CFMEU fights for safety: ACCC threatens fines

A CFMEU protest in April last year at the Grocon site where a wall collapsed, killing 3 people.

A subsidiary of the giant construction company Grocon was fined $250,000 in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on November 21 for “failing to ensure a safe workplace”.

The charge related to the deaths of three people when a wall collapsed in March last year. The wall blew over in a strong wind and fell onto a footpath in Swanston Street, Carlton.

An advertising hoarding attached to the wall may have contributed to the collapse. However, the wall was in such poor condition that it may have fallen over anyway.

The Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) commented that the fine was merely “a slap on the wrist” for Grocon.

The CFMEU is facing huge fines as a result of a lawsuit brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. “ACCC chairman Rod Sims said the CFMEU and individual unionists could face penalties of up to $10 million” the Age reported on November 21.

This court case relates to alleged secondary boycott action by the CFMEU against concrete company Boral. The ACCC claims that the CFMEU pressured construction companies not to buy concrete from Boral, because Boral was supplying concrete to Grocon, with which the CFMEU was in dispute.

The CFMEU’s dispute with Grocon was over the union’s demand that union-nominated health and safety representatives be employed on all large construction sites. The role of such representatives is to identify health and safety hazards and ensure that they are fixed without delay.

There is a glaring contrast between the small fine imposed on Grocon for the deaths of three people in the wall collapse and the huge fines threatened against the CFMEU for its efforts to ensure safe workplaces and prevent more deaths. The union has already been fined $1.25 million over its dispute with Grocon.

The CFMEU is under attack on multiple fronts. The John Howard government established the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) in 2005 to attack building workers and their unions, including the CFMEU.

The Kevin Rudd Labor government changed the ABCC’s name to the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate, but it continued to attack the CFMEU. The federal government wants to restore the original name and increase its powers.

The Tony Abbott government has also established a Royal Commission on Union Governance and Corruption. While the royal commission may expose some actual corruption by some union officials, its main goal is to weaken the union movement, especially those unions such as the CFMEU that fight vigorously for their members’ rights.

The royal commission has heard complaints by building industry bosses about the CFMEU’s practice of insisting on the employment of union-nominated health and safety representatives. The commission showed no interest in the unsafe conditions that these representatives aim to correct.

An example was the Pentridge site in Coburg, where a worker died in 2009 due to unsafe working conditions. He was killed when a massive concrete pump sank into the mud and fell over.

In the royal commission hearings, the CFMEU was accused of “intimidation” for its efforts to unionise the Pentridge site, ensure the employment of union health and safety representatives, and ensure that workers received their correct pay and all their entitlements. But the royal commission did not investigate the intimidation of workers who were ordered to work in unsafe conditions.

Another front in the attack on the CFMEU has been the Victorian government’s use of police to stop organisers from going onto building sites. On May 22, organiser Mick Powell was arrested for trespass at the Ringwood Aquatic Centre site. Charges were later withdrawn, but only after Powell had spent a night in the police lock-up.

The multi-pronged attack on the CFMEU is part of the drive by big business and pro-business governments to weaken and ultimately destroy the union movement. There needs to be a campaign to abolish the various laws and repressive bodies such as the ABCC/Building Industry Inspectorate that enable these attacks.

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