The Supreme Court of Victoria decided on March 31 to fine the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) $1.25 million for its protest action on Grocon sites in Melbourne in August 2012.
Grocon is now seeking costs due to the industrial action, which could amount to an extra $1.7 million.
The CFMEU-led campaign against the construction giant began over the issues of safety and appointment of shop stewards as Occupational Health and Safety representatives on high risk construction sites, in opposition to the management-appointed “safety inspectors”.
After the ruling was announced, the federal Employment Minister, Eric Abetz, reiterated his calls for the re-introduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
Abetz told the ABC on March 31: “The federal government is committed to reintroducing the [ABCC], which would have been able to pursue this with greater vigour with potentially greater penalties.”
His comments were echoed by Master Builders Australia CEO Wilhelm Harnisch:
“Where the [ABCC] did intervene early and where they took action, and where they had the higher ability to deduce higher penalties for breaches of unlawful behaviour like this, it had a major impact on the behaviour of the CFMEU.”
Harnisch made similar comments on January 28 about the need to restore the ABCC. “It was exactly these sorts of allegations that led to the establishment of the Cole Royal Commission,” Harnisch said.
But what were the results of the previous royal commission into the CFMEU in 2002, which eventually ended up costing Australian taxpayers more than $60 million and produced no convictions of union members?
In Jim Marr’s book, First the Verdict, he outlines some of the aspects of the Cole Royal Commission that are likely to reappear in the current Royal Commission into unions. These include:
• A lack of inquiry into the issue of workplace safety among the largest building companies with some of the worst records on the issue.
• No investigation into the alleged cases of tax evasion within the industry or the issue of “phoenixing” (that is, an intentional company liquidation and replacement by a start-up on the same worksite, usually denying workers their entitlements).
• The use of “industrial relations” rhetoric and allegations that unions unfairly enforced union membership.
• The use of unreliable witnesses to generate media sensation to discredit the union’s legitimacy.
Added to this are the allegations of penetration of “bikie gangs” into the union and the industry in general, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s assurances in February that the construction firms that have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars into Coalition-linked trust funds will not be investigated.
The circumstances and the scope for this Royal Commission may have changed since 2002, particularly in regards to including a broader range of unions such as the AWU and Health Services Union. But one thing remains certain — both cases have essentially been political witch hunts launched by Abbott to shore up legitimacy and support for an unpopular Coalition government, and strike at the heart of militant unionism in Australia.