Unions in Victoria are set to escalate their campaign against the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), a WorkChoices-era relic. For the first time since Howard introduced the ABCC a unionist, Noel Washington, will face court for refusing to attend an interrogation by the commission.
Although he is not alleged to have done anything wrong, Noel faces six months’ jail for refusing to front the ABCC to “give evidence against a colleague about what was said at a union meeting”, he has explained.
In late June, another four Victorian rank and file union members were called before the ABCC over alleged “unlawful” strike action—Todd Duggan, Grant Hyne, Bruce Scott and Robert Aiello. About 90 workers have now been questioned by the commission.
As Bill Oliver, the CFMEU Victoria’s Assistant State Secretary, told the 200-strong rally outside their hearing:
“The ABCC has the power to compel people to attend interrogations under threat of six months jail. These men have no right to silence. Afterwards, they cannot speak to anyone about what is discussed in the interrogation—not even to their wives and families.”
Employers in the building industry continually claim that lawlessness by unions is rife. Yet after spending $66 million on a Royal Commission into the industry the Howard government managed just one successful prosecution—of the building company Baulderstone. The special laws Howard established for the industry have one purpose—breaking the strength of the CFMEU construction union.
The ABCC, a body created by Howard that still receives $33 million in funding yearly, is responsible for a continuous campaign of harassment of building workers and their union. Legitimate union activities are consistently criminalised by the ABCC. The major building companies, through their lobby group the Masters. Builders’ Association (MBA) support the ABCC because it stops “lost time and production”.
But for construction workers this has meant a steady decline in safety standards. The result will be more deaths like those of the two men on a Gold Coast construction site in late June. Workers across south-east Queensland walked off construction sites following the incident, angry at the decline in safety caused by the ABCC.
Noel’s court case begins on Friday August 8. The Victorian Trades Hall and CFMEU are holding a combined-unions delegates meeting on July 30 to plan industrial action in response to his likely six-month jail term. Unionists interstate need to push for delegates meetings or protests in solidarity with the action in Victoria.
There should be massive and sustained strike action to defend Noel and any other union member who is prepared to stand up to the ABCC.
Only powerful strike action will let the building companies know the union will make them pay for the ABCC’s continued existence. The MBA plays a double-dealing game. On the one hand it will be “cooperative” and sign off on enterprise bargaining deals with the union but on the other hand it backs the ABCC to intimidate and prosecute the CFMEU for union activities.
Apart from keeping Noel out of jail, unionists around the country should set themselves the task of abolishing the ABCC. No one should be jailed for their union activities.The Rudd government should get this message loud and clear that it should act now to abolish the ABCC, not replace it with another body in 2010!
The continuation of the ABCC underscores how much of Howard’s WorkChoices legislation is still in place. Employers are still able to take advantage of restrictions on union officials’ rights to enter workplaces and anti-strike laws.
A successful campaign against the ABCC can be the start of a union push to get Rudd to tear up the rest of the WorkChoices laws he has left in place.
Move this motion at union, ALP or Greens branches:
1. We condemn the decision to prosecute Noel Washington, assistant secretary of the CFMEU (Vic), for failing to appear before the ABCC. He faces imprisonment for simply refusing to answer questions, under Section 52 of the BCII Act.
We call on the federal government to:
a. Instruct to DPP to drop the charges against Noel Washington
b. Abolish the ABCC
c. Tear up the rest of the WorkChoices legislation; and
d. Enshrine, in Australian law, the internationally recognised right of workers to take industrial action in defence of their economic and social interests
2. We call on [insert local union council] to follow Victorian Trades Hall and organise a delegates’ meeting to plan a serious campaign to defend Noel Washington and defeat the ABCC.
OR for Victorian union branches:
2. This meeting agrees to send a delegate to the Victorian Trades Hall combined-unions delegates meeting on July 30.