The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, appointed by the Abbott government and headed by retired judge Dyson Heydon, released its interim report on December 19. The report called for criminal charges to be laid against several Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) officials, including charges of blackmail against the CFMEU's Victorian state secretary John Setka and assistant secretary Shaun Reardon.
The accusations of blackmail against Setka and Reardon arose from a dispute between the CFMEU and construction company Grocon. The CFMEU demanded the employment of union-nominated health and safety representatives, as is normal practice on big construction sites in Melbourne. Grocon refused. This led to a picket of a Grocon site in Lonsdale St, Melbourne by several thousand CFMEU members in August/September 2012.
In addition to the picket, it is alleged that the CFMEU also took secondary boycott action against Boral, which supplies concrete to Grocon. Boral chief executive Mike Kane has claimed that the company cannot get work in the Melbourne CBD because construction companies fear the response of the CFMEU.
Other construction industry bosses have also told the royal commission they were intimidated by CFMEU officials. Generally the alleged intimidation occurred when the CFMEU was trying to ensure workplace safety and correct pay and conditions for building workers. The building industry is notorious for its high death rate in industrial accidents, as well as the failure of many employers to pay workers' entitlements.
By accusing the CFMEU of blackmail, the Royal Commission is trying to portray any industrial action (apart from the very limited forms allowed by Australia's highly restrictive laws) as a crime. Union officials (and by implication rank and file union members) who carry out such industrial action are portrayed as criminals. The royal commission is also preparing the ground for even more severe restrictions on workers' rights.
CFMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan, responding to the royal commission report, said: "Like previous royal commissions, the Heydon commission is politically motivated to produce outcomes to justify the introduction of anti-union laws. This is clear from the prejudiced and biased findings of the royal commission that reflect the ideological bent of the Abbott government and their hatred of unions."
ACTU secretary Dave Oliver and ACTU president Ged Kearney also criticised the Royal commission report.
Susan Price, Socialist Alliance candidate for the seat of Summer Hill in the NSW elections, told Green Left Weekly: "The Royal commission's attempt to criminalise industrial action in defence of workers' rights is an attack on all workers. The whole union movement must unite against this attack on the CFMEU, and in defence of workers' right to take industrial action, whether around safety issues or around better pay and conditions."