Union bash may backfire on Greiner

Issue 

By Steve Painter

SYDNEY — Amid a poisonous hail of racial slurs, union-bashing, unsubstantiated allegations and red-baiting, the Royal Commission Into Productivity in the Building Industry in NSW issued its final report on May 26. The 5000-page, $25 million report makes little attempt to disguise the prejudices or the political agenda of commissioner Roger Gyles QC, a product of exclusive Newington College and more recently legal representative for NSW Premier Nick Greiner and deputy premier Wal Murray at corruption inquiries over the Metherell scandal and north coast land deals.

It seems Gyles appeared for Greiner on the first working day after he finished work on the interim report. Gyles himself is a former property development speculator, having sold his shares in a development company and placed the funds in trust only after building unions exposed his conflict of interests as head of the royal commission.

There are so many inaccuracies and wild statements in the $5000-a-page report that even Financial Review journalists have questioned Gyles' competence. Apparently oblivious to events in the former USSR and eastern Europe, he describes officials of the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) as Soviet-line Marxists, adding that they also have personality defects (mainly aggressiveness), and a disproportionate number of English and Irish migrants among their ranks.

The Ethnic Communities Council of NSW has condemned the racial reference, while the BWIU points out that there are in fact only two or three Irish-British migrants among the union's 30-odd organisers. The union is considering defamation action over claims of union violence and intimidation made by Premier Nick Greiner in releasing the report.

No evidence

In fact, after nearly two years of investigation with the declared intention of digging up evidence of corruption and illegality in the building industry, and particularly building unions, the Gyles report admits that while there is plenty of evidence of corruption among construction companies, "there is no acceptable evidence of widespread or serious corruption of full-time union officials", and "there has been no evidence of systematic violence or physical intimidation by unions or unionists". Yet it recommends state and federal deregistration of the BWIU, the construction branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).

While the report also recommends deregistration of the Master Builders Association (MBA), BWIU assistant secretary Andrew Ferguson told Green Left Weekly that this is merely an attempt and it is unlikely the government has any intention of moving against the employer body.

The union movement has expected a politically manipulated release of the report for some time. It seems the Greiner government initially wanted to release it on April 1, the day its anti-union Industrial Relations Act became law, but Gyles was unable to have it ready in time.

Its release now comes as Greiner's future as premier is in the balance following his embarrassing "memory failure" at the Independent Commission Against Corruption's (ICAC) inquiry into the appointment of former Liberal turned independent Terry Metherell to a high public service position, seemingly in return for Metherell's support for controversial forest industry protection legislation and his resignation from parliament to clear the way for a Liberal to move into his seat.

The release of the report was accompanied by distorted media accusations against the union movement, including a claim in the May 27 Telegraph Mirror that the unions are responsible for Sydney's largest hole in the ground, the World Square site, on which work stopped two years ago. In fact, says Ferguson, work on the site stopped when speculators realised there was an oversupply of office space in central Sydney and shifted their funds to Malaysia. The company then attempted to provoke strike action through several rounds of sackings and legal action against the unions under section 45D of the Trade Practices Act. This legal action was eventually dropped.

BWIU federal secretary Stan Sharkey told the May 28 Labor Council meeting that one of the main faults of the report is its focus on events from 1987 to 1990, an extraordinary time when the construction industry was awash with speculation funds. Recession and a glut of office space had later sent the speculators elsewhere, taking most of the corruption of the earlier period with them.

Deregistration

In a resolution adopted on May 28, the NSW Labor Council points out that the deregistration proposal appears to have been included in the report almost as an afterthought: "No party put forward that idea during the royal commission proceedings; the 10 interim reports of the royal commission did not mention that possibility; and the royal commission did not bother to request that this issue be debated".

The ACTU has said it will oppose deregistration, and the Labor Council believes "there is no chance of the Greiner government being successful at deregistering the CFMEU at any level". In the event that it does succeed, "not one union member will have his or her union coverage altered" as a result of it. In other words, other unions will not attempt to carve up the BWIU, as they did in the Builders Labourers Federation deregistration in the mid-'80s.

In fact, the minority Greiner government's options are very limited. It is unlikely to get the necessary support of independents for ion, and the BWIU is confident it can win any court action on the matter. It has challenged the government to present its case to the state industrial court. Federal deregistration is probably impossible without the cooperation of the federal government.

However, the government is moving administratively, banning the BWIU (and the MBA) from government committees and boards, including WorkCover, the NSW workplace safety authority. Public service unionists also report that the government is investigating cutting off other areas of cooperation between the public service and the union movement. The BWIU points out that this could lead to the farcical situation of police guards being required to keep union representatives out of Worksafe meetings.

Conditions

Ultimately, the most serious threat to building workers may be Gyles' recommendations on pay and conditions in the building industry. The report favours serious attacks on safety standards (including wet weather standards and the role of safety officers), pay, flex days, workers compensation, redundancy pay and a number of other matters.

It also calls for withdrawal of "recognition or privileges" from a number of BWIU officials whose names were provided confidentially to the Greiner government. Andrew Ferguson says there is little more the government can do in this regard: its Industrial Relations Act already bars union organisers from work sites and imposes other restrictions.

Ferguson says there may be more civil charges against BWIU officials, but adds these could backfire on the government. The courts recently threw out allegations of intimidation and menacing conduct against organiser Garry McArthur. The charges were laid under the Crimes Act, a repressive, anti-union law based on legislation repealed in Britain early this century.

Meanwhile, at the request of the Labor Council, the NSW ombudsman is currently investigating police procedures in a case against Wagga BWIU organiser Peter Zaboyak, including why police found it necessary to arrest Zaboyak in a pre-dawn raid on his home rather than proceeding by summons, and why they moved against Zaboyak without making any attempt to interview other witnesses besides the one employer who made the complaint.

While the Gyles report is a potentially dangerous attack on trade union rights, it already shows signs of backfiring badly on the Greiner government. Its main effect so far has been to add to the atmosphere of incompetence and desperation surrounding the government.

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