THE violent attack by union heavies on a security guard in his little Mazda trying to cross a picket line outside the Baiada poultry factory in Laverton North last week had to be seen to be believed.
Video aired on ABC news on Wednesday night shows a group of about 100 chanting protesters – including bespectacled union organisers and their muscle, as well as Socialist Alternative, Occupy Melbourne opportunists and animal activists. Few look like the mainly Vietnamese migrant workers who process the chickens.
Along comes a security guard trying to report for work inside the factory.
He drives slowly forward through the protesters but his passage is blocked by angry men pushing on his bonnet.
Two burly men are trying to pull his keys out of the ignition, but the guard is resisting. He has the keys in his hand and is not going to give them over. One union thug starts punching him through the open window. Big, wild, angry punches aimed at his head.
Another two men are trying to wrest the keys out of his hand. His arm is bent painfully backwards outside the car.
Brute No.1 then opens the back door and proceeds to kick the driver’s seat so ferociously he loses a shoe.
The guard at this stage has lost his sunglasses and the side of his face is red. Then another union heavy in an orange safety vest starts attacking him through the back door with the butt of a long pole from a banner. Two organisers finally step in and tell their thugs to “settle down”.
The guard is allowed to drive away, amid cheers and catcalls. His car is badly damaged, doors dented, side mirror broken, windscreen wiper bent.
Job well done.
This is the ugly face of the increasingly militant union movement. With membership slumped to a low of 18 per cent last year, compared with 40 per cent in 1990, cashed-up unions are flexing their muscles, knowing they have a short window of opportunity to entrench power before the Labor Government is thrown out.
Under Julia Gillard’s reworking of industrial relations laws, unions are freer than ever to wreak havoc on the economy.
The construction industry has never been free of union overlordship, but disputes from Qantas to Toyota, BHP to the public sector, show the extent to which union tactics defy the economic reality of straitened times.
According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, in the June quarter this year, 66,200 working days were lost because of industrial disputes, an increase from 19,700 in the March quarter. That is a staggering 340 per cent. Baiada Poultry has already lost $1 million in spoiled chicken meat. The National Union of Workers boasts that, since Wednesday, no live birds or workers have gone into the Laverton North factory, just outside the boundaries of Gillard’s seat of Lalor.
On Friday, Baiada won a Supreme Court order to stop the union blockade. That night, 80 police tried to break up the picket line. Union video triumphantly posted online yesterday morning shows police retreating as protesters cheer.
Baiada, the main supplier of chickens to Coles, has had a string of terrible accidents in the past six years, including the decapitation of 34-year-old Sarel Singh last year while cleaning a processing line. The privately owned company is being investigated by WorkSafe Victoria.
But the union’s main complaint is that the company employs contract workers, which means more than half the workforce does not belong to the union. It wants to impose an enterprise bargaining agreement on the company.
Unfortunately Baiada refused to answer questions last week, so it’s difficult to know its side of the story.
Ken Phillips, executive director of Independent Contractors Australia, doesn’t think Baiada will survive the dispute.
“Companies always commercially lose. The legal process is horrendously expensive … Baiada could easily spend a quarter of a million dollars on legal costs in a month and still not get proper resolution.”
The hidden grenade in the Fair Work Act, he says, is the good-faith bargaining provision, which gives unions a veto over what goes on in the workplace.
“In effect, it is forced bargaining and forced agreements. It gives unions a whole series of rights to force companies into negotiation.”
If, for example, a company such as Baiada says it is happy paying award wages to its workers and does not want an enterprise bargaining agreement, then that triggers intervention by Fair Work Australia.
“The outcome is it becomes compulsory to have an EBA.”
EVEN with declining membership, unions are flush with cash.
Phillips points out that 1.8 million members paying $600 or $700 a year is more than a billion dollars a year income.
Their biggest source of revenue is industry superfunds and there are government handouts. Under Labor, unions are richly rewarded. Their lawyers become judges and members of tribunals. Their leaders become politicians and members of Cabinet.
The stench from the Health Services Union scandal and its former national secretary turned Labor MP, Craig Thomson, hangs over Parliament House, but the conga line of union apparatchiks filing into Canberra continues. This is Labor’s disease.
If Baiada goes under, its workers will be on the dole queue. No unions there.