Fifty years ago building worker activists took back control of their union, the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), from a leadership clique that ignored the members.
Under the new leadership of , the re-energised BLF created high standards for workplace safety, decent pay, union democracy, accountable leadership, community engagement and, most famously, Green Bans.
The Green Ban movement, which saved green spaces in Sydney from high-rise development, spread to Newcastle when East End residents approached the BLF for help. The success of this resident–BLF alliance can be seen today with Newcastle East's unique mix of heritage buildings, low-rise development and social housing.
The proposed laws now being directed against the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), into which the BLF merged, would make such an achievement difficult today.
The Coalition accuses the CFMEU of nefarious activities, yet simultaneously tries to downplay allegations of their own involvement in receiving donations from the building industry.
Expensive Royal Commissions and anti-union legislation are not required to sort out union problems. For example, in 2012 a new membership team, strongly supported in Hunter workplaces, won the leadership of the Public Service Association.
The new team, the Progressives, did not need special legislation to deliver more democracy and accountability to members.
The real target of the government's anti-union laws is not the CFMEU, but the penalty rates and other conditions that allow workers — whether union members or not — to enjoy reasonable living standards and to live in neighbourhoods that are cohesive and socially equal.
[This article first appeared in the Newcastle Herald.]
[Steve O'Brien is a member of the Socialist Alliance and a Progressive PSA activist who lives in Newcastle East.]