Nothing is beyond big business in its unscrupulous drive for profits.
With their skills in spin-doctoring, the construction industry bosses have been going flat out to sell the idea that Australia needs a Gestapo-like outfit to "clean up" and permanently police the building industry. This is the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), whose special powers treat the nation's 900,000 building workers like potential terrorist suspects.
Champions of the ABCC in the mass media have been conjuring up images of thugs on the rampage on building sites, threatening the health of the economy and the future of the nation. And the Kevin Rudd Labor government has been acting as if there is some truth to this fairy tale.
The ABCC, set up in 2005 under the previous John Howard-led Coalition government, has nothing to do with cleaning up a dirty industry. It is squarely aimed at recreating the "good old days" in which bosses were the masters on "their" work sites and the workers just obeyed orders. The ABCC aims to instil fear, using intimidation and threats of heavy fines and jail terms to pressure workers to rat on each other and break their solidarity with the union.
Now Rudd and industrial relations minister Julia Gillard — who owe their positions in large part to the Your Rights at Work campaign, in which the building unions played a leading role — are determined to keep the ABCC fully intact until 2010. They also plan to keep the ABCC operating in some form after 2010, as a department within their new "Fair Work Australia" system.
Like the Maritime Union of Australia, the building unions have been a thorn in the side of big business for decades, and a beacon for unions and workers in other industries. The ABCC has made the building unions' basic activity of defending workers' rights, and guaranteeing health and safety in a dangerous industry, a great deal harder.
In order to realise their dream of a union-free, more exploitable work force, the corporate bosses pushed the Howard government to introduce the Work Choices laws. They remain hell-bent, under a Labor government, on eradicating the most fundamental human right: our right to withdraw our labour to defend and improve workers' living standards.
While the Rudd government remains very attentive to the bosses' demands, a union victory against the ABCC can open the door to getting rid of all of the Work Choices laws once and for all.
The Socialist Alliance welcomes the statement by Tim Gooden, the Geelong Trades Hall secretary, calling for complete non-cooperation with the ABCC and for industrial action if any unionist is convicted (see accompanying article). Construction union organiser Noel Washington has led the way by defying the ABCC, and we hope his example will multiply so that the ABCC becomes inoperable.
[Margarita Windisch is the Socialist Alliance's Victorian Trade Union Committee coordinator.]