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John Passant

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September 2010



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Building unions: putting lives before profit

Here in Canberra those nasty building unions have been up to their usual tricks – trying to protect life and limb. It has to be stamped out, and the bosses are using Labor’s industrial laws to make sure nonsense like union safety inspections don’t happen.

A few weeks ago a bridge collapsed on the Gunghalin Drive Extension in Canberra during construction, injuring 9 workers, some permanently.

The construction union, the CFMEU, released an independent report which found that failures in the design specifications and formwork structure resulted in the collapse of the bridge.

The same contractor is involved in another major work in Canberra, the Kings Avenue flyover. When Dean Hall, the CFMEU ACT Branch secretary tried to enter the site for a safety investigation he was told to leave.

Despite explaining five times his legal right to inspect the safety of the site, Woden Contractors, the company involved,  threatened to call the police if he did not leave.

According to the CFMEU the client, the Labor Government’s National Capital Authority, also tried to stop Hall’s entry onto the site.

As reported on the ABC website the CFMEU secretary Dean Hall said:

There’s systematic problems in how they’re doing things and what we found on the day, they were repeating what they were doing on the Barton Highway.

What drives the union? Wanting to protect workers on site. Here’s Dean Hall again on ABC news site:

We’ve got to send a message to the industry, that workers safety is number one in industry and profits aren’t. 

This isn’t an isolated attack on building workers and it isn’t an isolated response. In South Australia construction worker Ark Tribe is facing six months in jail. His real crime is being a unionist and defending safety on site.  His latest court appearance was on Monday.

Here’s how the website rightsonsite describes Ark’s 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. Labor have continued this abomination.

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. The bosses don’t like it.

Anything that impinges on their profits is a crime. Defending safety on site cuts profits so it is under attack. indeed, according to the ACTU

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 was 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.)

In 1969 rolling general strikes across Australia freed Clarie O’Shea from jail. Echoing that fighting spirit, Dave Noonan, head of the construction union, has said ‘if Ark goes in, we go out’. That’s the way to defeat anti-union laws.

Only mass strikes can save and, if convicted,  release Ark Tribe from jail, smash Labor’s ABCC and put people and their lives before profit.

Victory to Ark Tribe. Victory to building workers and their unions across Australia in the struggle for a safe workplace.



Comment from Dee
Time September 13, 2010 at 10:32 pm

On 20 August 2010 Noonan sent this message “Tony Abbott is the most hardline right-wing politician who has ever sought the support of the Australian people. This election is a referendum on workers’ rights and construction workers simply can’t trust Tony Abbott: If Abbott wins, workers lose. Under Tony Abbott and the Liberals current construction laws would be retained and even extended. If you support rights at work and a fairer society, there is really only one answer to the question we all face on August 21: that is to reject Abbott and the Liberals and elect Julia Gillard and Labor.” I would like Noonan to just be consistent and continue to attack Gillard as she is the one keeping the ABCC in operation!

Comment from John
Time September 14, 2010 at 7:22 am

Absolutely Dee. It will be interesting to see if the CFMEU leadership actually fight for Ark or back down and let him swing. They will be under incredible rank and file pressure not to do so so if Ark is found guilty (and you have to ask why the union has not taken action before it got to this). So some sort of compromise, depending on the strength of rank and file anger and action, might come out of this.

Comment from Gavin R. Putland
Time September 14, 2010 at 11:50 am

No need to advocate strikes. There are ways to terrorize governments while remaining within the law; indeed, the legality of such tactics is precisely what makes them so terrifying. See – especially the bit about s.82 of the Constitution.

The bush lawyer’s motto is: “Always, always, always counterclaim!” Why? Because you need to raise the stakes to a level that scares your opponent, to exploit the fact that “The bigger they are, the more they have to lose.” And from a government’s point of view, the stakes don’t get much higher than the constitutionality of the tax system.

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Time September 15, 2010 at 10:02 am

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Comment from Dee
Time September 15, 2010 at 4:37 pm

If there are “bad” laws that still make it “illegal” to withdraw one’s labour when all else fails, them I’m going to break the law on every occasion and I will advocate others to do the same. In the same way I support Ark Tribe in his campaign which when he wins will be the first step to get rid of the ABCC and the draconian and discriminatory manner in which it was legislated to operate by Howard and continued by Rudd/Gillard to treat a relatively small group of workers in a different manner than the rest of the population. If Ark goes in the whole of the workforce should go out! Is that close enough to “raising the stakes” enough for Gavin to see beyond s.82?

Comment from Gavin R. Putland
Time September 16, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Dee: Governments *want* laws to be broken. That’s why they make so many of them. Governments *like* industrial action; it gives them a chance to look tough. If you threaten strike action, the government will take you on. If you threaten action under s.82, the government will cave in rather than risk a precedent or give publicity to s.82. Do you want to win or not?

Comment from John
Time September 17, 2010 at 8:56 am

Not sure what else you were going to say Gavin, but to my mind your argument is incorrect. The industrial laws exist to stop industrial action for better wages, conditions and safety. Those that criminalise union activity in the building industry are designed to destroy the main groups of unions in Australia actually prepared to fight for their members at times.

The example of Clarrie O’Shea in 1969 shows what can be done. Millions of workers across Australia went on strike. It was a virtual rolling general strike. 5 days after John Kerr sentenced Clarrie to jail a mysterious benefactor paid the union fines O’Shea had refused to pay.

O’Shea was released from jail and the penal powers became a dead letter. Stopping the flow of profits to the bosses and the threat to do so again stopped the use of the anti-labour laws for a decade.

Government and business certainly didn’t want the laws broken, just as they don’t want the current industrial laws broken.

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