Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2016


Industrial Relations

7:30 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with great dissatisfaction that I come before you again to discuss the anti-union behaviour of an iconic Australian transport company in the United States. As members of the Transport Workers Union here in Australia are preparing to negotiate a new contract this year that fairly rewards and values our nation's transport workers with the wages and benefits their hard work deserves, it is difficult to comprehend that many of their professional counterparts in the USA do not enjoy the same living standards or working conditions that befit Australia's truck drivers. The disturbing reality is that in America if it is your job to safely command the wheel of a 42½-tonne rig with a container full of hazardous materials or imported consumer goods from the wharf to the warehouse you can only expect to earn just under AU$40,000 for a 60-hour work week. Can you imagine hauling everything from mattresses to MP3 players or televisions and tennis shoes to Myer or David Jones for that miserable, unsafe wage? In fact, in America the thought that you would have access to health care and a pension for working in such a dangerous but important industry in the global economy is sadly a joke. There are over 110,000 port truck drivers in the US who are devalued this way.

I raise this again, as I did in 2011, because the culprit behind this American exploitation is that iconic Australian company the Toll Group. Yes, Toll. You know the one. All the green trucks you see on roads throughout this country. They operate at US ports in Los Angeles, New York and Miami. In 2011 Toll Group hired union busters to fight the Los Angeles drivers in their effort to form a union. Despite significant investment by Toll Group to keep the union out, the workers voted overwhelmingly to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. A contract was signed in January 2013 which improved working conditions and wages of over 100 drivers who work at the Toll Los Angeles facility.

In 2013 Toll drivers in New Jersey also voted overwhelmingly to join the Teamsters but, instead of negotiating a contract with the Teamsters in good faith that would cover its New Jersey drivers and mechanics, Toll fought its workers at every turn in their effort to achieve a fair contract with good wages and benefits. Last month I was in New Jersey and I met with many of these Toll drivers and mechanics, who described in graphic detail the hardship they and their families have endured because of Toll's abusive behaviour.

The conduct of the Toll Group management in New Jersey is horrifying and it is no wonder that the United States National Labor Relations Board is charging Toll Group with repeated illegal behaviour. The United States government just issued an amended complaint, which I have here, that details the numerous unfair labour practices. To remedy Toll's illegal actions, the United States government is seeking a court order to require Toll back to the bargaining table to negotiate a contract with the Teamsters. Toll faces its trial before an administrative law judge on 8 March.

Toll has refused to bargain with the Teamsters for almost a year now. It makes me question if Toll is going to begin behaving like this in Australia. Here are a few of the charges that the National Labor Board is alleging against the Toll Group: Toll illegally withdrew union recognition; Toll illegally failed to bargain over its decision to fire pro-union driver Imber Espinosa—following a trial, a judge agreed and ordered Toll to reinstate Mr Espinosa with full back pay—Toll illegally engaged in surface bargaining, which is intentionally negotiating in such a way to avoid reaching an agreement; Toll illegally subcontracted work without first bargaining with Teamsters Local 469; Toll illegally failed to provide Teamsters Local 469 with information necessary to bargain a good contract; Toll illegally agreed with one of its customers called Big Lots not to use union drivers to pick up or deliver material to Big Lots' stores; Toll illegally laid off Toll drivers and failed to bargain with the union; and Toll illegally fired Imber Espinosa for a second time.

I heard firsthand the effect that this illegal conduct has had on the New Jersey Toll drivers and their families. Since Toll began their anti-union campaign in New Jersey, nearly a quarter of the drivers have quit the company because of anti-union hostility, harassment and poor conditions. On 1 July 2015 Toll got up and left the bargaining table stating that the company 'no longer recognised the union as the collective bargaining representative'. Needless to say a company cannot suddenly decide that there is no longer a union—this is a choice to be made by the workers. Toll's actions violate the law and they are being charged by the National Labor Relations Board.

This past November Toll laid off a third of their employee union drivers right before the Christmas holiday while they kept non-union owner-operators working. Toll management has particularly targeted union supporters by harassing them with unfair discipline and cutting their pay by reducing their work. Phil De La Cruz, a former union shop steward at Toll, was told that he should not be wearing a union vest on the job. And take for example Mary and Earl Workman. Mary and Earl were long-distance drivers who had worked for Toll since 2007. They are paid by the mile. When Mary hurt her knee and was out of work in 2012—listen to this—Toll fired her and made her reapply for her job when she was ready to come back. They also started her back as an entry level employee with a new hire rate of pay and less sick and holiday time even though she had been earning much more before her injury.

When Earl became shop steward for the Teamsters in 2015 the company began to retaliate against Earl and Mary—giving them fewer and lower paying loads and reducing their income. In addition, Earl and Mary had to pay a significant amount of money out of their pockets for benefits like health insurance and for supplemental disability, which they purchased through Toll.

When Earl became sick in late 2015 he applied for disability benefits through Toll's provider Cigna. Although Cigna was supposed to pay Earl 60 per cent of his weekly earnings while he was disabled, they tried to pull a fast one on him by only paying $149 per week based on the earnings that Toll reported for him. Fortunately, the union was able to help Earl get his full benefit after some lobbying on his behalf.

We cannot let this poisoned, antiworker mentality thrive at a company that has such a significant presence in our country. We need to send a very strong message to Toll that this type of abusive, antiworker behaviour will not be tolerated. We have a responsibility to raise our voices, as the workers in America raise theirs, and demand justice on the job. It is our responsibility to ensure that Toll upholds Australian values, no matter where it operates. We must help Phil, Earl, Mary and their co-workers achieve the labour standards that Toll Group employees receive here in Australia. For we cannot protect model standards in the global economy if we do not do our part to put an end to the abuse and injustice these workers face elsewhere.

Instead of addressing these concerns as it expands to America, Toll shows what it truly thinks of its workers. They hired labour consultants—we call them union busters—like one Richard Pacheco and another Ken Cannon. Even after its drivers voted to join the Teamsters, Toll refuses to bargain in good faith so its workers can negotiate a fair contract.

The Teamsters union has engaged in a remarkable campaign for the past several years to bring dignity and respect to port drivers across America. If Toll is able to deny these drivers their right to join the Teamsters, it will only be a matter of time, I believe, before they will try and crush their drivers here in Australia. This is why I will work with the TWU to help these American workers—as a part of my commitment to uphold the standards for Australia's transport workers—to protect and improve their livelihoods. I will stand with my mate Tony Sheldon and the members of the TWU. Colleagues, I can only ask the same of you here in this parliament.

It is highly and totally unacceptable for an iconic Australian company—the largest transport company in this nation—to head offshore and think that it can operate under the radar by refusing to negotiate after the employees have voted to join a union, failing to recognise the wishes of the employers and dropping their standards to the terrible standards of American operators off the port.

To those members of the Teamsters that I met in New Jersey—and I will meet them again when I am back in New Jersey in July at the invitation of the Teamsters—I will be standing with them. Good luck to the Teamsters members.