The Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecution's (CDPP) formal withdrawal of charges against Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) official Noel Washington on November 28 is a major victory for all workers and unionists.
Washington was charged under the 2005 Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, which makes it a crime not to appear when requested for an interview with the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
The penalty for defying the ABCC is six months' imprisonment.
According to Washington, the charges against him were dropped on a technicality. He told Green Left Weekly that it is important to keep up the campaign against the politically-driven ABCC because it is free to reissue the notice to any building industry workers anytime.
Washington was not actually investigated for any specific suspected breach of the act, but had refused to disclose to the ABCC what happened at a union meeting held out of work hours and off-site.
His trial had been set for December 2-3 at the Melbourne Magistrates Court. Building industry unions had called rallies around Australia to coincide with his court appearance to support Washington and increase pressure for the abolition of the ABCC.
CFMEU construction division national secretary Dave Noonan said that the first cracks are appearing in the ABCC laws, but the campaign will not be finished until the laws are scrapped.
According to a November 26 article on LaborNet, Noonan said: "For months now we have spoken out [about] how the laws are unfair. The decision by the DPP today to drop the [charges] shows that they are fundamentally unworkable ... a clear message to the Government that the laws are in disarray and need to be abolished.
"The fact that over 100 workers have already been dragged before the ABCC and threatened with imprisonment should not be forgotten", Noonan continued. "These laws were created by a Government determined to destroy building workers' rights, and it is time that they were removed."
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Jeff Lawrence said the prosecution of Washington had been "a futile waste of taxpayers' money and resources. The decision by the DPP to drop the charges renders the ABCC and its discriminatory laws even more obsolete."
Most of the ABCC investigations have been in relation to industrial action taken by workers in response to serious health and safety breaches. The ABCC's draconian powers have been condemned by the International Labour Organisation.
In May, five unions launched a national campaign to defend Washington and abolish the ABCC, and the Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council initiated a sign-on statement of non-cooperation with the ABCC (visit <http://geelongtradeshall.blogspot.com>).
Industry observers believe that the federal Labor government wanted to avoid the embarrassment of tens of thousands of angry unionists publicly protesting against the ABCC just one week after it introduced its Fair Work bill to parliament (see article on page 11.)
Washington's defiance sets the example: if you stand up and fight you can win.
Craig Johnston, a CFMEU member and former secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union who was jailed in 2004 on charges relating to an industrial dispute in 2001, told GLW: "Noel has put the interests of fellow workers and future generations before his own personal freedom and we all should be very thankful for that. Jail is a very unpleasant place, but Noel was prepared to sacrifice time with his family to fight unjust laws that affect us all."
Washington told GLW that he was very grateful for the support he received from unionists and trades and labour councils around Australia and internationally.
The task now is to keep up the momentum of non-cooperation with the ABCC and continue to mobilise until the ABCC, or any kind of anti-worker building inspectorate, is gone for good. The protest rallies against the ABCC will go ahead on December 2 in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Perth.