Australian Mines and Metals Association chief executive Steve Knott has lampooned a full Federal Court’s ruling on union discussions with members in workplace lunchrooms, telling a forum they will next be hearing of unions “accessing aeroplane cockpits because the pilots are occasionally munching on muesli bars”.

A full Federal Court last Friday upheld the CFMEU’s right to enter a BHP Coal mine to hold discussions in the crib room of a dragline and rejected the company’s bid for a narrow interpretation of what qualifies under the Fair Work Act as a “default location” for union discussions (see Related Article).

The decision coincided with another right of entry matter, in which Federal Court Justice Tony North on Friday castigated the ABCC for wasting public resources to crack a “little peanut” in its pursuit of two CFMEU officials who failed to give notice and refused a request to leave as they drank tea with a safety representative on a Melbourne Airport site in 2014.

In a speech to the Brisbane Club yesterday, Knott said AMMA would continue advocating for urgent reforms to entry rights such as creating an enforceable code of conduct and removing access to employee lunchrooms when other suitable rooms are available.

Encouraging attendees to view a “little tongue in cheek” animated video about “expanded union site entry laws”, Knott said the provisions were tested when the CFMEU in Queensland argued that its officials should be granted access to the small crib rooms on 2,500 tonne excavators, known as draglines, “where operators might eat a sandwich on a quick smoko break”.

“As ridiculous as it sounds that an employer should transport a union official kilometres out into an open cut coal mine and have their operators stop their draglines so a union official can jump into their small break space with them, the FWC nonetheless agreed with the union’s argument,” he said.

“Next we’ll be hearing of unions accessing aeroplane cockpits because the pilots are occasionally munching on muesli bars.”

Employers are also concerned that a requirement they “subsidise union access to remote worksites” could see them copping the bill for unions taking “helicopter joy rides” out to offshore oil and gas rigs or remote mine sites.

“You need to remember that these sites aren’t two-star-motels with vacancies waiting to be filled,” he said.

ABCC castigated over right of entry storm in teacup

Meanwhile, Federal Court Justice Tony North on Friday castigated the ABCC for pursuing two CFMEU officials over their 2014 visit to a McConnell Dowell site at Melbourne Airport to see a safety representative.The ABCC alleged the officials told a manager he would be “starting a war” if he called the police over their failure to give 24 hours’ notice and told him they didn’t need to give notice as they were catching up with their mate, the safety representative, and discussing a safety issue.

In December last year Justice North said the “central reality” of the case was that it was an hour onsite, with “no aggravation, no stoppage of work, between people who got on well”.

Noting “every single witness has said this was an absolute storm in a teacup”, Justice North said he would also be “amazed” if the Inspectorate thought the matter “worthy of its attention” and it was a “gross waste of public money” to have so many people taken up with it, including four police.

“You know, we do really have better things to do with public money than engage more than a dozen officials to crack this little peanut,” Justice North said.

While Justice North chose to reserve his final judgment, during a hearing last Friday he observed the organisers previously had a friendly relationship with the employer but McDowell was concerned it would not keep getting government work if it didn’t enforce what it thought were its legal powers.

Of the organisers’ threat to start a war, he said it was “not a threat in the sense that I’m going to start a third world war”, but a “Trump-like threat”.

“This is all external forces that are beating up what’s just a really ordinary situation that amounts to virtually nothing,” he said, adding that to use public resources to “bring the bar down to this level, it really calls into question the exercise of the discretion to proceed”.

The national secretary of the CFMEU’s construction division, Dave Noonan, said today it is “hard to see how even a dispassionate observer” could consider the case as anything other than a “useless waste of taxpayers’ money”.

Accusing Employment Minister Michaelia Cash and ABCC Commissioner Nigel Hadgkiss of being vocal on the “rule of the law” as it applied to unions but absent “when workers’ rights are being abused”, Noonan asked where the regulator was when 800 workers lost their jobs over a contractual dispute at Darwin’s Ichthys LNG project this week (see Related Article).

He said Justice North’s comments “speak for themselves about what we can expect on Hadgkiss’ approach in pursuing the union”.

This coverage is featured in Workplace Express.