The Grocon dispute with the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) at the Myer Emporium site in Melbourne’s CBD ended on September 6 so that talks could resume in the coming week.
Grocon owner Daniel Grollo approached the CFMEU about lifting the protests outside Myer and five other Grocon sites so there could be a return to talks under the conditions of a settlement reached with Fair Work Australia.
Since police first attacked the protest on August 28, there have been daily mobilisations of 600 to 3000 building workers at the site each morning.
However, Grollo’s boast to the media on September 7 that the CFMEU had “unconditionally ended” its protests outside Grocon sites has now led to disagreement about the Fair Work Australia agreement.
CFMEU Victorian secretary Bill Oliver said Grollo’s comments were not true. He said the signed agreement betweeen the union and Grocon included several conditions.
“It's disappointing that Daniel Grollo continues to misrepresent the facts,” Oliver said. “Our focus is to resolve this dispute and to ensure that the safety of the CFMEU members on Grocon sites is assured.”
Oliver told the ABC: “There is nothing in this agreement that says should the talks break down next week, that we can’t activate that peaceful campaign again.
“Daniel [Grollo] has tried to make out that we have disbanded this morning and that’s the end of it, never to return. That is not what the agreement says.”
The CFMEU had called on Grollo to return to the negotiating table for more than a week after it lifted any form of blockade or picket in line with a Fair Work Australia recommendation on August 31. However, every morning when unionists returned to peacefully protest they were greeted with hundreds of riot and mounted police.
Media reports said that Victorian taxpayers will foot a bill of about $4 million for the Baillieu government’s decision to send huge numbers of police. Grollo claims that he has lost between $5 million and $7 million due to the dispute. The state government and Grocon will continue to pursue costs against the union in the Victorian Supreme Court.
However, insiders say what really brought Grollo to the negotiating table were the protests outside the other five Grocon sites. From September 4, union members had been turning up to protest outside these sites. When the workers at these sites arrived for work, they would then refuse to enter and all work was suspended for the day. It is believed that Grocon’s financial backers could not continue to sustain such losses.
The dispute has been so bitter because fundamental issues about how construction unions organise have been at stake. Union members consider their right to nominate and elect union shop stewards and health and safety representatives is necessary to keep workers safe on the job. Grocon wants to nominate its own people, as it knows its nominees are less likely to disrupt work on safety grounds.
During the week, Grollo also boasted about a national safety award he had received. Yet any casual observer of the Myer Emporium site can look through the gate and see basic hazards such as five metre drops without fall protection, missing handrails and steel spikes without protective caps.
It seems that even the policewomen sent to occupy the site found it hard to find female toilets — something listed as a fundamental requirement in the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.
The dispute has shown that CFMEU members and the members of other unions in the construction industry are very clear about what is at stake. They have been prepared to turn out in their hundreds, and indeed thousands, when they thought the CFMEU was under attack.
This is why the CFMEU leadership has been so confident about maintaining the daily protests and continuing the actions indefinitely if necessary.