By Di Quin
MELBOURNE — Recent elections of the Building Workers Industrial Union division of the Construction, Forestry and Energy Workers' Union (CFMEU) in Victoria are seen as an important step towards creating a united union within the building industry.
The winning ticket comprised BWIU Rank and File (mostly BWIU incumbents) headed by Martin Kingham, and a Reform Group of mostly former Builders' Labourers Federation executive members, who had maintained dual membership in the BLF and BWIU.
For two decades the two unions fought each other instead of uniting on the issues facing building workers and opposing the employers, who continue to erode wages, working conditions and job safety.
John Cummins, acting secretary of the Victorian branch of the BLF, told Green Left Weekly that the two unions have chosen to find a basis for agreement. They have come to mutual recognition of the need to work together in light of the current industrial climate, the crisis in the building industry and the alarmingly low numbers of unionised building workers.
"Unions are on the nose on building sites", says Cummins, who sees the election success as one more chance for the unions to look after their members.
"While there will be no concessions on many of the matters outstanding between the two groups, the message from the sites is that the BWIU and BLF members are prepared to work together. The focus must be on fighting Kennett", he said.
The unity approach in Victoria is being reflected nationally, with members of registered BLF branches voting on amalgamation with the CFMEU later this year.
Discussions about amalgamation began in 1991 in response to an agreement between the BWIU and the
Australian Federation of Construction Contractors concerning so-called "restrictive work practices".
The agreement loosened many of the BLF norms protecting labourers' conditions, safety and work practices and opened the way for multi-skilling. This gave the BWIU the right to cover certain BLF classifications.
Registered BLF branches were faced with a situation where some BLF jobs were being covered by the BWIU/CFMEU and working conditions were declining. The BLF sought amalgamation with the CFMEU as a way of continuing to fight for the rights of builders' labourers.
Asked whether the CFMEU election result in Victoria reflects an actual merger between the BWIU and BLF, Cummins said that an answer would be premature. What concerns him are pressing issues such as providing a service to members, increasing union membership (e.g. one inner-city building site has only nine union members out of 130 workers), fighting the trend towards multi-skilling and reversing the drop in safety standards.