Behind the CFMMEU’s rightward drift on refugees

At the recent Australian Labor Party Victorian state conference the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) delegation voted with the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA) and Labor’s Right faction to finish conference early.

This meant that several progressive motions, including on the right to strike, changing the date of Australia day, gender equality in superannuation and — notably — a motion calling for a Bill Shorten government to close the Manus Island and Nauru refugee detention centres within 90 days of being elected were not heard.

A tweet following the conference by Victorian CFMMEU construction secretary John Setka — his Twitter account is run by assistant secretary Shaun Reardon — said “Why the hell are Labor people prepared to use a STATE Labor conference against the election of a FEDERAL Labor government? Our best chance for a more humane approach and community is a Labor government and that’s what we’re fighting for.”

Implicit in the tweet is a perverse reductionist logic that says the sole purpose of any advocacy on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers inside or outside Labor is to get a federal Coalition government re-elected.

A similar tweet followed a rally in the lead-up to the Batman byelection in March, where Labor candidate Ged Kearney narrowly defeated Greens candidate Alex Bhathal. The protest, organised by the Refugee Action Collective (RAC), was derided on Setka’s Twitter account: “Sad state of affairs when Greens use Labour Day weekend to campaign for another term of Turnbull/Liberal government”.

Back in 2015 at the Labor national conference, the CFMEU and Maritime Union of Australia blocked a motion from the left to ban boat turnbacks, which was likely to have passed had they supported it.

Even though I’m not a Labor member, as a rank-and-file Victorian CFMMEU member I was very upset to hear my union had blocked voices in the Victorian ALP from speaking out in favour of a more humane policy on refugees and asylum seekers.

I confronted Setka and Reardon about their actions at the conference (and the union’s approach to refugee policy more broadly) at our monthly Victorian CFMMEU construction division branch meeting on May 30.

Reardon responded that his decision (as lead CFMMEU delegate) to vote with the motion to suspend conference early was due to the fact that delegates were leaving and the numbers had shifted so any progressive motions were likely to be lost anyway. He said it was a difficult, spur of the moment decision and he had copped some flak for it.

But he also repeated the logic glimpsed in the tweets he made from Setka’s account, that even though he and Setka personally support a more humane refugee policy, we just need to back “stop the boats” Shorten.

Still a fighting union

I don’t think Setka and Reardon are the devil. They are well-regarded in the industry as union organisers. They have achieved good pay and conditions for construction workers in a context of stagnating wages, which helps drag up wages across the board; and they take safety extremely seriously, which is so important in our industry.

They have weathered a sustained witch hunt at the hands of the Murdoch media and Liberal Party, successfully repelling the Australian Building and Construction Commission anti-union gestapo, police raids based on cooked up blackmail charges, and an $80 million royal commission. It takes steely resolve to stare down such an onslaught from the state and the media.

Moreover, behind closed doors they make the case quite eloquently (albeit with a fair few expletives thrown in for good measure!) for why refugees are no threat to Australian jobs and wages, and how thousands of refugees could be readily and easily incorporated into our economy.

But none of that changes the fact that the CFMMEU, the core of the new Industrial Left (IL) faction, is making unprincipled compromises as it dances the tango with Labor right.

There is an excellent series of articles by Guy Rundle on Crikey that looks at the IL’s departure from Labor’s Socialist Left faction and subsequent signing of a “stability pact” with the “moderate right” faction Centre Unity (CU).

The pact involves a carve-up of Victorian state and federal parliamentary seats, as well as backing Bill Shorten federally. Centre Unity in turn want to recruit the notoriously conservative SDA to their half of the CU-IL bloc, which would mean the CU-IL would, in many cases, be able to cut the Socialist Left out of decision making.

Another possible factor in the CFMMEU’s rightward drift on refugees and asylum seekers is the elevation of Michael O’Connor to national secretary. O’Connor, brother of pro-boat turnbacks federal MP Brendan, was the architect of the CFMEU Forestry division’s decision to back John Howard at the 2004 election. Howard was re-elected, hot on the heels of the illegal invasion of Iraq, and went on to introduce Workchoices and the ABCC anti-union Gestapo.

Getting chummy with Labor right, the AWU and the SDA (the latter being a “union” which has been caught putting its workers on enterprise agreements that are worse than the award) is not a clever tactical move. It actually represents a retreat. The moment you start arguing against people inside Labor or out in civil society who question disgraceful “Stop the boats” Tony Abbott copycat act as a trade-off for seats in parliament or policy changes, it is time to have a good, hard look in the mirror.


Throwing refugees under a bus is the opposite of solidarity. The evil genius of Howard teaching a portion of the Australian population to hate desperate people they have never met — which became the template for the better part of two decades of bastardry by Coalition and Labor governments — is that it breaks down class solidarity. It teaches a big chunk of ordinary Australians to see refugees not as fellow human beings, as equals who need help, but as competitors.

Indeed, a logical sleight of hand sees these refugees become the reason for unemployment, for a lack of infrastructure and housing, for stagnating wages — that is, for all the symptoms of late capitalism’s steep inequality and its cannibalising of the welfare state.

Keep these competitors below you in the pecking order and you can hope for some improvement in your life. Internalise the ruthless mercenary competitiveness of the capitalist system that exploits you. Integrate into the system rather than fight it. No gain for you without inflicting pain on others. Start heading down this path and things only get worse, as we have seen in this country since 2001.

If kicking those below you while they are down is the key to getting ahead in life, then logically the more you kick them, the more ahead in life you get.

So, on the one hand, we have federal governments playing a game of one-upmanship, seeking to do ever more barbaric and heinous things to refugees and asylum seekers. Mandatory detention becomes offshore detention, towbacks, free gunboats for the Sri Lankan junta and sending people back to be tortured and killed. This becomes indefinite psychological torture camps; denial of medical treatment, food and water; “you will never call Australia home”; and beatings and killings at the hands of vigilantes.

On the other hand — and the two are related — we have the rise of neo-Nazi groups like the United Patriots Front and Reclaim Australia. These deluded goon squads are the political toxic waste generated as by-products of the racially tinted “kick those below you while they are down to get ahead in life” message.

Meanwhile, welfare recipients, Muslims, Aboriginal people and African Australians are canvassed as alternative targets for a kicking, and gendered violence is strenuously ignored and glossed over. Australia’s policy of indefinitely torturing refugees in concentration camps is held up by Europe’s neo-Nazis as an example of what they want to see happen there.

The natural conclusion — and this is especially relevant to the CFMMEU’s rightward drift on asylum seeker policy — is that if kicking those below you is the way to get ahead in life, then why not be a scab? Why not cross a picket line? Why be a member of a trade union, an organisation that uses collective strength to combat and restrain the powerful, if kicking those below you shoving “competing” fellow workers out of your way is the path to success?

These colours don’t run

If polls showed that a majority of Australians hated trade union X, and Liberal and Labor both went to an election promising to ban union X and seize its assets, should other trade unions and the rest of Labor goes along with the plan to ban union X to “neutralise the issue”, just because some polls said a majority of Australians were in on the witch hunt? Of course not.

The union movement doesn’t suddenly give up on the idea of unionism if a majority of the population can be fooled into hating unions, or one particular union, for a period of time. And if other unions supported a push to ban union X they would rightly be seen as scabs for their lack of solidarity. This situation is not without precedent in Australia — and you will never guess who union X will be.

So how can the CFMMEU leadership justify its stance that Shorten should be backed on “stopping the boats” to “neutralise the issue”?

Assuming a majority of Australians were fooled into hating refugees — although several polls from recent years show that is not the case — should trade unions just give up on being a voice for refugees, a voice for human rights, for international conventions and laws against those who would seek to disregard these laws?

It doesn’t matter what the CFMMEU has been promised or hopes to gain in terms of better industrial laws or seats in parliament by using its political weight to muffle criticism of Shorten’s cowardly Dutton-lite policies on refugees. It doesn’t matter if it believes its own cooked justifications.

The CFMMEU needs to support refugees and asylum seekers. Not just behind closed doors, but publicly and vocally, like it used to for many years. Seeking asylum is not a crime and it is against the United Nations convention on refugees to discriminate against asylum seekers just because they fled terror and arrived here via boat.

Supporting the UN convention on refugees is a matter of principle. No ifs, no buts.

[Zane Alcorn is a rank-and-file member of the Victorian CFMMEU Construction division and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]