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John Passant

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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
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Defend Ark Tribe; defend our unions

Ark Tribe is a building worker. He faces six months in jail for being a unionist. His fifth court appearance starts this Tuesday in Adelaide.

Here’s how the website rightsonsite describes his situation:

Ark Tribe is a construction worker from South Australia facing six months in jail. He has been charged with not attending an interview with the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

Ark was working on the Flinders University site in Adelaide. Conditions were so bad that workers drew up a petition calling for safety improvements, on a handtowel. It took an intervention by the union and the state government safety regulator to get the most pressing problems fixed and finally, after several days, things began to get back on track.

One by one workers from the site were called before the ABCC. The penalties for those who don’t cooperate with ABCC investigations are frightening – fines of up to $22,000 for things like stopping work to make sure workers are safe and jail for up to 6 months if you don’t answer their questions.

Even the police don’t have the powers the ABCC have. In Ark’s words, “If I’ve done something wrong, I’m prepared to cop it, but I won’t be treated unfairly.” We need to get the Rudd Labor Government to get rid of these laws, before another construction worker faces jail.

What is the ABCC? John Howard set up this draconian body to smash the building unions, almost the last vestige of any militancy in unions in Australia.

The building industry is a brutal one.  Unions have won better wages and conditions, and better safety, only through a long history of industrial action against the bosses.

Julia Gillard paints the anti-union ABCC as an attack on ‘thuggery’ in the building industry.  Here is what our ‘left-wing’ deputy Labor Prime Minister said:

The Rudd government is determined to encourage lawful behaviour and a change in the culture of the building and construction industry.

This is exactly the argument John Howard used.

The Cole Royal Commission recommended setting up the ABCC to quash this supposed ‘lawlessness’. It recommended prosecutions begin.

And how many successful Cole prosecution have there been of unionists? None. 

How could that be?  Because it’s all rubbish. 

If there was all this lawlessness and thuggery the police would be all over it.  They aren’t and there isn’t.  

The ABCC’s real task is to stop strikes.  Gillard spelled this out when she said:

The Rudd government’s new Fair Work Act ensures that industrial disputes are governed by clear, tough rules. Under Fair Work, industrial action will only be protected during bargaining and if it has been authorised by a mandatory secret ballot.

Under Rudd Labor, strikes are illegal unless they occur in certain limited circumstances of the type Gillard has outlined.

The building unions’ long history of industrial action to defend lives and jobs, and win better wages, would threaten the whole edifice of strike suppression both the Liberals and Labor support.

So the ABCC has draconian powers, not to stop non-existent thuggery, but to stop strikes and other industrial action.

Workers can be fined up to $22,000 for stopping work over safety issues. This means building workers now often don’t take action over safety.

In the year before the ABCC was set up there were no deaths on sites in Victoria.  In 2008 there were ten. The number of deaths on site in Australia doubled between 2005 and 2009.

According to LaborNet:

Deaths in the construction industry increased, from 3.14 per 100,000 workers in 2004 [before the ABCC ws set up] to 3.86 in 2005, 5.6 in 2006, 4.48 in 2007 and 4.27 in 2008.

The ABCC is part of a wider ongoing Labor Government attack on workers and their right to strike.  Unions have meekly paid millions upon millions in fines for striking (often wildcats over safety.) 

So we have fines and jail threats for workers undertaking a basic human right, the right to strike. This is under Labor. Labor’s priorities are clear – ruling for the rich and putting profit before people. And remember it is Deputy Prime Minister and ‘leftwinger’ Julia Gillard who oversees this anti-union, anti-democratic body.

Can workers defeat the ABCC and Labor? In 1969 a group of 27 left wing unions went on strike across the country to free union leader Clarrie O’Shea, jailed by John Kerr over non-payment of fines, from jail. 

He was released after five days – a mysterious benefactor paid the fines – and the penal powers became a dead letter. The bosses were too afraid to use them.

We might be heading for another showdown. As Dave Noonan, head of the building workers’ union, the CFMEU, said:

If someone is jailed under these laws, there will be mass industrial action.

The peak trade union body, the ACTU, has given verbal support. But to defeat these laws may require more than building workers shutting down the industry for 24 hours.

Demonstrations to support Ark have been angry and well attended. But the issue is too important to leave in the hands of the trade union leadership. 

It has to be the rank and file in building unions running this to take the struggle forward and prevent only a tokenistic response to the possible jailing of Ark.

If the ABCC and their Labor masters can get away with jailing Ark and beating the CFMEU we face a prolonged period of reaction in Australia and the complete dominance of capital over labour in not only the building industry but every industry in Australia.

Are the  rank and file of building and construction unions prepared to push the struggle for the right to strike all the way, and bring in members of other unions like the nurses and teachers who have pledged support? An injury to one is an injury to all.

If so, we could see a re-run of 1969, with Rudd’s anti-union laws destroyed. If not, then anti-union reaction will spread and deepen across the nation, overseen by Labor.



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