Carnegie case tests union rights

Bob Carnegie outside court.

The statement below was released by the Socialist Alliance on March 2.

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Legal proceedings are under way against long-term trade union and community activist Bob Carnegie. The case has serious implications for trade union rights and broader civil liberties.

After leading community support for 600 workers involved in a nine-week strike at the Queensland Children’s Hospital building site, Carnegie faces contempt of court charges — which could result in fines of up to $400,000 and a prison sentence — and a civil damages suit that has the potential for claims running into millions of dollars.

The supposed losses incurred by the employer, for which the claim is being made against Carnegie, are a result of the company’s refusal to negotiate until solidarity industrial actions on other work sites forced the issue.

When negotiations finally began, the workers' claims were met. The workers have not sued the employer for lost wages. But Carnegie and the unions involved face further charges for nuisance under Fair Work Australia.

The action by the employer, Abigroup, a subsidiary of the giant Lend Lease Corporation, is aimed at intimidating workers from taking collective action or seeking representation by their unions. It is designed to undercut community action in solidarity with striking workers.

Carnegie had initiated the community campaign in response to requests from the striking workers, whose union organisers had been denied right of entry to the site.

Seven years ago the Your Rights at Work Campaign mobilised hundreds of thousands of unionists and community members around Australia to fight the then Coalition government’s iniquitous Work Choices laws.

However, the campaign was demobilised by being diverted into a campaign to elect Labor to government.

The Kevin Rudd ALP government was elected in 2007 as a direct result of the workers’ rights mobilisations.

But Labor proceeded to replace Howard’s Work Choices with a milder version: Fair Work Australia. Workers’ rights are still limited under the ALP — union right of entry is still illegal, and award stripping, job cuts, casualisation, insecure jobs, privatisation and outsourcing have become the order of the day, just as under the Coalition.

Labor did not abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, an institution set up under the Howard government to persecute building workers. Even the International Labour Organisation conceded it infringed on the rights of workers in the construction industry.

The two-year prosecution of rank-and-file unionist Ark Tribe by the ABCC was defeated in court as a result of a concerted campaign by workers and community activists across Australia.

Labor has turned its back on workers by not removing all of Howard’s punitive industrial relations laws. Labor state governments in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria have paid the price for this betrayal and have been replaced by even harsher Liberal-National governments.

Leaders of the trade union movement have been reluctant to wholeheartedly take on Prime Minister Julia Gillard and call for the scrapping of all anti-union laws.

The Gillard government faces probable electoral defeat in September. The spectre of a Tony Abbott government is likely to be used yet again as the rationale for a vote for Labor, no matter how anti-worker it has demonstrated to be.

The legal proceedings against Carnegie will take place during the pre-election period. The next court date is in April. The prosecution under Fair Work Australia, which also involves the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, the Electrical Trades Union and the Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union, will be heard in July.

At stake in these proceedings are basic trade union and civil rights: right of entry of union organisers to work sites, right of community members to support workers in struggle, community pickets, and, the right of community members and workers to take action without fear of intimidation from employers and courts.

Socialist Alliance supports the campaign to have the charges against Carnegie dropped.

[Carnegie will be speaking on a panel called “Fighting anti-union laws: From penal colony to Fair Work Australia” at Marxism 2013 in Melbourne, March 28-31. For more information click here.]

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