The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) offices were attacked by about 500 conspiracy theorist anti-vaxxers, some CFMEU members and far-right activists on September 20.
Reporter for SBS’s The Feed Eden Gillespie tweeted from the protest that it “didn’t get violent until a few hours in and it continued to escalate when anti-lockdown ‘celebs’ showed up”.
After trying, but failing, to talk to the protesters about their concerns, the CFMEU officers were forced to take cover as the mob threw crates and other objects.
The CFMEU said that the protesters were influenced by neo-Nazis and other extremists.
There are several reasons for the attack.
First, the Labor government is under pressure from big business to reopen the state as fast as possible.
Second, the government decided on September 16 that all construction workers had to prove that they had their first vaccination shot, or evidence of a vaccination booking or medical exemption, by September 23 or lose their job. This was done without consulting the union.
It also declared that all lunch sheds on building sites would close at midnight the following day because it was deemed that the virus on building sites was spreading this way. Protests erupted on September 17 against the arbitrary shut-down of lunch sheds, a hard-fought gain for construction workers and which the union said had been made safe on the big sites by measures including staggered lunch and tea breaks.
The government released updated figures on September 21 stating there were 443 active COVID-19 cases spread across 186 building sites and that 50% of sites failed to meet COVID-19-safety requirements.
The Building Industry Group of Unions (BIGU) criticised the government’s “heavy-handed mandate”, saying the industry would have “voluntarily reached high levels of vaccination” without it. “This heavy-handed mandate by the Chief Health Officer, which was implemented with no notice, has only served to drive many people towards the Anti-Vax Movement.”
Daniel Andrews' government may have been of the view that if it could force the most militant union to accept mandatory vaccination, other industries would do the same.
But given the mixed messaging on vaccinations, the bungled roll-out and lockdown exhaustion, such an approach simply hands an opportunity to the far-right anti-vaxxers.
Most construction workers are itinerant and have an insecure income. They regularly work 50–60-hour weeks to make up for down times. The industry is dangerous. They are stressed and have the highest suicide rates in the country.
It is little wonder that in a period of great insecurity some fall prey to conspiracy theories.
Given that the protest outside the CFMEU office was first announced on September 1, the number taking part from a union membership of 30,000 is small. This does not make it insignificant, however, because it indicates that far-right, anti-working class ideas are growing in the union’s ranks.
Meanwhile, the CFMEU is under constant attack by the federal government and the big business media.
This is because the Victorian construction unions have made the industry one of the safest in the world. They have driven fatality rates down from an average of about 20 a year in the late 1990s to around five or six today. This is despite a big growth in the number of construction workers. In addition, the CFMEU has continued to fight for wage rises.
The CFMEU’s strength lies in its militancy and its network of shop stewards and Health and Safety Representatives. They are its backbone because they hold profit-driven construction companies to account. Trained first aiders, COVID-19 marshals and peggies (cleaners, especially of toilets and lunch sheds) have saved or improved the lives of many thousands of people.
They would have been angry at the September 20 right-wing protest.
The union will have to reflect on these and other issues, including its relationship with the construction bosses who pushed hard to keep the industry open during last year's lockdowns.
Critical will be the union's orientation to members who have been suckered into conspiracy theories about the virus, or who are persuaded by other right-wing, anti-working class ideas. It will require a collective approach, including mass delegates' meetings, where diverse critical voices are seen as part of charting a way forward.