Industrial relations

The Hawke government's hopes of improved behaviour by the Builders' Labourers Federation (BLF) soon faded. The union had a long history of industrial turbulence and conflict with governments of all political persuasions. It was deregistered in 1974, but reregistered in 1976 in recognition of undertakings of reasonable behaviour. Conflicts continued and the Fraser government commenced new deregistration proceedings in 1981. The Hawke government withdrew from these proceedings in December 1983, in the hope that the BLF would abide by new guarantees of satisfactory industrial behaviour. However Industrial Relations Minister Ralph Willis told Cabinet in February 1984 that BLF campaigns for a $9 per week national pay rise, and for severance pay and improved site allowances at the new Parliament House site in Canberra threatened the Prices and Incomes Accord (see A14039, 661 and A13979, 2840).

On 16 July 1985 Willis told Cabinet that the BLF had signed an undertaking in October 1984 to behave reasonably in return for a package including an industry superannuation fund. It had also undertaken not to make wage claims beyond the provisions of the Accord. None of these undertakings had been honoured and the union had continued its strategy of making excessive wage claims, supported by industrial action, violence and damage to property. Employers and other unions had expressed a total lack of confidence in the possibility of the BLF reforming itself. On 19 July Cabinet considered possible approaches to legislating against the BLF. Willis argued that the quickest and simplest solution would be to deregister the union nationally, but Cabinet preferred a more complex approach under which the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission would be required to find the union guilty of industrial misconduct, after which the Governor-General could wholly or partially deregister it and reallocate its coverage to other unions. Cabinet approved legislation embodying these principles on 12 August 1985.

Cabinet also considered a submission on ways to encourage building industry employers to stand up to the BLF. The Commonwealth dealt with more than 1000 firms or construction contractors; of these a few had done deals with the BLF, a few had actually resisted the BLF and the majority had been forced to comply with BLF pressure. The submission argued that firms should be judged on their willingness to adhere to national wage principles and industrial agreements, and their rejection of 'cash in hand' payments and strike pay. Cabinet decided on 12 August 1985 that, in consultation with the industry, relevant ministers would develop criteria for assessing a firm's industrial record and that in awarding Commonwealth contracts attention would be given to the firm's undertakings of good industrial conduct. Cabinet also decided that the Commonwealth would not take up 22 floors of office space in the new Rialto Building in Melbourne because of the 'special notoriety' of the developer, Grollo Australia, in making deals with the BLF.

The Commonwealth was drawn into a landmark industrial dispute at Mudginberri Abattoir in the Alligator River area of the Northern Territory. Primary Industry Minister John Kerin told Cabinet on 23 July 1985 that the dispute had been precipitated by the handing down of the Northern Territory Meat Industry Award in 1984, which included a provision for a 'payment by results' contract employment system that could be approved by a majority of employees in a specific workplace. The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union claimed that this excluded the union from negotiations and threatened the 'tally' system of payment provided in all other meat industry awards. The union set up a picket at Mudginberri, which meat inspectors employed by the Commonwealth refused to cross, thus preventing the abattoir from exporting beef. Kerin warned that any attempt to break the picket would almost certainly precipitate a national meat industry strike. Cabinet decided that meat inspectors would not be ordered to cross the picket line and that they would not be replaced with non-union inspectors.

The owner of Mudginberri Abattoir, Jay Pendarvis, took action under section 45D of the Trade Practices Act and the union was fined heavily for refusing to remove the picket. The dispute was eventually settled in 1986, with provisions that the union was to be notified of any contract arrangements and that conditions agreed for the Northern Territory would not be a precedent for other areas of the country.

Selected documents

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019