Royal commission an assault on unionism

August 1, 2001



The federal government's July 25 announcement of a royal commission into the construction industry is a clear attempt to weaken organised labour and attack workers' rights in an area long a bastion of militant unionism.

The government has had the construction unions in its sights since it came to power in 1996. At that time it publicly announced two industries it was planning to target: construction and the waterfront.

Then workplace relations minister Peter Reith spent two years seeking agreement from employers and the Master Builders Association for a waterfront-style dispute to break the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union in Victoria. He only backed off when then-premier Jeff Kennett and builders told him that they were making plenty of money and didn't want to start a fight they didn't need.

Claiming widespread evidence of corruption, violence and intimidation in the industry, Prime Minister John Howard and the new workplace relations minister, Tony Abbott, have now found their excuse to turn the screws on the CFMEU.

The commission will sit in Melbourne, where building unions have made the greatest industrial advances for their members. Thanks to militant industrial tactics, Victoria is the only state in which construction workers enjoy a 36-hour week.

It is the more militant unionists and union branches, especially Victoria and Western Australia, which will be firmly in the commission's sights. Employer groups have been growing increasingly worried by the tactics used by Victorian unions such as the CFMEU, the Electrical Trades Union and the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, which have proved effective in winning good outcomes for workers in their respective industries.

The CFMEU and other building industry unions will now have to spend possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars to represent themselves in the commission.

Part of the justification for the inquiry was an eight-page report from the Employment Advocate, Jonathan Hamberger, which calls for more powers and resources to be given to his office. Hamberger claims to want to stop standover tactics and uncompetitive practices, citing alleged examples of closed shops where unions have forced employers to comply with certain rates of pay and conditions.

Employer groups such as the Master Builders Association have, unsurprisingly, signalled their support for the royal commission.

The announcement of the royal commission has provoked an angry response from many unionists, and plans are underway for a vigorous defence of construction industry unionism.

The irony of the government's latest assault, however, is that it has seized on comments made by a prominent union leader as justification for the commission's establishment.

CFMEU construction division national secretary John Sutton has repeatedly claimed to have evidence of corruption and intimidation within his own union, and has sought an investigation by the National Crime Authority.

Sutton has levelled the allegations at the division's Victorian and Western Australian branches and at those elements who joined the CFMEU after the 1985 deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation.

Within the union, the charges are seen as an attempt to deflect a campaign to give rank-and-file members to right to vote directly for national positions, including Sutton's own.

The internal ructions go back many years, and centre on the different approaches taken by different branches and different union factions following the introduction of enterprise bargaining in the early 1990s. As a result of enterprise bargaining, workers in different states and companies have very different wages and conditions.

One particular sore point within the union is the approach taken by the NSW branch, and backed by Sutton, in the last round of enterprise negotiations in 1999-2000. With the Sydney Olympics causing a construction boom in the state, the branch was in a strong position to win major gains for its members.

Rather than use its considerable muscle, however, and with little prior consultation with other branches, the NSW branch signed an agreement which was less than what was being sought in other states. Employers used the NSW agreement in their attempts to make it harder for other states to win greater gains.

Sutton's smear campaign worsened at the beginning of the year when rank-and-file activists and officials from Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia began a members' petition for changes to the union's rules to allow members to directly elect the national officials. Nine thousand members signed the petition.

Sutton opposed the call for a referendum on the changes and challenged the matter in the Federal Court. The Federal Court has yet to hand down its decision.

CFMEU national president John Maitland did manage to broker an agreement whereby officials would not use the media to attack other union officials. But following a Four Corners story on the industry, Sutton continued to use the media to defend his position.

Frustrated by Sutton's actions, rank-and-file activists from several states including NSW then travelled around construction sites in the state to give out information on enterprise bargaining and the proposals for rule changes.

It was quickly apparent to those activists that the conditions of NSW members were far worse than those in other states. On one group of eight sites in central Sydney, the "Meriton jobs", there was only one union organiser, no union stewards, no enterprise agreement and workers were paid $15 per hour (about half what workers in other states receive) with no extras like superannuation, holiday pay or sick leave.

NSW officials continually sought to break up meetings between members and the interstate activists and in some cases looked on from inside the gate as police or private security guards threw activists off sites.

The royal commission will undoubtedly seek to exploit these internal divisions within the union, not only to the detriment of those unionists who advocate industrial militancy and union democracy but also to the detriment of the CFMEU and the union movement as a whole.

[A long-time militant unionist, Tim Gooden is a shop steward for the CFMEU in Geelong and is the Geelong secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party.]

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