunnel project without an enterprise agreement. It’s an industrial relations disaster that has potentially put the future of Victoria’s second largest infrastructure project in jeopardy.

All because this corrupt Federal Government was yet again trying to do special favours for their backers in the big end of town. In the process they have given us another potent example of how broken our workplace rules are, and the urgent need for change.