Friday, October 17, 2008

Australian Construction Workers Fight For Democratic Rights

Lisbeth Latham

Australian construction unions have launched a new campaign demanding that the Australian Labor Party (ALP) government of Kevin Rudd abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Despite being elected on widespread working class anger against anti-union laws, the Rudd government have pledged to keep the ABCC in place at least until 2010, with the possibility it role be shifted to another government agency.


The ABCC was formed in 2005 following the passing of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act. Much of the legislation contained in the BCIIA had been recommendations of the 2001-2003 Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry (Royal Commissions are the highest level of public inquiry in Australia). It was established to investigate the “extent of unlawful activity in the construction industry”. Commissioner Terrance Cole found 392 incidents that might constitute of unlawful behavior in the industry over a seven year period. The vast majority of these were instances of unions holding on site union meetings, attempts to ensure all workers on sites were union members and work stoppages over unsafe working conditions. Thirty of the incidents were associated with employer behaviour, these were largely instances of employers paying strike pay. The terms of reference of the Royal Commission did not include examining unsafe work practices pursued by employers or the use of shelf companies which are closed down robbing workers of their entitlements.

REDUCING THE RIGHTS OF WORKERS
The BCIIA undermine the industrial effectiveness of Australia’s construction unions. In doing this it made illegal a wide range of previously legal industrial activity including:


  • Banning collective agreements from including retrospective pay rises;
  • Banning pattern bargaining, where unions seek common pay deals across hundreds of different employers;
  • Increasing penalties for industrial action occurring outside bargaining periods to $110,000 Aud for unions and up to $22,000 for individuals;
  • Requiring unions to hold secret ballots of their members before taking protected industrial action, including on urgent health and safety issues;
  • Introducing a mandatory 21-day cooling off period after two weeks of protected industrial action;

In order to enforce the BCIIA, the ABCC was given extra-ordinary powers to investigate and prosecute workers. If the ABCC believes on reasonable grounds that a person has information or documents relevant to an investigation, or is capable of giving evidence relevant to investigation it can require a person to give the information, or documents or attend an interview. At an interview the ABCC can require a person to:

  • Reveal all their phone and email records, whether of a business or personal nature;
  • Report not only on their own activities, but those of their fellow workers;
  • Reveal their membership of an organisation, such as a union;
  • Report on discussions in private union meetings or other meetings of workers;
  • The penalty for failing to hand over documents or answer all questions asked is six months imprisonment.

A TOUGH COP FOR A TOUGH INDUSTRY?
The Howard government, and now the Rudd government have justified the need for the ABCC, on the basis that the construction industry has a “culture of lawlessness”. However there is growing evidence that the ABCC focuses overwhelmingly on policing construction workers and their unions. Federal Court Justice Jeffrey Spender on October 8, said that the ABCC’s prosecution of the Queensland Plumbing Division of the Communication, Electrical and Plumbing Union and its state secretary Brad O’Carroll, was “misconceived and completely without merit”, and if the “Commission was even handed in discharging its tasks of ensuring industrial harmony and lawfulness in the building and construction industry proceedings” would have launched against the company that the CEPU had been in dispute with.

TARGETING ORDINARY WORKERS
These laws have been impacting on ordinary construction workers across Australia. The largest case was the charging of 107 members of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, following a strike by 400 CFMEU members of the in Western Australia following the sacking of the Health and Safety Officer on their work site. Of these workers, 87 of the workers were given fines of between $8,400 Aud and $10,000, Aud the ABCC had sort the maximum penalty of $22, 600 Aud.

A CFMEU vice president charged with coercing crane operators into negotiations faces six months jail time in December for refusing to appear before the commission.
The Australian trade union's say similar investigations have been little more than excuses for union-bashing politicians to seek publicity.


In September, police in Victoria state withdrew charges against a building worker after two years of investigation. The union member was fingered by the commission, which claimed he threatened to kill inspectors when they visited his worksite.


“They besmirched the name of an innocent man in a desperate attempt to portray construction unions as bullies and thugs,” said Dave Noonan, national secretary of the CFMEU. “It is a disgrace, an abuse of power and corruption of the political process.”

[For more information on the ABCC and the campaign against it visit http://www.rightsonsite.org.au/.]

This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the November issue o f Labor Notes this version has been submitted to Union Syndicale Solidaires International the Journal of French Union Federation Union Syndicale Solidaires.





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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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