"The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have got it right on the ABCC [Australian Building and Construction Commission]", wrote Wilhelm Harnisch, Master Builders Australia's (MBA) chief executive officer, on August 28 on the ABC Unleashed website.
The ABCC is an ideologically driven organisation set up by the Coalition government in October 2005 to destroy the unions in the building industry and deliver a profit bonanza for developers. For decades, the building industry unions have won wage increases and health and safety improvements that have benefited all workers in Australia.
The ABCC operates like a police force with extensive coercive powers and secret investigations. The right to silence is not recognised; refusing to attend ABCC hearings or answer questions can lead to six months in jail.
The ABCC's predecessor, the Building Industry Task Force, was set up after the $60 million Cole Royal Commission into the building industry. To the disappointment of some bosses and media, the Cole commission found no evidence of corruption or endemic lawlessness in the building industry unions, and not a single trade unionist was charged for any wrongdoing.
Despite this, the ABCC was established — supposedly as a neutral body — to "clean up" the building industry. ABCC activity has increased under the Rudd Labor government and figures from the July 15 Australian show that unions were the subject of 73% of all ABCC investigations, with employees featuring in 11% and head contractors in 7%.
Industrial relations minister and deputy prime minister Julia Gillard has repeatedly and publicly promised building industry bosses that the ALP will keep the ABCC intact until 2010. According to Gillard, the government is also committed to setting up a specific inspectorate for the building and construction industry, and the hospitality industry, after 2010.
Building industry unions have been lobbying the government to abolish the ABCC, and union officials, legal representatives and building workers met with ALP parliamentarians in Canberra on August 25 to try to win their support.
Victorian Senator Gavin Marshall initiated a motion to abolish the ABCC to be voted on by the ALP parliamentary caucus on September 16. However, the September 3 Australian Financial Review reported that Marshall's motion has been watered down in a bid to win maximum support in the caucus. The version that is voted on may not even contain the words ABCC, but instead talk broadly about employees' rights under international labour conventions.
The MBA claims that the ABCC's draconian powers are warranted by the unlawful and thuggish behaviour of the building unions. Harnisch let the cat out of the bag, however, when he quoted on Unleashed a report by economic consultants Econtech. That report states that the ABCC has helped deliver unprecedented industrial peace, leading to productivity gains of up to 10% in the industry, which translates directly into profits for the bosses.
Tim Gooden, Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council secretary, told Green Left Weekly: "Harnisch and his mates are arguing for an industrial relations policy that takes us back to the bad old days of masters and slaves, where bosses have all the rights. He makes it pretty clear that employers want more profits from the expected $150 billion of capital expenditure over the next 10 years.
"Employers also hope that the ABCC, or an equivalent, can be extended into other industries. This would be a disaster for Australian workers. It is crucial that the union movement makes a strong stand against this employer- and government-orchestrated bullying of workers."
Getting rid of the ABCC, Gooden said, can only be achieved by "continually mobilising union members through stop-work meetings, rallies and public meetings leading up to rolling 24-hour stop-works and work bans across different industries. These should be both solidarity actions by unions not in the building industry and actions aimed at the industry leaders who are campaigning to keep the laws.
"Rudd listens to employers more than to workers and the union movement, so the bosses must feel economic pain to get them to back off and call on their government to change the laws."
Unionists and community supporters will protest outside Geelong Magistrates' Court on September 12 in support of construction union official Noel Washington, who has been charged for refusing to cooperate with the ABCC. For more information, visit http://geelongtradeshall.blogspot.com or phone Geelong Trades Hall on (03) 5221 1712.