Gov't plans to victimise building workers



The building industry royal commission's final 23-volume report (except for one volume which is being kept secret) was made public on March 26-27. By the time of federal workplace relations minister Tony Abbott's speech to the National Press Club on April 2, the federal cabinet had already agreed to all of the recommendations in the report.

Abbott used his speech to repeat the threat he made last year that the federal government would withhold around $4-5 billion of federal grants for state construction projects from any state government which didn't cooperate with the planned federal witch-hunt against unionism in the building industry.

The federal government is planning to establish the innocently named Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) with a large enough secondment of state police to cover all CBD building sites.

Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) construction division national assistant secretary Dave Noonan explained to Green Left Weekly that under this proposal, workers in the building industry would lose certain fundamental rights. The right to silence, a fundamental principle underlying the criminal justice system, will be abolished for workers in the building industry.

Abbott's construction industry police force will have coercive powers to direct people to answer questions. They would be compelled to point out to the police who the union official, steward or activist is on site. The ABCC cops will have powers of entry, search and seizure.

The ABCC will also run cases for employers in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and in the criminal court system. This proposal is aimed at persuading more employers to come forward with cases against the construction unions, because the cost of the cases would be borne by the government and not by the employers.

Another recommendation which royal commissioner Terence Cole made and which the government has picked up is to “ make it illegal to even advocate or ask for a pattern bargain”, said Noonan.

Lawful industrial action, which is already extremely limited under the federal Workplace Relations Act, will shortly be even more limited for building workers if the government gets its way.

Noonan described the tortuous process of taking protected industrial action which was proposed by Cole and adopted by cabinet. Employees of any building company would have to have a ballot as to whether they wanted to be represented by a union or not. If they agreed to be represented by the union, it would then need to go through an elaborate bargaining process with the employer.

Prior to any industrial action being taken, there'd need to be a further secret ballot, in which the ballot would have to specify the precise form of industrial action to be taken.

The industrial action could only last for two weeks and then the ABCC would be required to demand cessation of the industrial action and impose a three-week “cooling off” period. The ABCC would have the power to prevent any further industrial action after that.

If Abbott gets away with implementing the recommendations of the royal commission — a ban on pattern bargaining, the introduction of secret ballots, restrictions on protected industrial action, restrictions on the right of union officials to enter workplaces, the introduction of a special construction industry police force, limiting the payment for lost time due to health and safety issues — then construction workers will be severely limited in their ability to protect their pay and conditions. And it would set a dangerous precedent for the whole labour movement.

“What you've got here is a move away from any notion of collective bargaining” , said Noonan. “It basically forces workers and unions to struggle for better conditions with both hands tied behind their back and the employer armed with a baseball bat.”

Noonan also pointed out that this legislation would breach International Labour Organisation conventions because it would “subvert any right to bargain collectively, to be represented by a union, or to take industrial action to defend your wages and conditions, as well as dozens of triggers to deregister the union for the most trivial of matters — those are Cole's recommendations.”

From the very beginning, the royal commission showed no interest in the issues it was purported to have been set up to investigate — corruption and stand-over tactics.

“Most of the 392 adverse findings are incorrect or very trivial”, Noonan said. “Of all of these adverse findings, there are only two where there is any suggestion of threats of violence. One of them involves someone who's been expelled from the union. The other one is a trivial incident [involving] two union officials pushing their way into an Master Builders Association meeting.

“The vast majority [of the adverse findings] are about disputes over right of entry to work sites where employers have refused to allow union officials the right to talk to their members. [The commission] is seeking to characterise that as great illegality and bad behaviour, and the editorial writers of the mainstream papers have picked up on that.”

One of the reasons for the Western Australian branch of the CFMEU having 290 out of the report's 392 adverse, is that under Richard Court's Coalition state government industrial legislation union officials' right of entry to workplaces was far more restrictive than under the federal Workplace Relations Act. The only way that a diligent union could consult with its members was to ignore the law and continue to visit work sites.

“All of those findings were made without the full cross-examination or full examination of the evidence. They're made on one-sided evidence, and it's clear that very few, if any, would stand up in court”, noted Noonan.

“In 18 months, with $60 million, Cole made two findings of employers breaching occupational health and safety, and they were in the Northern Territory. In an industry in which an average of 50 people are killed each year, Cole couldn't find any other employers breaching occupational health and safety.

“Cole didn't find one example of tax evasion in the industry, and 'Snowy off the tram' could go and find tax evasion in the building industry. So it's very clear that he was absolutely biased and subjective in what he wanted to look at.

“There were no findings of corruption against the union. The commission didn't even call any of the so-called organised crime figures to give evidence against the union. It lays bare the fact that the commission was only ever about industrial relations from the beginning.

“They've been through all of our officials' bank accounts, vehicle registration, boat registration, property searches. All the senior officials of the union have had their financial affairs scrutinised, including their spouses, their families, their children and they haven't found corruption, they haven't found our officials to be on the take”, said Noonan.

From Green Left Weekly, April 9, 2003.
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