Ark wins the battle, but the war continues

Rally against ABCC, 2008. Photo:

Ark Tribe walked out of Adelaide Magistrates Court a free man on November 24, after he was finally found “not guilty” of failing to attend an Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) interview in 2008.

As Tribe, a rigger and Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) member left the court house, he was greeted by cheers from more than 1000 workers and officials from different unions. The victory was celebrated as a win for all workers.

Tribe told the crowd that his personal battle was over, but unions must now to pressure the Labor government to abolish the ABCC so others will not have to go through what he went through.

“This battle may be over today. But the war will continue, and if we don’t fight, we lose”, he said.

“To Julia Gillard and the ALP: what side are you on?”

The Greens have promised that industrial relations spokesperson and lower house MP Adam Bandt will challenge Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard directly over the ABCC, South Australian Greens MLC Tammy Franks said.

Franks said abolishing the ABCC was one of the Greens’ main priorities. She told the rally the Labor Party had abandoned the union movement.

“This law, the ABCC and the bad leftovers of the Work Choices laws should be abolished”, she said before the hearing.

“The Labor Party rode on the back of the ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign in 2007 to get elected, they got [then PM Kevin] Rudd in, now they’ve got Gillard in, and have they repaid the favour that the union movement did them? No, they haven’t.”

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Ged Kearney said the outcome was further proof the ABCC was both undemocratic and unworkable.

She said: “Today’s verdict will see Australian unions redouble their efforts to have these unfair and unjust laws abolished. These laws criminalise legitimate industrial activity and deny building workers the right to silence.”

But the Greens and unions — including the ACTU — have criticised any “watchdog” that singles out building workers with a separate set of laws.

Magistrate David Whittle found the notice issued to Tribe from the ABCC was invalid: it was not made by ABCC commissioner John Lloyd or by someone delegated by him.

The decision has been referred to as a “technicality” by many media outlets. Steven Dolphin, from the defence team, disagreed.

“The right laws have not been followed”, he said after the verdict. “It’s hardly a technicality. The notice sent to Ark from the ABCC was found to be invalid on three grounds. The message from that is that the ABCC was not following the laws designed for them to work upon.”

Tim Gooden, secretary of Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council, said until the ABCC was abolished, Tribe would not be the last worker to face drawn out legal proceedings.

“Until the ABCC and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act are scrapped, the threat of future Ark Tribe cases will always be with us”, Gooden said.

The ABCC, established by the former Coalition government through the 2005 Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, targets workers in the building industry, and was set up to break the strength of their unions.

It has continued under Labor, although the November 25 Australian said workplace relations minister Chris Evans said the government “wanted to abolish the ABCC and replace it with another organisation with similar coercive powers”.

This "ABCC lite" would be a special department of Fair Work Australia.

Gooden, who is also a building worker, said that the magistrate’s verdict amounted to an explanation to the ABCC or any replacement about how to win a conviction against building workers who act like Tribe in the future.

“It effectively says that, so long as a formal ABCC investigation is under way and the summons to appear before the ABCC is properly served, refusal to appear would bring a guilty verdict and the possibility of six months jail”, Gooden said.

Unions across Australia are now stepping up their campaigns to abolish the ABCC.

Union officials planned to target the South Australian Labor Party conference on November 27.

Unions have praised the CFMEU campaign in defence of Tribe. Gooden said: “The whole union movement should be inspired by that campaign and Ark’s courage to mobilise to force the Gillard government to ditch these anti-worker laws.”