For the first time in Australian history, construction workers are facing government moves to seize houses and cars in relation to an industrial dispute.
The 33 workers affected took part in an eight-day strike in north-west WA in 2008. Mick Buchan of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) told the ABC that the dispute between workers and the company was resolved at the time.
“It was some time later that the ABCC [Australian Building Construction Commission] intervened and brought charges against individuals”, he said.
The ABCC was established by the former Howard government in association with the Work Choices legislation. When Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister, the ABCC was eventually incorporated into the Fair Work Commission with most of its powers intact.
Before the 2007 election and while the Your Rights At Work campaign was ongoing, Rudd deliberately created the impression he would “rip up Work Choices”, even though this was not his policy.
Instead, Rudd created the Fair Work Commission, which was labelled by unionists as “Work Choices Lite”, because it retained most of the anti-worker provisions of Work Choices.
It should be emphasised that the dispute in question took place under Rudd's government. Had he “ripped up” Work Choices — instead of pretending to do so — 33 workers would not now be threatened with the loss of their houses and cars.
The situation was escalated sharply when Tony Abbott won government last year. He reappointed Nigel Hadgkiss — a class warrior on behalf of the bosses — to head Fair Work Building and Construction (the new name for the ABCC).
It is Hadgkiss who has taken the step of trying to seize property from workers who have not paid fines.
Hadgkiss told media that “if you break the law, you've got to be prepared to pay the consequences”.
However, the real question is, are these laws fair? Of course, the answer is no.
An Australian Manufacturing Workers Association spokesperson told the April 4 West Australian: “These fines highlight the [FWBC] has nothing to do with industrial fairness or productivity and everything to do with intimidating workers into not standing up for their rights.”
Militant unionists have long realised that bad laws need to be broken.
Nobody should criticise the workers who took industrial action — which is, after all, a worker's fundamental right. Equally, nobody should criticise those workers who did not pay their fines.
The labour movement needs to stand up to this aggressive escalation of industrial bullying with a determined resolution to not allow a single house or car to be seized.
In the same week that Labor is facing criticism for having preselected arch-conservative Abbott supporter Joe Bullock into the number one Senate position, this latest move against workers' rights should be a wake-up call about the role of Labor.
Bullock may well be among the most offensive of Labor's spokespeople, but he is not the sum total of the problem.
This issue was caused because Rudd refused to rip up Work Choices, even though he had the political conditions that would have made it possible.
People who support workers' rights need to build a party of their own that will help organise and defend their interests.
[Alex Bainbridge was a Socialist Alliance candidate in WA's recent Senate election re-run.]