Unionists call on Labor to accelerate dumping the ABCC

Photo: CFMMEU WA/Facebook

The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) should be abolished immediately, unionist Tim Gooden told Green Left.

“The Labor government has committed to close down the ABCC but its criminal anti-union and anti-worker operations must end now,” he said. Gooden is a member of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union (CFMMEU).

“The Labor government has a responsibility to the workers who elected it to act urgently to defend the union movement —  especially the CFMMEU — from these draconian legal cases against union members and officials,” Gooden said. All funding to the ABCC should be cut off now.”

Employment and workplace relations minister Tony Burke said the ABCC would be defunded this financial year. But that requires a law to be passed, as it is a statutory authority. Labor needs urgently to secure support in the Senate for a bill to abolish the commission, Gooden said.

The ABCC has 39 prosecutions in progress, with 23 new legal matters introduced in the past financial year.

Burke told the Sydney Morning Herald on July 6 that the ABCC “has been wasting taxpayers’ dollars on policing what flags are displayed on worksites and what stickers are on workers’ helmets” and that this type of agency “shouldn’t continue to receive taxpayers’ dollars”.

In an appeal decision, now subject to another appeal, the Federal Court in March upheld the ABCC’s pursuit of the CFMMEU and builder Lendlease for flying the Eureka flag on worksites.

One prosecution against the CFMMEU has been delayed until November, the SMH reported. “The judge is questioning whether the case should continue after the Federal Court heard that two of the watchdog’s witnesses had potentially breached the law,” wrote Angus Thomson.

CFMMEU national construction division secretary Dave Noonan told the SMH the case marks the latest “in a series of false allegations against the union that have fallen apart in court”.

The ABCC launched legal action in January against the CFMMEU for an alleged unlawful picket in Fremantle last October.

The ABCC alleged that CFMMEU national secretary Christy Cain and Maritime Western Australia division secretary Will Tracey were threatening workers who did not respect the waterfront picket line. Further, it alleged that CFMMEU Victorian state secretary John Setka and national secretary David Noonan participated in the picket virtually, encouraging the picketers.

The long-running dispute is against stevedore Qube, which is refusing to implement the health and safety provisions in the enterprise agreement.

Tracey said the ABCC was “compulsively bringing cases without evidence or justification … All of the evidence available to both sides completely disproved their version of events”.

The Master Builders Association (MBA), which campaigned for the ABCC, claimed before the election that without it there would be chaos and insolvency in the construction industry. It claimed on April 30 that without it, there would be “a $47.5 billion hit to the economy”.

Noonan said the modelling provided to the MBA “grossly overstates the influence and role of the ABCC in the construction industry” and “misunderstands serious issues” related to insolvencies and the collapse of builders.

“Bizarrely, the E&Y [Ernst & Young] report points to the recent collapse of builders like Probuild, Pindan and Condev, warning more will come if the ABCC is abolished,” Noonan said. “The reality, as anyone in the industry knows, is the ABCC is a worse than useless regulator on insolvency.

“It does nothing to hold builders and head contractors accountable when they refuse to pay on time or at all. The result is subcontractors and workers in the industry are currently owed billions in unpaid invoices and wages.”

Noonan said the MBA had “led the charge” against important industry reforms that would have ensured subcontractors are paid money owed for work already done.

The Coalition government had threatened to further increase fines on individual construction workers and their unions who take “illegal” industrial action.

“Construction workers face laws that do not apply to any other industry,” Gooden said. “The right to strike, or take any industrial action, is severely limited even when the work is unsafe or we have not been paid.”

The ABCC has done little about wage theft and, since 2016, has only completed four cases against employers related to wages and entitlements. Two hundred and fifty two individuals have been hit with fines and penalties compared to 22 employers.

Meanwhile, the New South Wales government has introduced fines of $55,000 for unions undertaking “illegal” strike action and $27,500 for each day afterwards.

This is a clear threat to nurses, paramedics, teachers, cleaners, transport workers and other public sector workers who are trying to break the state’s restrictive pay cap and receive a wage that has a hope of keeping up with inflation.

UnionsNSW has launched a campaign to pressure members of the NSW Legislative Council to disallow the regulation to impose the new industrial penalties.

[Support the UnionsNSW campaign against the new penalties here.]