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Herald Sun, 22nd Nov 2001

The inability of Victorian carpet manufacturer Feltex to maintain peaceful access to its workplaces provides yet another egregious example of the failure to protect businesses from illegal behaviour by unions. Indeed, more than business itself is involved: one half of the Feltex workforce (including many union members) wants to work while a few union activists in the other half have been trying physically to stop them, with considerable aggressive assistance from outsiders in other unions.

This is part of the union movement’s strategy of trying to force selected large individual companies to make concessions and then using them to obtain industry wide concessions. That, in turn, reflects the realization that, unless they can return to industry rather than enterprise or individual bargaining, unions’ influence and power will continue to decline.

In Feltex, the unions have been using aggressive picketing of workplaces not simply to obtain increased wages. The key union objective is to try to force the company (and fellow carpet maker Godfrey Hirst) to deposit other worker entitlements in a trust fund to be available if the company became insolvent and could not meet all obligations to employees.

Earlier this year, the Industrial Relations Commission ordered an end to union engendered strikes trying to force motor vehicle parts company Tristar to adopt this policy. But the union movement has made entitlements a major agenda item and, as part of its broader strategy, is on this occasion using aggressive picketing rather than strikes.

Unions are tapping into public sympathy for redundant employees arising from the recent upsurge in business failures. But they are ignoring the move making employees secured creditors and the Federal Government’s scheme to help protect redundant employees. They also have little realization, unfortunately, that the additional costs would have to be passed on by employers, reducing their capacity to increase wages and employment.

Indeed, the union attack on Feltex is basically an exercise in union power led by activists whose underlying objective is to create maximum disruption to the private enterprise system. The state secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union, Michele O’Neil, is a well-known Left wing agitator and the statement at Monday’s rally by Craig Johnston of the Workers First group confirmed he perceives himself as a leader in a class war.

The immediate question is why police action to control the picket line has been so ineffective. Sources say that the company is most upset at this police failure, which continues their very poor record in handling violence in industrial disputes. The Victorian Government needs to spend less time discussing disputes with the parties and more time ensuring the law is enforced.