Australia’s industrial disputes body has concluded union workers likely broke the law during a controversial strike against a major poultry supplier last weekend, even as it refused to issue an order suppressing the alleged behaviour.
Workers with the United Workers Union shut downs Ingham’s chicken plants in Western Australia and South Australia from last Friday over a pay dispute with the ASX-listed company.
Workers secured approval to pursue rolling work stoppages at the Bolivar plant in Adelaide, but Ingham’s supervisor Troy Lawson testified before a Fair Work Commission (FWC) hearing on Monday that union representatives acted beyond the stoppages and blocked employees and trucks from entering and exiting the processing facility.
Mr Lawson said the picket began in the early hours of September 22 and continued across the weekend, creating biohazard risks at the plant, including a build-up of waste, because trucks could not leave the site.
The union disputed Mr Lawson’s testimony, questioning whether he had witnessed certain alleged events, but FWC deputy president Peter Anderson accepted his account and said he was satisfied the UWU, its delegates and members, organised the illegal blockade.
“I am further satisfied that the activity of picketing is not protected action,” Mr Anderson said in his ruling.
But though the commissioner concluded the union had acted outside of protected industrial action, he said an obstructive picket did not fall within the definition of industrial action in the Fair Work Act and as such he had no authority to issue an order suppressing the behaviour.
“Lest this decision be misunderstood, such picketing is not beyond the reach of the law,” he said.
“Where conduct infringes common law rights (for example is tortious conduct or conduct inducing breaches of contract) or infringes statutory prohibitions (for example, is secondary boycott activity) it and its economic and personal consequences on individuals and businesses are capable of being subject to legal claim.”
Inghams also alleges an employee who tried to enter the site to work in the early hours of September 22 was assaulted, but the details of the alleged assault have not been made clear.
On Wednesday, the union and Inghams, a major supplier to brands such as Woolworths, KFC and McDonald’s, reached an in-principle agreement on a new enterprise agreement.
The union had pushed for an 18 per cent pay rise over three years, while the company offered an 11 per cent bump.
Workers will receive a 5.12 per cent increase in pay in the first year, followed by 4 per cent rises in the second and third years for a total 13.12 per cent bump.
The increases mean an extra $100 a week in the pockets of poultry workers.
UWU national secretary Tim Kennedy called the deal a “nice little bonus” ahead of Christmas.
“The workers that kept Australia fed during Covid took a pretty admirable stance just over a week ago and because they stuck together, they’re now going to have a nice little bonus ahead of Christmas holidays,” he said.
“This is what union does and what union is, workers taking control of their own destiny in the face of huge challenges.”
The UWU and Ingham’s did not respond to requests for comment on the FWC’s conclusions.