CFMEU accused of breaching Workplace Relations Act

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CFMEU accused of breaching Workplace Relations Act

By Michael Bull

MELBOURNE — The Construction and General Division of the Victorian branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Engineering Union (CFMEU) is facing two separate court actions over alleged breaches of the Workplace Relations Act.

Both actions involve the Office of the Employment Advocate, created as part of industrial relations minister Peter Reith's "reform" agenda in 1997.

The Employment Advocate's functions include providing advice and approving Australian Workplace Agreements and ensuring that "freedom of association" provisions are adhered to. These functions are designed to erode the power of unions to represent members, and to prevent them from holding bosses accountable.

The first action is a response to the union's attempt to organise a small building site with five workers. Union sources claimed that the company running the site, Castoro Constructions, was not party to the National Building Industry Award or the industry-wide certified agreement, although the site was still partially unionised.

Since September, the CFMEU has been trying to persuade Castoro to enter into a certified agreement, but the company has refused all attempts to negotiate. The Office of the Employment Advocate was made aware of the dispute, and it appointed an inspector.

In December, serious safety problems developed on the site, resulting in a mobile crane crew refusing to complete its tasks. This created a second dispute between the builder and the union.

The Employment Advocate immediately began legal proceeding under Section 170NC of the Workplace Relations Act. This states that a person must not threaten to take industrial or other action with the intent to coerce another person to agree or not to agree to making a certified agreement.

The penalties are $10,000 for a body corporate and $2000 for an individual. Even though the final proceeding will not be heard until later this year, a temporary injunction has been granted against the union; the union is appealing.

The second action has ramifications for the federal government's attempt to destroy the notion of the "no ticket, no start", which is supposedly outlawed under the act. The main evidence will be transcripts of a secretly taped conversation between a CFMEU shop steward, Ian Williamson, and John Lyten, a painter employed by Carson Painting Pty Ltd.

Lyten refused to join the union when working on a Hawthorn building site run by the Abigroup construction company. According to an interim hearing in the Federal Court, Lyten has allegedly recorded Williamson stating, "Everybody who comes here to work has to be in the union".

Abigroup's directors include former NSW premier Neville Wran and Don Hayward, former education minister in the Kennett government.

In a second taped conversation, Lyten is allegedly told by a representative of the principal contractor that if he wants to work on site he has to be in the union.

The Employment Advocate, Jonathon Hamberger, claimed that Abigroup, the shop steward and the union have discriminated against the painter because of his refusal to join the union. When questioned about the taping incident, a spokesperson for Hamberger stated, "[The Employment Advocate] certainly didn't do it on this particular occasion", but added that it was lawful to do so in Victoria.

On March 2, Williamson and Abigroup gave undertakings that they would not prevent Lyten from coming onto the site.

A leaked memo from defence minister John Moore last month revealed that the government is considering granting special privileges, such as extensions of time, to builders on government contracts who are unable to comply with project deadlines due to strike action.

These events show the damaging impact on workers' ability to organise collectively and be represented. They signal the beginning of a renewed offensive against militant unions such as the CFMEU.

Union sources told Green Left Weekly that the union will resist such attacks by organising a mass shop stewards' meeting and a campaign by all the building unions (electrical and metalworkers' unions) to preserve the "no ticket, no start" practice.