'This commission is a political witch-hunt'

July 24, 2002

PERTH — [This is an abridged version of a speech by Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) WA secretary KEVIN REYNOLDS to a Socialist Alliance-organised trade union seminar in Perth on July 6.]

The Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry, headed by Terence Cole, was not a surprise to some of us. The cost of the royal commission is staggering — the government has set aside $65 million as its first down payment. The HIH royal commission, which was investigating the biggest corporate fraud in the country, cost $29 million.

It's interesting that, when questioning building workers, Cole says they have "good conditions". Those blokes work 60 to 70 hours on building sites to get their pay. Cole sits for about 24 hours a week for his $660,000, he also gets $3250 per week for his serviced apartment, he gets 52 business class tickets per year to return back to Sydney, a mobile phone, a chauffeured limousine and hundreds of dollars in "living allowance".

One of the issues highlighted by the commission is that a great deal of money has been paid for casual union tickets. Our union is proud of the fact that we force bosses to pay lost time to workers who are forced into a dispute. We're guilty of that and we're guilty of forcing scabs and free-loaders to be in the union or to pay a service fee. Right in the middle of the royal commission, the full-bench of the Federal Court decided it was a legitimate thing to do.

We're also guilty of [industry-wide] pattern bargaining and fighting hard for enterprise bargaining agreements, site allowances, rostered days off, and workers' compensation. Some employers still employ 50 or 100 people with no workers' compensation cover whatsoever. We are still fighting for the sorts of things that we [won] back in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Since this federal Coalition government has come in, a lot of [employers] got a lot cheekier, and they don't provide [these conditions]. We wanted to raise this in the royal commission — if its there we wanted to put our story.

But while CFMEU officials have been there to answer any questions that the commission's lawyers want to put to us, we have no right to cross-examine our accusers, or to give testimony when we want to — we can only put in written statements. But we don't have $65 million [to pay lawyers to defend us], so we're just not going to go down that track.

The last time the commission sat in Perth, the lawyers just kept making allegation after allegation against the union, all of which they tried to prevent us from answering.

This royal commission is an absolute political witch hunt. It is bigger than the building industry and people have got to understand that. Three years ago in Victoria there was a massive campaign within the building industry to establish a 36-hour-week. That is the pinnacle of our claims in our new round of enterprise bargaining which starts in November and December.

Now I honestly believe that there are a number of people in our [union] who have conspired with conservatives to try and knock that campaign on the head. The CFMEU national leadership didn't endorse a national 36-hour-week campaign. But it will be our major claim.

The builders, and conservatives, are very worried that the 36-hour [campaign] is going to spread, like it has in France. You don't have to be a mathematician to work out that this will cut into the profit margins of employers. People will do a lot of things to try and stop it. We've been told not to go on with it, [that] it's going to wreck the economy — well [that's what they said] about the 40-hour-work-week campaign and the 38-hour-work-week campaign.

What could have come out of the royal commission was a thorough examination of occupational health and safety in the building industry, which maims and murders workers every week. The commission could have looked at employers' exploitation of illegal labour and tax evasion. But instead the commission will probably discuss whether or not to deregister our union.

The main thing they will do, whether or not they deregister the union, [is to] bring in a police force — called a task force — to control our industry. It will have National Crime Authority coppers, federal police, other police and task officers with the right to arrest and to enter work-sites, other premises or private homes.

It is also likely that the commission will try to abolish union representation on the boards of superannuation schemes. [The government] also wants to get rid of site allowances and [Cole] wants the union to pay for shop stewards, abolishing the right to elect a shop steward from within the ranks.

[Reynolds also expressed his union branch's support for Victorian Australian Manufacturing Workers Union secretary Craig Johnston, who is under attack from state and federal governments, employers and the federal AMWU leadership.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 24, 2002.
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