Tony Abbott’s Royal Commission witch hunt into the unions has begun, with its first hearing held in early April. Abbott’s “concern” about union corruption is a thinly-veiled attack the right to strike and routine union activity.
The construction division of the CFMEU is the main target. Employment Minister Eric Abetz and the construction company bosses are attempting to paint the CFMEU’s defiance of anti-union industrial laws as serious criminal behaviour.
In April, the Federal Court ordered the CFMEU pay a $1.25 million fine for the picket lines against Grocon in Melbourne in August and September 2012. Grocon labelled this “lawless behaviour”. But the fact is the laws are designed to make effective strikes all but impossible.
Abetz’s installation of hardline former ABCC deputy commissioner Nigel Hadgkiss as director of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate, and former ABCC commissioner John Lloyd as chair of its advisory board, have seen the war on the CFMEU stepped up.
In WA, they are pursuing 33 rank-and-file workers for individual fines of up to $10,000 each imposed for a strike in 2008. The unionists face having their assets seized, such as cars and houses.
There has been continual hysteria from construction companies and the Liberals about high costs in the industry. Abetz said in February that building workers were paid “exorbitant wages and conditions”. Masters Builders Australia has attacked fixed Rostered Days Off as inflexible and costly. But what the bosses really hate is that construction workers’ wages reduce their profits.
But unfortunately the CFMEU is sending mixed messages—saying to members it will fight Abbott and the ABCC, but paying any fines it incurs in court. Nationally, the union response to the Royal Commission has been to meekly agree to comply and provide documents. There has been no effort to organise even the kind of demonstrations the unions held against the ABCC under Howard.
The Abbott government is also attacking union right of entry on work sites with new laws tabled in February. They will also reduce union’ power in negotiating agreements on new projects.
The re-introduction of the ABCC is almost inevitable once the new Senate sits from July. In the face of this attack, the Construction division of the CFMEU and other building trades unions need to be calling mass meetings of members nationwide, with a view to strike action against the Royal Commission and to make Abbott’s new ABCC unworkable.
By Tom Orsag