Building unions prepare to defy code

The CFMEU construction union has pledged to fight new laws aimed at stripping workers’ conditions and pushing the union off building sites.

A new federal Building Code, introduced alongside the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), will ban companies from federal government tenders if they refuse to comply with its rules.

The new Code prohibits a range of clauses from inclusion in Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, in an effort to frustrate union efforts to effectively organise workers.

The CFMEU is refusing to renegotiate existing Enterprise Bargaining deals that contain banned clauses. A number of the existing, lawful agreements have over two years left before they expire. The union’s National Secretary Dave Noonan told building companies, “we’re not going to give those conditions away and give you a code-compliant agreement just because you ask.”

He said the union was willing to resist the new Code, “by all means available”.

This is exactly the kind of defiant stand needed to stop Turnbull’s anti-worker attacks over penalty rates, the Building Code and the ABCC. The national stop-work rallies held in March saw thousands of construction workers defy the law to take strike action protesting the new laws.

Many of the large building companies have non-compliant agreements. This could see around 1500 building companies excluded from the lucrative multi-million government projects.

They are desperate to finalise new agreements by the September deadline.

This sets the scene for a serious industrial fight against the Turnbull government and major building companies. If builders with existing non-compliant union agreements are excluded from government tenders, other companies may try to adopt non-union agreements in order to get the work.

But a number of enterprise bargaining agreements also commit the union to re-negotiating to comply with the Building Code. Lendlease’s agreement covering NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT, finalised in November last year, allows the company to terminate the agreement in order to negotiate a new Code compliant deal.

It will take the threat of serious and sustained industrial action against companies to force them to live with the non-compliant agreements.

Conditions threatened

The Code is a serious threat to construction workers’ conditions and union rights. It would ban unions having any additional rights to enter workplaces for induction sessions, safety checks or to hold union meetings.

It would also eliminate conditions including guaranteed days off for Christmas Day and other public holidays, the requirement for an equal site rate covering all contractors, and limits on ordinary working hours that prevent excessive overtime. Requirements to employ a certain number of apprentices on a site would also disappear.

The broad wording of the Code, which attempts to ban any clause that would, “impose limits on the… company to manage its business or to improve productivity”, could potentially strike down many other conditions as well.

Construction unions have also campaigned against the Code by saying it would mean “more temporary visa workers”, through banning clauses that restrict the use of 457 visa workers on sites. But measures that are designed to drive 457 visa workers from their jobs, or set unions up to police workers’ immigration status, can only divide the workforce. The unions should be trying to draw 457 visa workers into the fight for jobs and better conditions, not trying to exclude them.

The re-introduction of the ABCC means the law is even more stacked against unions in construction, with large fines for exercising the basic right to strike. Beating the Code and staring down the ABCC means these bad laws will need to be broken.

By James Supple


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