Almost 90 Western Australian construction workers are due to suffer fines of up to $22,000 each on November 5, after admitting at an October 24 court hearing to taking "unlawful" industrial action in February last year. The workers' "crime" was to take part in a 400-person strong strike in February 2006 on the city tunnel section of the Perth-Mandurah rail line to demand the reinstatement of their elected health and safety union representative Peter Ballard, who had been sacked by building company Leighton-Kumagai for insisting on maintaining safe working conditions.
The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), established by the Howard government in October 2005 to police the militant construction unions, has now been involved in 64 prosecution cases, most against unions and union officials over alleged breaches of the 1996 Workplace Relations Act and the 2005 Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act. The Leighton-Kumagai case is the first time that a group of workers who allegedly took collective industrial action are being individually prosecuted and fined.
While the ABCC claims it is a non-partisan "watch-dog" for the industry, in reality it is an ideologically driven policing body committed to defeating the power of trade unions, and particularly militant construction unions — and to contributing to the re-election of the Howard government.
The ABCC has been granted extraordinary powers by the Howard government and is being funded $32 million a year. In gathering its evidence for prosecution, the ABCC operates in absolute secrecy. When brought in for interrogation by the ABCC, a worker is allowed to have legal representation, but neither worker nor lawyer can speak about the process to anyone or they face imprisonment. There is no right to silence for building workers. Workers face six months' prison if they do not "attend to answer questions, or give answers while attending" or "provide the required information or documents as set out by the notice", according to the ABCC website.
As well as targeting unions' ability to take industrial action and to make certified agreements with employers, a major goal of the ABCC is limiting the ability of unions to maintain or increase their membership. The ABCC is zealously attacking the culture of full union membership on worksites.
In August, the ABCC banned the Eureka flag from worksites, arguing it is widely recognised as a union symbol and therefore breaches freedom of association. Civil libertarian Julian Burnside QC wrote in an article in the September 11-25 Big Issue, "If this logic were taken to its natural conclusion, the ABCC would prohibit any reference to unions at any workplace, on the footing that to be told of the existence of a union implies that you have no choice but to join. Thus, in the anti-union Utopia of the ABCC and its political masters, 'freedom of association' means you are not allowed to know of the existence of unions, although you are free to associate with them if you find out about them."
The ABCC's politicised nature was confirmed by a speech of its deputy commissioner, Nigel Hadgkiss, at the October conference of the H.R. Nicholls Society's conference in Sydney, in which he lauded the ABCC's efforts against unions. The society (of which federal Treasurer Peter Costello is one of four founding members) is committed to abolishing the minimum wage, the award system and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.
In an October 11 article in Melbourne's Age newspaper, national secretary of the construction division of the CFMEU Dave Noonan said, "At best Mr Hadgkiss' appearance compromises his status as a public servant — at worst it shows sinister ties between the ABCC and a group of ideological fringe-dwellers".
ABCC footage, taken at Perth building sites and then released to the media, was the key justification used by the Labor Party to expel WA CFMEU assistant state secretary Joe McDonald. Noonan noted: "For months now the union has warned that the ABCC has become nothing more than a taxpayer-funded dirt unit of the Liberal Party, secretly recording union meetings and then leaking them to the media."
The ALP leadership has reneged on the party's decision to abolish the ABCC, pledging to retain it as "a strong cop on the beat", with its powers intact, until 2010, then transferring its responsibilities to a division of the Fair Work Australia inspectorate.