Dave Noonan, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's construction division national secretary, has slammed the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) for "intimidating and bullying" workers.
"The ABCC is engaged in systematic intimidation and bullying of individual workers in the construction industry", he said on May 22. "This government body has the power to fine workers for taking action to defend their wages and conditions and to jail workers who take part in union meetings and refuse to cooperate with secret government interrogations."
Noonan told Green Left Weekly that the ABCC's approach is to litigate first and ask questions later. "They're a highly politically-driven organisation." He said that the ABCC is prosecuting the union and five workers who were employed on a mine site in western NSW, a John Holland project, for alleged industrial action after the workers had complained in 2005 about maggots in their food.
Noonan said that there had been a number of ABCC-initiated prosecutions of the union, including one in the Wollongong area which resulted in a court order that the union take out an advertisement advising people that they don't have to be union members to work in the construction industry. The CFMEU is appealing the order.
The ABCC is continuing litigation against the 107 West Australian construction workers, who were employed on the Leighton Kumagai Perth to Mandurah rail link project, for taking strike action in February 2006 to protect job safety and to protest the sacking of their health and safety (OH&S) representative. The next hearing is due in October, and the ACTU has established a fund to provide the workers with legal support. If the ABCC prosecution is successful, each of the workers could be fined up to $28,000.
In another ABCC attack a CFMEU shop steward, Charlie Corbett, has been charged with coercion and unlawful industrial action and is facing $44,000 in fines for insisting that Hooker Cockram honour a 2004 agreement with the union to take on a third- or fourth-year apprentice at the start of the job and another, preferably Indigenous apprentice, halfway through. The company reneged on the agreement in 2005.
CFMEU organiser John Parker is also facing $66,000 in fines in the Federal Court over this dispute, which was settled two years ago, for allegedly imposing an overtime ban at the site to force the company to honour the agreement. If he is convicted, Corbett faces fines of up to $44,000, while the CFMEU is facing a fine of $20,000.
The ABCC has also bought a court case against crane driver Brodene Wardley over a September 2005 health and safety dispute at the construction site of a Mineral Sands processing plant in western Victoria.
Wardley, a single mother with three children, who was named WorkSafe Victoria's 2006 health and safety representative of the year, was one of the 200 workers who voted to take strike action after a minibus carrying workers to the site was involved in a near miss with a freight train close to the site's main gate. Noonan said that the ABCC had subjected Wardley to "secret star chamber interviews" with the threat of imprisonment if she didn't comply.
The ABCC operates in complete secrecy. When a worker is summoned to questioning by the ABCC, he or she is allowed a lawyer, but the worker nor the lawyer is allowed to reveal the content of the interrogation with anyone, under threat of imprisonment.
"The ABCC encourages employers to try to keep the union out at all costs", said Noonan. "Where employers have a good relationship with the union and access has been properly negotiated, the ABCC will go to that site and threaten the employer with loss of commonwealth work if they don't exclude the union.
"The impact on safety is predictable: we have seen a decline. Construction workers are now confronted with a situation where they have a reverse onus of proof if they take action over unsafe conditions. Workers have to prove that they had a reasonable expectation that the job was unsafe or face prosecution in an industry that kills on average a worker a week. The consequences of that are predictably dire."
"The ABCC is funded $32 million a year — rising to $34 million in a couple of years' time if the Liberals get back into government. It's focus is purely to attack union organisation and activity in the construction industry. It hasn't prosecuted or investigated one employer for underpaying workers, ripping off workers' entitlements, poor safety practices, tax evasion or any of the other practices that some employers engage in the industry. It focuses entirely on anti-union litigation, agitation on sites and propaganda", said Noonan.
"It's clear what the government is up to: with the ABCC, it's trying to do to construction workers, with lawyers in wigs and gowns, what it tried to do to the waterside workers with dogs and balaclavas."