For almost three weeks, hundreds of construction workers have blockaded Grocon’s Myer Emporium construction site in Melbourne, showing the power to stop the company’s assault on union rights. But as this was written the dispute hung in the balance with the union backing down from spreading the action.
Thousands of building workers from sites around Melbourne’s CBD mobilised in a demonstration of union strength with the power to beat Grocon. For nine days the union blockade stopped any movement into the Grocon site and cost the company up to $500,000 a day, on its own estimate.
Workers have faced down the full might of the Victorian police and the law—as well as a campaign of slander and lies in the media. The Herald Sun accused construction unions of links with organised crime and demanding bribes—without the slightest scrap of evidence whatsoever.
After eight days police moved in to attack workers, using horses as well as batons and capsicum spray in an effort to break the blockade. Hundreds of construction workers pushed back horses and held the picket. Victorian Police Commander Rick Nugent was forced to admit, “the number of union members present was so great that we couldn’t safely assist the Grocon workers onto the work site”.
But police then organised a series of massive operations, some involving thousands of officers and the riot squad, to seal off the site with wire fencing.
“This police operation you see this morning has been planned for three days and was ticked off by Premier Ted Baillieu”, CFMEU State Secretary Bill Oliver told workers.
Over 50 workers were smuggled into the site past the blockade on successive days, and 80 people were working on site by Wednesday September 5, almost enough to resume normal operations.
The union was forced to defy a Supreme Court order labelling the blockade “illegal” in order to defend basic union rights. Under Labor’s Fair Work laws, the strike action at the Myer Emporium site was deemed illegal, as the union is not in a formal bargaining period.
This means defying the law is crucial to winning disputes. The bosses continually use the threat of huge fines to scare unions out of taking action. But unions have stared down these threats before and won—the Victorian nurses forced their employer to drop the threat of legal action earlier this year, and building workers staged an “illegal” stopwork in July to rally against Baillieu’s new construction watchdog with no legal consequences.
Yet when Grocon threatened to go after the CFMEU for millions of dollars in losses caused by the strike the union began to back down.
Victoria’s Building Industry Group of unions threatened a state-wide strike by 150,000 workers. But instead of making good on the threat, the CFMEU offered Grollo a compromise where it would end the blockade in exchange for renewed negotiations. But Grollo was not about to compromise when he had the upper hand.
The company now looks set to proceed with the push for damages against the union as well as getting its way over delegates and safety reps.
The CFMEU has begun to spread action to other Grocon sites in Melbourne. The union has organised blockades at three other Grocon sites at Parkville, Footscray and 150 Collins St.
Abigroup workers in Brisbane and workers at Grocon’s $800 million project in Sydney’s CBD also took action in solidarity. In Sydney there was a three-day strike at Grocon over safety issues and efforts to obstruct union site visits.
Grocon is the country’s largest privately-owned construction company, with a turnover estimated at $700 million a year.
Since Daniel Grollo took control of the construction empire from his father, Bruno Grollo, he has earned a reputation as an anti-union hardliner. Twice since he began running the business in 1999 Daniel Grollo has tried to push non-union enterprise agreements on his workforce.
Just two months ago Grollo signed an enterprise agreement with the construction union, the CFMEU. But since then he has tried to stop the union selecting the delegate on site, refused to accept union safety reps, removed union posters and threatened workers who wear union stickers on their clothing with the sack.
The Grocon dispute has shown the power that determined strike action can have. But it is also a lesson in why unions have to defy the anti-strike laws to win.
By James Supple