By Michael Bull
MELBOURNE — Building unions' campaign for a 36-hour week and a 24% pay rise entered a dangerous new phase on February 16, when union job delegate Colin Reddie was bashed outside his workplace.
Reddie, a member of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), was opening up the LU Simon building site in Little Lonsdale Street when he was struck from behind by two masked men wielding baseball bats. He was taken to hospital with cuts to the head and concussion.
News of the attack spread rapidly to nearby building sites, sparking a rally of more than 500 construction workers who marched on the offices of the main employer group, the Master Builders Association (MBA).
CFMEU state secretary Martin Kingham claims he has evidence that building bosses hired thugs to attack Reddie in an "attempt to dampen members' enthusiasm for the industrial campaign". Kingham told a 400-strong delegates meeting the day after the attack, "We will avenge the attack by winning the campaign". But to achieve this, he said, "we must remain disciplined and not resort to the same tactics that the bosses are using".
The union has closed the work site until a full inquiry has taken place and the culprits found.
Following the attack, Victoria's Labor premier, Steve Bracks, called for the unions to withdraw their claim for a shorter working week. In an indication that the state government is preparing to enter the dispute, Bracks called on government departments in charge of building projects to "seek maximum value for money in all those projects, which means negotiating a better position than a 36-hour week, which I don't think is acceptable".
Both the MBA and the federal minister for workplace relations, Peter Reith, welcomed Bracks' statement. The MBA said the premier had shown "great strength of leadership in opposing the claim".
Electrical Trades Union secretary Dean Mighell said that Bracks had put the bosses' interests above those of workers twice in two weeks, a reference to Bracks' order that workers at Yallourn Energy return to work. Mighell warned of an impending showdown between the unions and the state government.
The MBA and the state's largest building companies are also increasing the pressure on the unions. They have announced that they will lock workers out of sites on Saturdays and the first two days of every week in an attempt to break the union's resolve.
CFMEU state president John Cummins told the 400 delegates that the campaign "is now a battle of wills". He said it was impossible for building companies to operate construction sites only three days a week and that the increased pressure being applied to unions is "a sign of panic".
Cummins said that this tactic would send many building companies broke within two months. He asked delegates to keep members mobilised and informed during the campaign. "Everyone must stay calm and remain disciplined. If we do, this victory is just around the corner", he said.