We need industrial action to defend Ark

Ark Tribe will finally find out if he is going to jail when magistrate David Whittle delivers his decision on November 3.

Ark faces up to six months behind bars for failing to attend an Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) interrogation in 2008 about what workmates said at an “unauthorised” safety meeting, at a building site in Adelaide.

Safework SA backed up the workers’ safety concerns and issued prohibition notices against the builder, yet the anti-union ABCC continues to pursue Ark.

Construction unions have vowed to call a national strike if Ark, a member of the CFMEU, is sent to jail. But his legal battle has now dragged on for over a year.

Identical charges against CFMEU official Noel Washington were dropped in December 2008, after construction unions staged a national strike and threatened further action. Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, Christopher Craigie, ended the case but never gave a reason why. This is a typical tactic when the government has asked the case be dropped.

After Noel Washington stared down the ABCC there was the chance to stop it putting anyone else on trial and drive it off building sites. But instead of stepping up industrial action against the commission, the union officials’ strategy has been to fight Ark’s case on a legal technicality and call only occasional strikes.

The threat of industrial chaos if a unionist is locked up means Ark is likely to avoid jail. But the ABCC has been able to continue harrassing the unions by fining construction them for “unauthorised” industrial action and bringing charges against unionists.

In September the ABCC was involved in bringing charges that saw fines of $94,200 imposed against the CFMEU and two officials. The ABCC currently has 37 more cases against construction unionists in the courts. It also continues to charge unionists for refusing to attend its interrogations. The latest is Matt Heath, a 30-year-old builders’ labourer from Queensland.

The union officials have put their hopes for getting rid of the ABCC in lobbying Labor politicians.
In opposition, some Labor MPs said they were against the ABCC. They include Stephen Smith, Craig Emerson and Penny Wong—who all became Cabinet Ministers. Since then their silence has been deafening.

A number of Labor MPs may genuinely oppose the anti-union ABCC. But they haven’t organised a fight inside the Labor government to abolish it.

The Howard government modelled the ABCC on the Gyles Royal Commission into Productivity in the Building Industry in NSW created by Nick Greiner when he was Liberal Premier of NSW in 1990.

It dutifully found the CFMEU guilty of wrongdoing and Greiner set up a NSW Building Industry Taskforce. The Carr NSW Labor Government later abolished that taxpayer funded, anti-union body.

But Federal Labor has not been able to bring itself to do what NSW Labor did and abolish the Liberal Party’s creation.

The building companies work with the ABCC to criminalise unions—they are usually responsible for calling the ABCC onto building sites.

When the ABCC goes onto a site, the unions should organise strikes on all the sites owned by that same company.

This can be a way of involving rank-and-file unionists in action against the ABCC in between the industry-wide stoppages. Individual building companies need to be held to account for their use of the ABCC. This would create real pressure on the commission to stay off building sites.

The ABCC stops construction unions making sites safe. Safety measures cost time and money, which builders hate.

Enforcing safety measures during the life of an enterprise agreement often requires organising strike action.

In 2004, when the ABCC was set up, fatalities in the construction industry totalled 19. In 2007-08, they jumped to 37. In 2008-09, there were still an appalling 31 deaths in the industry.
Constructions unions must be prepared to fight for their rights—through escalating industrial action to wage “whole company” stoppages, and more frequent national strikes.

By a CFMEU member

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