On June 15, around a 1500 people, representing nearly every union, gathered outside Adelaide Magistrate's court for the first day of a week of rallies supporting construction worker, Ark Tribe, in his battle to defend himself against the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
Tribe has been charged with refusing to attend an interview with the ABCC after an "unauthorised" meeting at his site over safety issues. He faces a possible six months in gaol and up to $22 000 in fines. Under Rudd Labor's industrial relations regime – a seamless continuation of John Howard's policies – construction workers are not considered worthy of the same legal rights enjoyed by every other citizen.
Since its creation in 2005, at least 92 (and possibly over 150) workers have been dragged before secret ABCC interrogations at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. In that same period, workplace conditions have deteriorated and construction sector deaths have increased 95%, yet employers go about their business remarkably free from any ABCC attention.
The rally began with a minute's silence to commemorate workers killed on site.
The first speaker, SA Unions Secretary, Janet Giles, declared the attack on Ark Tribe an issue of civil liberties for the general community. She questioned why workers taking action over serious safety issues - issues acknowledged by state authorities and the employer themselves – should find themselves facing gaol.
"It's an outrage, and it's something that we've got to get rid of," she said.
Rally MC, CFMEU State Secretary, Martin O'Malley then told the crowd, "It's about standing up for your rights. And if you have to go to gaol to do it, that is what you have to do to keep your rights. If you don't fight, you lose. We know that story."
Dave Noonan, CFMEU Construction and General Division National Secretary condemned the process that saw an ordinary worker "dragged before the court like a common criminal for standing up for safety, for standing up for his mates, for standing up for his rights at work."
Referring to the Howard government's long campaign to crush unions, he said, "And we knew clearly where the Howard government stood on this issue ... on the side of Capital, on the side of big business against workers.
"Unfortunately," he continued, "on the other side of politics – on the Labor side – we have seen a failure of nerve on the issue of the ABCC."
He called for the government to abolish the ABCC, and finished with the declaration, "If he [Tribe] goes in, the construction industry goes out! All across Australia!"
The greatest reception, aside from Tribe and his family, was given to Paddy Hill (of the Birmingham Six) and Gerry Conlon (one of the Guildford Four). Hill and Conlon spent over thirty years, between them, imprisoned in Britain after gross miscarriages of justice under an oppressive legal system saw them wrongly convicted of bombings in the 1970s.
Hill's rousing speech neatly encapsulated the realities of the ABCC, and succinctly pointed the way forward.
"As you've heard, these laws are not only oppressive, not only are they wrong, but it goes to show how hypocritical the people in power really are in this country," he said.
"They're sending young Australians over to Afghanistan and Iraq under the pretence that they're bringing democracy and freedom to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet they're taking away the freedoms and rights of you, the Australian people. How hypocritical and two-faced is that?
"And if the people in power are not going to listen to us, then we want to let them know that there's a hell of a lot more of us than there is of them. And if they're not going to get rid of the laws, then the best thing for us to do is to get rid of them!
"We had the same problems in England twenty-odd years ago when they came out against the unions. And they started just like this. Picking off a small union and then bringing in laws. Taking them to court. Then they started on another union, and another union.
"Well, this is just the first step. And what they done over there, they're going to do it here.
"And the only thing that is going to stop them is you the people!"
He concluded, "You'se haven't fought this far to get what you've got ... to sit back on your arses and give it back to them without a fight.
"If anything goes wrong with Ark Tribe, then let's bring Australia to a standstill!"
Before entering the court under an arch of union flags to the chant of "the workers united will never be defeated", Ark Tribe ended this first rally with his address:
"I'm here today to defend myself against one of the many unjust laws that have managed to seep into our wonderful society. The same type of oppressive laws that Australian heroes in the past - and to this day - have put their lives on the line to fight against so that we and others around the world can live in a free and democratic society.
"I would like to urge all true Australians to become aware of this disease that is seeping its way into our wonderful country, and do whatever they can to help repel it."