CFMEU to campaign against ABCC


"We're approaching the future with some confidence notwithstanding the obstacles that are put in our path by institutions like the ABCC [Australian Building and Construction Commission]", Dave Noonan, national secretary of the construction division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union told Green Left Weekly. Noonan spoke to GLW after the CFMEU national conference, held in Sydney from February 18-22.

A central campaign for the CFMEU in 2008 will be around the demand that the federal Labor government abolish the ABCC, which acts as a secret police force for the building industry with the aim of hampering construction workers' organising. "We'll make continuous public calls on Labor to honour its national policy, sooner not later, and we'll continue to expose the excesses and undemocratic laws under which this organisation operates", Noonan said. "We've now seen over 70 people, all bar one construction workers, pulled in and interrogated.

"It's horrible that this should continue under any government, but particularly a government that has been elected on the basis of getting rid of [former prime minister John] Howard's industrial relations laws and we make the case very strongly that they have a mandate to sweep away John Howard's industrial relations legacy. We think that should be done without delay."

Enterprise agreements for construction workers expire in 2008. The wage rises the union has called for put it at odds with the call by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government for "wage restraint" to stop inflation. "The construction industry is prosperous and employers are making large profits as we see the case in companies such as Leighton", Noonan told GLW. "The notion that wage and salary earners are expected to bear the brunt of the fight against inflation we think is repugnant."

"The union will be bargaining for the best deal for its members", Noonan stressed. "The powers-that-be have introduced a deregulated labour market in this country ... There's now no centralised direction or guideline about the size of wage increases so we will negotiate the best outcome we can.

"We're very conscious of the fact that inflation doesn't help working people but we don't believe that the responsibility of fighting inflation should fall on the shoulders of working people."

Noonan described the response of corporate executives to Rudd's call for restraint on executive salaries as "contemptuous". As for the PM's announcement of a freeze on parliamentary salaries, Noonan argued that "this comes on the back of increases [of] 7% for politicians over the last few years — they also have 21% [superannuation] on a very good base rate, so they can probably afford wage freezes better than most wage earners in the community".

The CFMEU is in dispute with John Holland Constructions, which is building the desalination plant in Port Botany in Sydney. The company is attempting to use the federal Comcare health-and-safety legislation, under which the site is covered, to prevent union health and safety officers accessing the site. The company has taken the union to court over the issue.

"John Holland Constructions have taken an extremely aggressive attitude to all unions over the period of the Howard government and they appear not to have realised that that approach was strongly rejected by the Australian people", Noonan said. "They have used their move to the Comcare [federal workplace saftey] system to try to deny workers their legitimate rights to access to safety committees and the like and they have used that piece of law to attempt to deny workers assistance from their union on matters of safety."

Federal workplace relations minister Julia Gillard has undertaken a review of Comcare, to which the CFMEU will submit proposals, Noonan said. "Workers have the right to receive assistance from their unions on site under state legislation. That's the regime that ought to prevail. We need laws that apply consistently across the country that allow workers to elect their representatives and have a say in stopping work where it's unsafe."

A CFMEU member in the Pilbara was killed in January, Noonan told GLW. "If these companies have got nothing to hide they should welcome scrutiny from the relevant union and they should cooperate with people being able to have a say in their own safety because that's what makes workplaces safe, not managers decreeing what's safe."

"Artificial restrictions shouldn't be put in the way of unions operating properly", Noonan said. "In terms of the building industry we now have received three reports from the ILO [International Labour Organization] which criticise the [Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, which gave the ABCC some of its draconian powers] as being in breach of international law and we think that there are a range of things that Labor needs to act on."