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Telstra backs down before court

Telstra has backed down from a fight in court over the legality of its employee collective agreement ballots, despite showing defiance right up to the day of the hearing.

Telstra has backed down from a fight in court over the legality of its employee collective agreement ballots, despite showing defiance right up to the day of the hearing.

People are voting down this non-union deal left, right and centre. They've kicked the tyres and know they're getting a lemon.

Ed Husic, national president CEPU

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) had lodged an application in the Federal Court to prevent Telstra from going ahead with a ballot on an employment agreement in its Consumer Marketing and Channels division. The application was set to be heard on Monday.

The company has been holding ballots with small numbers of employees since an agreement, offering 12.5 per cent pay increases and up to 7.5 per cent in performance-based bonuses, was put to its Wholesale and Service Advantage divisions as a whole and was voted down by workers in September last year. The unions believe that this so-called "divide and conquer" strategy is taking away employees' ability to make an informed decision.

The unions asked Telstra on Friday to stop the Consumer Marketing and Channels ballot because employees had no "reasonable opportunity to decide". Telstra wrote to the union on Monday that its claims were "without foundation".

Yet when Telstra turned up at the court on Monday, it said it would withdraw the agreement in question. According to the union, the withdrawal supported its argument that the ballot process was flawed and undemocratic.

The unions were using the agreement as a test case under the Workplace Relations Act to probe the lawfulness of Telstra's HR strategy of offering agreements to small groups of employees around the country.

The question, according to CPSU counsel Josh Bornstein, partner at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, was whether putting the agreement to small groups of employees denied them a reasonable opportunity to decide whether to accept the offer.

"Even more fundamentally, the case raises questions about what is meant by a collective agreement under federal law," Bornstein said in a statement. "The strategy adopted by Telstra completely deprived the process of any collective input from the employees."

Telstra did not reply to requests for comment.

The strategy adopted by Telstra completely deprived the process of any collective input from the employees

CPSU lawyer Josh Bornstein

Since Telstra's decision to withdraw the agreement, the union was considering its options, CPSU national president Louise Persse said.

The unions had already approached the Australian Electoral Commission with concerns that the ballots were not being held correctly. The commission agreed, but Telstra laid any blame at the commission's own door, saying it always met the commission's standards.

Telstra no longer uses the commission for the ballots, having instead commissioned privately owned share registry firm Link Market Services.

Unionised employees have been striking since December to force Telstra to come back to the negotiating table after it walked away from talks in July last year. Ed Husic, national president of the Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union (which works towards the same goal as the CPSU), said that although Telstra's strike had been put on hold in areas which might affect the bushfires, there were other isolated areas where the union could continue.

His union will also be exploring legal avenues to further the cause, he said. He believed Monday's action was a success. "It helps the employees who were going to vote on a dud deal," he said. "People are voting down this non-union deal left, right and centre. They've kicked the tyres and know they're getting a lemon."