Labor’s ABCC changes: Are the anti-union powers gone for good?

In February, the Gillard government rolled the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) into Fair Work Australia. The anti-union ABCC’s powers and role will be watered down. It’s expected the new laws will pass the Senate with the support of The Greens.

The changes reduce the enormous fines building workers faced for engaging in union activity and prevent fines being imposed once disputes have been settled between parties.

But the ABCC’s coercive powers will remain in the new Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate (FWBII). Workplace Minister Bill Shorten said the coercive powers would be phased out in three years, subject to a review.

Labor had a clear mandate to end the ABCC completely, having promised to do so at the 2007 and 2010 elections. In that time, the ABCC has taken millions of dollars of union money. In 2010-2011, the courts imposed a total of $2.57 million in fines on building unions. Fines levied over the 2009 West Gate Bridge dispute alone were $1.325 million. In February, charges against two Victorian CFMEU officials were dropped after ABCC officers admitted to destroying evidence and changing their stories.

These half measures in getting rid of the ABCC now are “a result of the Labor government deciding to keep the Howard-era McCarthyist powers even though they had the numbers to remove them” in the previous parliament, said Greens MP Adam Bandt.

Predictably, the Liberals and their big business mates opposed the changes. Shadow Workplace Relations Minister Eric Abetz promised a Coalition government would re-introduce the ABCC. Victorian Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu is now setting up a version of the ABCC in that state.

The changes to the ABCC are a step forward, and a tribute to those who have campaigned against the ABCC for the last eight years. But until the ABCC is completely and totally abolished, building workers will not be able to breathe easy.

Jack Hammervic, CFMEU member


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