Workers at a major Victorian truck parts making plant are suing their employer for refusing to allow them to be represented by a union in genuine collective bargaining.

In what is shaping up as another case of a large employer using Work Choices to deny workers’ rights, the workers at Maxitrans Australia Pty Ltd in Ballarat have launched legal action in the Federal Court following a stalemate in their negotiations over a new enterprise agreement.

A group of workers are suing the company under a section of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 which concerns freedom of association and prevents discrimination against union members. The company could incur fines of up to $33,000 if found guilty of a breach of the act.

Last month, employees overwhelmingly rejected a proposed non-union agreement that would provide inferior pay and conditions to those at Maxitrans’ other Victorian plant in Melbourne.

Maxitrans is Australia’s largest manufacturer of truck trailers, and employs about 280 people at Wendouree in Ballarat, including a large number of Chinese nationals on 457 visas.

For months, employees have been seeking to be represented by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union in negotiations with the company.

The union has been issued with certification as a bargaining agent on behalf of its members, but the company has still refused to negotiate. It also ignored a dispute resolution proceeding in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

Instead, Maxitrans has put a non-negotiated deal on the table, which strips away many conditions to the bare basics. This was voted down in a secret ballot by 239 to 38 late last month.

ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence said the Maxitrans case highlighted the need for the government to quickly introduce legislation that will bury Work Choices forever.

“Workers want to have genuine collective bargaining rights, protection from unfair dismissal and a strong independent umpire,” Mr Lawrence said.

“This case shows it is very important Australian workers get back the right to be represented by a union and to bargain collectively for pay and conditions.

“There are too many companies like Maxitrans who are behaving badly towards their staff and thumbing their nose at the Rudd Government’s co-operative industrial relations policy.

“They should realise that the world has moved on from the Howard-Costello Work Choices era. Employers need to treat their staff fairly and with the respect they deserve – this includes giving workers the choice to be represented by a union.

“The fact that large companies like Maxitrans, Telstra and Rio Tinto are able to deny workers’ rights in this way shows how important it is for the Rudd Government to bring in new industrial relations laws as soon as possible.”