On August 11, Ark Tribe, a member of the South Australian Branch of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), will appear in court charged with refusing to answer questions from the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
If he is found guilty he faces a maximum six months in jail.
Tribe is the second member of the CFMEU to face trial for refusing to cooperate with the ABCC. In November, the ABCC dropped a similar case against CFMEU Victorian branch assistant secretary Noel Washington.
Despite union opposition to the undemocratic powers of the ABCC, the ALP government, under PM Kevin Rudd, plans to keep most of the ABCC's powers under a new body — the Building Industry Inspectorate.
Unions, particularly blue-collar unions, have pushed for the total abolition of the ABCC since the election of the Rudd government in late 2007.
The ABCC discriminates against building union members by treating them as criminals and takes away many of their rights, including the right to silence.
The ABCC’s coercive powers are designed to intimidate building workers. It can order any person it deems to have information relevant to an investigation to face interrogation or face six months’ jail.
Ironically, the penalty for an individual failing to cooperate with the ABCC is far worse than the penalty for many of the “violations” the ABCC investigates.
Unions have also said the ALP has a mandate to remove all of the Howard government's anti-worker legislation. Most who voted for the ALP did so in the belief the ALP would abolish all of the anti-union legislation of former PM John Howard.
A ruling by the International Labour Organisation in March has increased the pressure on the government. The ILO said the ABCC and the associated Australian Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act breach Australia's commitments as a signatory to the ILO's conventions.
Yet the government is trying to justify keeping most of the ABCC's powers with the argument a “tough cop” has to deal with “lawlessness” in the building industry.
The Rudd government is employing the same false argument the Howard government used to justify the introduction of the union-busting ABCC.
Howard set up the ABCC in 2005 under the cover of recommendations made by a royal commission into the building industry led by former judge Terence Cole. The government launched the Cole commission, with $60 million in funding, to investigate “unlawful activity” in the construction industry. Unions condemned the commission as a blatantly anti-union exercise.
When the commission was launched in 2001, the ALP described it as a witch-hunt against the militant construction unions, in particular the CFMEU.
Ninety percent of the commission's time was devoted to allegations against building unions. Little or no time was devoted to investigating allegations against employers. Unions were denied the right to cross-examine witnesses who made allegations against them.
Despite the commission’s anti-union terms of reference, Cole was able to find only 392 cases of possible unlawful behaviour in the industry over a seven-year period. The vast majority of these “unlawful” acts were instances of unions holding on-site union meetings; union attempts to ensure all workers on sites were union members; and work stoppages over unsafe working conditions.
Although 30 of the incidents were associated with employer behaviour, these were largely instances of employers paying strike pay.
The commission failed to make any recommendations to stop employer breaches of occupational health and safety laws, despite the shocking one work-related death a week record of the industry.
The commission’s terms of reference did not include an examination of employer’s schemes to rob workers of their lawful entitlements.
The ABCC, with its power to initiate prosecutions, was created by the Howard government to crush the industrial muscle of the building unions and help drive down wages and conditions in the industry.
The Rudd government's commitment to transfer most of the ABCC's powers to the Building Industry Inspectorate reflects that the ALP, like the Liberals, is committed to attacking the rights of workers to organise in order to protect bosses’ profits.
Originally published in Green Left Weekly Issue #804
Friday, July 31, 2009