Most people use social media to keep in contact with family and friends, watch funny cat videos or to share a clever thought or pretty picture. However social media is also recognised as a powerful information sharing tool and many social movements are commenced and advanced online (think hashtags including #metoo, #loveislove).

It is not a surprise then that internet activism is also being utilised by employees in their industrial disputes. In June 2018, staff from the Bureau of Meteorology made clever efforts to broadcast and raise public support for pay increases during their pay negotiations with the Bureau. Their efforts included:

  • Inserting various hashtags such as “#BOMonSTRIKE”, “#5yearpayfreeze” and “SupportUs” in weather forecasts posted to Bureau social media accounts;
  • Inserting links to their online petition in tweets;
  • Reading out statements over live radio about their pay dispute; and
  • Sending out acrostic weather reports which spelled out “BOM ON STRIKE”.

In response to these actions, the Bureau instituted additional review measures, with social media posts checked by an administrator before they were posted online. The Bureau stated that it was required to put these measures into place because of its responsibility to ensure that its forecast and warning services were not compromised. These control measures were labelled by the Community and Public Sector Union as an attempt to “gag” staff.

What is industrial action?

Industrial action is usually characterised by protests, placards, stoppages and go slows. In this case, the actions taken by Bureau staff to utilise social media and hashtags were a novel way to communicate their cause.

Section 19 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (FW Act) defines industrial action as:

(a) the performance of work by an employee in a way that is different from how it is usually performed which results in a restriction, limitation or a delay in the performance of the work;

(b) a ban, limitation or restriction on the performance of work by an employee or on the acceptance of or offering for work by an employee;

(c) a failure or refusal by employees to attend for work or perform work;

(d) the lockout of employees from their employment by the employer of the employees.

Industrial action is taken in the context of negotiating an enterprise agreement. Only certain types of industrial action are “protected” and there are strict requirements about when it can be taken.

With social media readily utilised by unions, industrial disputes are reaching a larger public audience then previously imagined. For example, in October 2017, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union urged consumers to boycott Streets ice cream products as part of their “Streets Free Summer” campaign during negotiations for a new enterprise agreement. This campaign included a Facebook page and the use of the hashtag “#StreetsFreeSummer” to encourage customers not to purchase Streets ice creams.

Employers should be aware that a large amount of industrial action in the 21st century is now taking place over social media and can reach a larger audience, including customers. Employers should also be aware that unions and their members are increasingly active on social media – in May this year, a new online only union, Hospo Voice was launched to advocate for and assist its hospitality industry members. In short, when it comes to industrial action, employers need to be vigilant when it comes to managing the ‘virtual’ picket line not just the traditional picket line outside the company’s gates.

 

Information provided in this blog is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Workplace Law does not accept liability for any loss or damage arising from reliance on the content of this blog, or from links on this website to any external website. Where applicable, liability is limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.