Coal giants butt into union pay dispute

TWO multinational coal giants have taken the unusual step of threatening legal action against union workers involved in a pay dispute with a different company.

TWO multinational coal giants have taken the unusual step of threatening legal action against union workers involved in a pay dispute with a different company.

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union has been in salary negotiations with Asciano's New South Wales coal division, Pacific National Coal. The union's members, who drive trains that transport coal, have threatened to take protected strike action.

Asciano, Australia's largest listed national rail freight and ports operator, walked away from negotiations with the union over a new enterprise agreement last week.

Xstrata Coal NSW, which is not involved in the salary negotiations, has written to the union threatening to take legal action if a strike goes ahead. A third company, Whitehaven Coal, has threatened to make a complaint to the Fair Work Commission.

The dispute is expected to fuel a national union campaign against the return of WorkChoices under a Tony Abbott government, if it is elected this year.

Xstrata's chief operating officer, Ian Cribb, has written to the union saying his company has contracts with Pacific National for rail freight of 30 million tonnes of coal each year from its mines in the Hunter Valley and Tahmoor, south-west of Sydney.

"If any industrial action is organised by the RTBU, and engaged in by its members employed by Pacific National Coal, it will cause significant harm to the business of Xstrata Coal," he said in the letter obtained by BusinessDay.

"Xstrata Coal is entitled to take all necessary steps to prevent any harm to its business," he said. "This may include the commencement of proceedings in a court or tribunal to stop or prevent industrial action from being taken without further notice to the RTBU."

The union's national secretary, Bob Nanva, said it was "unheard of" for a third party, not directly involved in an industrial dispute, to threaten legal action. He said the strike action would be protected, having been approved by Fair Work Australia.

"This is a co-ordinated assault on the right of union members to collectively bargain and strike," he said.

"This is a forerunner to what will happen if Tony Abbott is elected prime minister later this year.

"These companies are straining at the leash and desperately want to bring back WorkChoices."

Pacific National's NSW coal division has been in negotiations over a new enterprise agreement for 12 months. The union said most of its members were on annual base salaries of $63,000.

A spokeswoman for Asciano said its coal division has been negotiating in "good faith" with the union and was keen to finalise a new agreement. "We have put forward what we consider to be a strong wage offer, which is above current CPI and many other current industry wage claims," she said. "Despite having modified the terms of our offer over time, the RTBU has indicated that it is unacceptable and it is now apparent that the bargaining process has been exhausted."

University of Sydney Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum, who specialises in industrial law, said it was unlikely the union could be successfully sued if it was taking protected strike action, unless it had failed to satisfy all legal requirements under the Fair Work Act.

"If the action is protected and they are validly striking during bargaining over content that can be included by law in a collective agreement then that action is protected and one can't bring legal action against it," he said.

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