On May 6, five major construction unions met in Brisbane to plan a national campaign to abolish the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
The historic meeting of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), the Electrical Trades Union, the Australian Workers Union and the plumbing division of the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union was organised in response to the increase in the number of workers being hauled before the commission to be interrogated about union matters. Unions are also furious that the new ALP federal government is continuing with the Howard-era anti-worker laws.
The ABCC, an ideologically-driven unit, operates like a secret police force. It was set up by the federal Coalition government in October 2005 to declare war on the building industry unions. Its investigations are conducted in secret — telling someone about your interrogation is an offence — and refusing to attend hearings or answer questions can lead to a six-month jail sentence.
The ABCC replaced its predecessor, the Building Industry Task Force, which was set up after the $60 million Cole Royal Commission into the building industry failed to find any evidence of corruption by unions.
The ABCC, with an annual budget of $32 million, has around 150 inspectors prowling building sites. Its purpose is to undermine and destroy construction unions' ability to organise in defence of decent wages and working conditions. Under the current laws, the building industry is defined so broadly that it also includes transport and manufacturing workers.
The International Labor Organisation has condemned the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act — the Howard government law that formed the ABCC — as being in breach of international labor law.
To date, the commission has been involved in some 38 prosecutions against unions and workers who have taken industrial action over occupational health and safety concerns, including life-threatening work place issues.
A senior Victorian CFMEU official has had his case referred to the Department of Public Prosecutions for defying an ABCC order to attend a meeting to answer questions relating to union activity. He could face a six-month jail sentence.
At this stage, the national campaign will focus on educating the community about the ABCC's savage laws, lobbying MPs to help get it abolished, encouraging workers to pass resolutions and participate in CFMEU actions supporting workers forced to testify or facing court.
Tim Gooden, Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council secretary, strongly supports the anti-ABCC campaign.
"There are laws in this country today that cut across our civil rights and penalise workers for trying to stay safe and have union representation. For nearly three years now the ABCC's task force has been running around harassing workers and union representatives. Over half a million dollars have been stolen from workers in the form of government fines, and every day workers are threatened with jail by the government task force", Gooden told Green Left Weekly.
"If workers are afraid to speak up and defend themselves then we will die at work. In the building industry today one workers dies per week. This is due, in part, to the intimidation by the [ABCC] task force", Gooden continued.
"These unjust laws must be stopped and the task force thrown into the bin."
The campaign to get rid of the ABCC received a boost on May 17 when the Federal Court threw out a case brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission against the CFMEU and two of its officials. The ACCC had accused the union of colluding with a builder against a subcontractor firm that was using non-union labour.
According to the CFMEU, the case was referred to the competition regulator after the ABCC instigated an investigation into the union. CFMEU national secretary David Noonan welcomed the Federal Court decision but is disappointed at the federal Labor government's support for the ABCC.
"It is disappointing to note in this week's budget the ABCC has received ongoing funding from the Rudd government to continue its attack on building and construction workers and their representatives", Noonan said on May 16.
AMWU assistant national secretary Glenn Thompson also believes the Rudd government should dump the ABCC. He said Labor in opposition had promised to get rid of Work Choices. "The ABCC and the special laws for the building industry are part of Howard's IR laws and they should not remain in place", Thompson said.
Gooden agrees. He told GLW that the ALP was aligning itself with business by reneging on its pledge to abolish the ABCC.
In the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, industrial relations spokesperson and now minister, Julia Gillard, promised big business that a Labor government would keep the "tough cop on the beat" — the ABCC — until 2010, after which it will be folded into a special section of Labor's anti-worker "Fair Work Australia" IR regime.
GRTLC will kick off its contribution to the national Abolish the ABCC Campaign with a speak-out on May 30 at 4pm in Malop St, Geelong.
"If these laws become the norm then the police will use them to jail anyone they like. Solidarity with construction workers is now critical if we are to protect what little rights we have left", Gooden concluded.