As thousands of construction workers took over the streets of Melbourne for the fourth day in a row on August 31 they were confronted by at least 500 police. The workers were protesting for fundamental union rights outside the Grocon Myer Emporium site in Melbourne’s CBD.
Three days earlier, Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) shop stewards and organisers were violently confronted by police on horseback. The police tried to clear the way for the scabs to enter the site and used batons and capsicum spray against the unionists.
As news spread of the violent struggle, thousands of construction workers on city sites walked off the job to join in solidarity and the police were repulsed. No scabs got into the site that day.
The dispute has been going since August 22 and now seems headed for a third week with union members gaining confidence by the day.
In an August 31 statement on the CFMEU website, state secretary Bill Oliver condemned Grocon’s willingness to put police, workers and the public in danger. He said: “This police operation you see this morning has been planned for three days and was ticked off by Premier Ted Baillieu.”
The previous night the union had said it was willing to accept the recommendation of Fair Work Australia that the picket be lifted for two weeks so talks could go ahead. This would have meant that Grocon boss, Daniel Grollo, would also have had to put on hold court action against the CFMEU for that period. Grollo refused to do this.
Oliver went on to say: “Instead, with Baillieu, [Grollo] forced police into a massive and costly operation that could have resulted in serious bloodshed.
“We are not surprised by Grollo’s failure this morning. We know that Grocon employees want the union recognised on their sites and we are determined to see that they have the same rights as all other Victorian construction workers.”
Grollo had signed an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement with the CFMEU in April but then reneged on the agreement by refusing to allow CFMEU shop stewards and health and safety representatives on the site.
The CFMEU decided that on August 31 it would abide by the Fair Work Australia recommendation from the night before and not confront police. So CFMEU officials urged their members to remain peaceful and allow buses of scabs through. However, news arrived that no scab workers were prepared to get on the buses and so the protesting workers began to return to work.
Since August 28, there have been daily mobilisations of up to 3000 workers from 5am-8am. These mobilisations are set to continue. The CFMEU is the main union, but there have also been contingents from other construction unions such as the Electrical Trades Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Plumbers Union.
Discussions are also underway about the possibility of a statewide strike of all construction workers if the state government continues to use police violence against the workers.
Issues in the dispute
At the heart of the dispute is how construction unions organise their members on large building sites. It appears that the Baillieu government, in alliance with Grollo, want to use the Myer dispute to test the construction unions’ resolve. Grollo has a history of anti-union activity.
Traditionally unions like the CFMEU nominate senior, experienced shop stewards and health and safety representatives at the start of new building projects. Once a company has accepted these reps on their sites and on the payroll, the workers on the site elect them.
This is because of the unique nature of the building industry. Building sites are incredibly dangerous work places — 50 construction workers still die on the job each year in Australia. Building sites also have a transient workforce. Usually, the shop steward and health and safety representative are the only workers who are consistently employed on a building site for the entire life of the job.
Sub-contractors and their employees can change daily. A job may start with a small number of workers and suddenly increase to several hundred depending on the nature of the work that week.
The workplace is changing daily, and even hourly. Each day the position of holes, handrails, demolition, standing concrete panels, chemicals and dust hazards change. Each time these changes occur, as the building progresses, they pose a new set of risks for workers and must be dealt with to prevent death and injury on site.
With fewer than 50 WorkSafe construction inspectors in Victoria and fewer than a dozen government wage inspectors, full-time CFMEU shop stewards and health and safety representatives on building sites are vital to guaranteeing safety on site and that all workers are paid properly.
Building companies employ very few workers on building sites. Nearly all the employment occurs through the hundreds of contractors. There can be anything up to 4000 employment agreements operating at any one time. To monitor this requires trained and committed shop stewards on site at all times.
Every building employer knows that despite laws and agreements, unless someone from the union is monitoring the site at all times, they can get away with not paying the correct money and cutting safety to get the job done faster and make more profit.
Grocon wants to be able to nominate their own people as shop stewards and health and safety representatives and ask the workers to vote for them.
Other grievances include Grocon’s practice of employing thugs to intimidate workers on site. These thugs go around and “encourage” workers to resign from the union, and threaten that if they wear clothing with union logos or put stickers on their hard hats, they will get the sack.
Media smear job
The day after the workers managed to resist the police, the media went into overdrive to smear the union, and particularly CFMEU assistant secretary John Setka.
In articles reminiscent of the months leading up to the 1998 waterfront dispute, the tabloids have rolled out a series of unsubstantiated allegations about criminal and bikie gang involvement in the building industry.
Most of these allegations have been made by Nigel Hadgkiss, former head of the now-defunct Australian Building and Construction Commission, now employed by the Victorian government to police the Victorian building industry.
The tabloid media has also tried to describe building workers as high paid bludgers. An August 30 Herald Sun headline screamed “Union Easy Street”, claiming that construction workers get high wages in return for doing a few days work.
The article tried to scandalise building workers getting 26 rostered days off per year. Building workers won a 36-hour week in 2000. It also scandalised workers getting 12 rain/heat days per year, as if those days off are an automatic entitlement. The real story is that workers only get those days off if they are working in temperatures above 35 degrees or if they are working in the rain.
Herald Sun articles have also tried to scandalise work rates on building sites saying that Victorian building sites only average six crane lifts a day. This is a ridiculous allegation.
Crane drivers can lift buckets of concrete or huge concrete panels weighing several tonnes. It is quick to lift a bucket of concrete but takes much longer to lift a huge concrete panel and position it. It is nonsensical to talk about “average rates” of crane lifts.
As happened in the lead up to the waterfront dispute, the media is trying to undermine public sympathy for construction workers.
This dispute is more than just about wearing union attire on site or employment conditions. The dispute cuts to the heart of unionism — the right for workers to collectively organise and have a union represent their best interests.