Government’s latest attempt at legalised union busting

CFMEU members and police
The ABCC bill will restore the ABCC as the cop for construction unions, giving it enhanced investigation powers and the authority to clamp down on pickets.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and Registered Organisations bills passed in the House of Representatives on October 18. These bills, first introduced by the Tony Abbott government in 2013, were twice rejected by the Senate, triggering the double dissolution election earlier this year. 

This is the latest attempt to extend the John Howard era’s union busting agenda. The ABCC was first established by the Howard government in 2005, targeting the militant unions that covered workers in the construction industry. It was opposed by the union movement.

When the Howard government tried to extend the anti-worker provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 with the introduction of WorkChoices, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) launched a massive industrial and political campaign, “Your Rights at Work”.

The campaign was directed solely at the election of a Labor government in 2007. But when the Labor government was duly elected, it failed to fully repeal all the anti-union legislation.

The ABCC was abolished by the Julia Gillard government in 2012, but WorkChoices was replaced by a less potent version: the Fair Work Act 2009. This established the Fair Work Building Commission (FWBC). The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 provided the skeleton on which the Turnbull government proposes to extend state intervention into the affairs of unions.

The ABCC bill will restore the ABCC as the cop for construction unions, giving it enhanced investigation powers and the authority to clamp down on pickets. It will compel workers to attend interrogations or produce documents if it reasonably believes they can assist an investigation. People called before the ABCC cannot use the right against self-incrimination to refuse to answer questions. It will apply a reverse onus of proof for unions to show that a picket of a building site was lawful, or face them being shut down by an injunction.

The ABCC’s powers will be extended to regulate the transport and supply sectors supplying construction sites.

The FWBC annual report was tabled in parliament on October 13. CFMEU Construction and General national secretary Dave Noonan said the report — designed to inform parliament about the FWBC’s performance and activities — was notable for what it did not contain. 

“It is nothing but a piece of propaganda written specifically to serve the political purposes of the Turnbull government,” said Noonan. 

“The report highlights the high number of legal proceedings, but it does not say that none of them are against employers who break the law.

“It also does not mention the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s criticisms of the methods deployed by the FWBC — in particular that the agency breached confidentiality and used questionable interviewing methods.” 

The Registered Organisations bill will introduce an independent watchdog, the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC), to regulate unions and employer associations. Requirements for union officials to disclose material personal interests and for unions to report their financial accounts will be increased.

The new legislation will also increase civil penalties and introduce criminal offences for serious breaches of officials’ duties. The financial penalties will severely hinder a union’s capacity to act on behalf of its members and could even lead to bankruptcy.

The ROC will have enhanced investigation and information-gathering powers compared with the Fair Work Commission (FWC), which currently polices unions. These include the ability to seize documents with a warrant.

While the government claims it will apply the same measure of accountability and transparency to unions as it supposedly applies to companies (under the Australian Securities & Investments Commission) the track record of the FWC indicates that it will be an anti-union instrument. From 2011 to 2016 it has completed 33 investigation and inquiries, of which only three were into employer organisations.

Accountability and transparency cannot be brought about through state intervention. This will only come about by union members uniting in rank and file movements committed to rebuilding democratic unions.

Such movements should place demands on union leaderships to take militant action in defence of workers’ rights. A campaign to oppose the Coalition’s union busting agenda along the lines of Your Rights at Work but organised democratically and not harnessed to the Labor Party could be the way forward.

These bills passed through the House of Representatives with the support of the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and were opposed by Labor and the Greens.

Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm has publicly threatened to oppose the bills if the government does not water down existing anti-gun laws. This has diverted the public debate from the real issue. Labor has used the “controversy” to highlight divisions in the government while remaining silent on the attacks on workers’ rights.

The new Senate composition is: Coalition 30, ALP 26, Greens 9, One Nation 4, NXT 3, LibDem and one each for Family First, Jacqui Lambie and Derryn Hinch. The government will need the support of 9 of the 20 cross bench Senators to pass the legislation.

They are likely to get the support of One Nation, NXT and Family First, which would account for 8. The bills will be opposed by Labor, Greens and possibly Jacquie Lambie totalling 36. The outcome will hinge on the two wild cards Hinch and Leyonhjelm.

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