Eight hundred unionists and supporters protested outside the Geelong Magistrates' Court on September 12, as Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) official Noel Washington appeared, charged with refusing to cooperate with the Australian Building Construction Commission (ABCC).
The rally and march, endorsed by a broad range of unions, was organised by Geelong and Region Trades and Labor Council (GTLC) and called for the immediate abolition of the ABCC.
Under the draconian powers of the highly political taskforce, it is illegal not to attend, or to remain silent at, ABCC interrogations. Washington could face a six-month jail sentence simply for refusing to disclose what was discussed at a union meeting — outside work hours and off site.
The rally included people from more than a dozen unions, as well as from the Socialist Alliance, the Greens and the ALP.
Tim Gooden, GTLC secretary and rally chair, encouraged people to maintain the fight to overturn Work Choices and not be intimidated by the ABCC. He also had a go at the federal Labor government for keeping the worst labour laws in Australia since 1904. Gooden said: "These laws are on the books of the Australian government and it is they that must change them. But they will only change them when we take to the streets and show them that the majority of workers think these laws are unjust and are prepared to take action to stop them."
CFMEU national secretary Dave Noonan told the rally that the ABCC's bad laws should not be able to exist in a democratic country like Australia.
Amid chants of "Noel Washington — here to stay!" and "ABCC has to go!" the rally marched off and was joined by hundreds of building workers from three construction sites in the Geelong CBD. The march stopped outside the office of federal ALP member for Corio, Richard Marles, who supports the continuation of the ABCC until 2010.
CFMEU state president Ralph Edwards told the crowd that he expected Marles to be defending workers, having been an Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary.
The march ended at the courthouse, where Noonan announced that the next hearing was scheduled for September 30. Washington, who has pleaded not guilty, will have to appear before court again on December 2 and 3 when a verdict will be handed down.
Washington thanked everybody for the great support shown.
Gooden encouraged people to sign Your Rights at Work postcards addressed to industrial relations minister Julia Gillard calling for the abolition of the ABCC. He also told the crowd that Washington has set a great example in defence of workers' rights and that people can sign on to a statement pledging not to cooperate with the ABCC and supporting industrial action should a unionist be convicted under the ABCC's powers (see page 7).
It is expected that thousands of union members will mobilise in Geelong and Melbourne in solidarity with Washington on the trial date in December.
In Brisbane, Jim McIlroy reports that 3000 people, mainly building workers, gathered in Queens Park, as rallies also took place on the Gold Coast and in Townsville. The protests were organised by the combined building unions and the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU).
"Noel refused to attend an interview with the ABCC. He refused to lag on other unionists. Noel has been a hard-working union official for 27 years, and deserves our full support", Michael Ravbar, CFMEU Queensland secretary told the crowd.
"Bad laws need to be challenged. If Noel Washington goes to jail, there'll be immediate action by unions all around the country", Ravbar said.
Ron Monaghan, QCU secretary, said: "Under the ABCC, construction workers have fewer rights than other workers. It's high time the Rudd government got rid of these laws. Every worker has the right to be treated with respect."
Dave Hanna, assistant secretary of the Queensland Builders Labourers Federation, moved a motion on behalf on the combined building unions rejecting fines against unions and workers for "exercising their democratic right", and calling on unions to organise a nationwide response if "any worker or union official is jailed under these laws".
The resolution called for the ALP to immediately do away with the anti-worker laws, and was carried with resounding applause. The rally was united in its determination to continue the campaign to abolish the ABCC and defend the rights of all workers to organise freely in their unions.