BY CHRIS SLEE
& SUE BOLTON
MELBOURNE — Between 8000-10,000 building workers marched through central Melbourne and converged on the Collins Street headquarters of the federal royal commission into the building industry on October 10, the day of the commission opening.
In taking such protest action, they were defying Justice Terence Cole's threat that building worker protests against the royal commission would be regarded as "contempt", and therefore incur a penalty.
The protest aimed to draw attention to the fact that the royal commission is designed to nobble the construction unions in Victoria. The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the other construction unions in Victoria are some of the strongest unions in the country.
Why is the commission focusing on Victoria where there have been no allegations of corruption in the building industry? It takes no prizes for guessing. The union-bashing federal Coalition government wants to attack Victorian building workers because they have won wages and conditions which are superior to those of building workers in other states. Much to the anger of employers and the federal and state governments, in 2000, Victorian building workers campaigned for, and won, a 36-hour working week.
Although federal workplace relations minister Tony Abbott claims that the royal commission's purpose is to investigate corruption, its eight terms of reference are all pointed against the right of workers to collectively organise and demand fair employment practices and equitable wages and working conditions.
State secretary of the Victorian branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union Craig Johnston pointed out in a speech to the Socialist Alliance national conference in August that the terms of reference of the commission target "inappropriate industrial workplace practice" and "dictating, interfering or limiting the decisions whether or not to engage persons". The AMWU covers metalworkers on building sites.
Johnston pointed out that in the union's pattern agreements in Victoria, the AMWU does force employers to employ people because it's the only way that the union can get its activists into jobs. Otherwise, employers would be able to get away with ensuring that a shop steward never works again. The CFMEU has a similar arrangement.
The establishment of the royal commission in October also serves a second purpose. It is no accident that the commission, which was originally announced by Abbott in July, was timed to open during the federal election campaign. This timing allows the commission to take submissions about corruption in the building industry which will be widely publicised in the media, but without unions having the right to cross-examine the witnesses, and without the allegations being tested until next year. The commission will therefore serve to create the public perception of a link between strong unions and corruption.
On October 10 commissioner Terry Cole issued a directive that all organisations wishing to appear must agree to inform the commission of any "unlawful or inappropriate" behaviour they are aware of. Since the Howard government's laws make just about any militant union action illegal, this is seen as an attempt to force unionists to incriminate themselves and others. Robert Richter QC described this directive as "Stalinist".
This demand resulted in the withdrawal of all unions from the commission along with major construction companies Multiplex Constructions, Baulderstone Hornibrook and Theis and building industry redundancy fund Incolink.
Once these parties had withdrawn, only five of the 23 original interested parties remained. The five are the federal government, the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, C+BUS and the Victorian state government.
Although Cole moderated his directive on October 12, he rejected the unions' application to appear at the commission on an unconditional basis. Instead, Cole listed six basic conditions which unions would have to comply with before they could appear at the commission. Unions would have to agree not to disturb or disrupt the commission with protest action and they would have no automatic right to cross examine a witness.
To highlight the fact that the commission was established as a witchhunt against militant unionists in Victoria, the building workers' protest on October 10 was escorted by a giant kangaroo, implying that the royal commission is a kangaroo court, while workers dressed as clowns said it was a "circus".
CFMEU state secretary Martin Kingham told the protesters that the commission was designed to intimidate building workers, "to make us drop our heads and hide in a hole". He pointed out that if workers stop aggressively defending our rights, living standards and working conditions will decline.
There was a good turn-up from workers in all sections of the building industry, indicating that building workers refuse to be intimidated and have a strong resolve to defend their unions against attack.
The next step in the campaign by building workers to defend their unions is a stopwork meeting on October 24 when all building workers on all sites across Victoria will down tools.