TWO coal giants have taken the highly unusual step of threatening legal action against union workers involved in a pay dispute with a different company.
Train drivers who work for Pacific National Coal – part of Asciano, Australia’s largest rail freight and port operator – are threatening to go on strike after salary negotiations collapsed.
Now Xstrata Coal NSW, which is not involved in the salary negotiations, is threatening legal action against the workers if they strike. The threat was put in writing to the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) last week.
Xstrata’s chief operating officer, Ian Cribb, wrote that his company had contracts with Pacific National for rail freight of 30million 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.
‘‘Xstrata Coal is entitled to take all necessary steps to prevent any harm to its business.
‘‘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.’’
A third company, Whitehaven Coal has also threatened to make a complaint to the Fair Work Commission.
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.’’
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.