An estimated 1500 shop stewards and union delegates met at Dallas Brookes Hall on July 30 to discuss the campaign against the charging of Noel Washington, the construction worker facing a jail term for refusing to hand over information to the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The meeting also discussed the ongoing Your Rights at Work campaign. It was called by the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC).
Building industry union members made up the bulk of attendees, with smaller delegations from a range of white-collar unions, including teachers, nurses and public sector workers. A bus-load of workers from regional Portland, five hours drive from Melbourne, also took part.
On June 19, Washington was summonsed to appear before a magistrates' court for refusing to disclose what was discussed at a union meeting that took place outside of work time and off site. Under the ABCC's draconian powers, it is illegal to remain silent if called in for interrogation.
A number of union leaders condemned the fact that eight months after the Rudd Labor government was elected, workers still have to contend with Howard-era work laws. It was reported that from a work force of 30,000 at Telstra, some 20,000 are still on individual agreements (AWAs).
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Jeff Lawrence, Brian Boyd, secretary of VTHC, and Paul Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), spoke about the ABCC's punitive rules under the Building and Construction Industry Act. Lawrence told the meeting that the Rudd government had the power to get rid of the building industry code immediately if it wanted to. He added that the ACTU had decided to support the Building Industry Group of unions' campaign to abolish the ABCC, launched in early May.
Dave Noonan, national secretary of the Construction and General Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) condemned the special police force that monitors the behaviour of 1 million construction workers. He said ABCC investigations had increased by 60% under the federal Labor government. He also quoted the Victorian Master Builders Association chief as saying that such laws were necessary to "raise productivity" through fear.
The keynote speaker, Washington, received a standing ovation. He spoke proudly about his union activism, his personal commitment to helping defeat the ABCC so the younger generations of building workers would have better working conditions and thanked everyone for their support. Retired ALP senator Barney Cooney also urged the delegates to continue the campaign, saying, "Bad laws will spread if they are not stopped".
The meeting unanimously passed a resolution that called on the government to immediately abolish the ABCC and not to create any similar such task forces, repeal the Building and Construction Industry (Improvement) Act, and cancel the National Code and Implementation Guidelines.
The resolution also expressed support for construction and other workers and officials who defy the ABCC. It urged mass rallies to be organised on the date of Washington's court hearing. The meeting also expressed support for overseas unions under attack from repressive governments.
In departure from the norm, meeting chair VTHC president Ann Taylor refused to allow a vote on two amendments to the resolution, the first arguing for a 24-hour stoppage the day Washington goes to court, and the second for a 24-hour stoppage if Washington is jailed.
But there was unanimous support for a motion, moved by AWU and Socialist Alliance member Garry Holliday, that noted general frustration at the Rudd government's lack of action on overturning Work Choices and called for an industrial campaign that included stop work meetings, street rallies, industry stoppages and rolling four-hour walk-outs. The motion called for the campaign to continue "until the federal government agrees to draft laws that are completely consistent with ILO conventions and to the satisfaction of all unions".
Noonan told Green Left Weekly that he was pleased with the support shown by a cross section of unions for Washington, and the resolution. "It clearly directs the campaign towards mass action on the day of the court hearing. It is a new stage in campaign that will continue until the laws have been abolished."
Speaking to GLW after the meeting, Gooden explained why he had not supported the amendment for a 24-hour stoppage on the day of the court hearing. "I presumed that particular amendment was being put for debate, which should have been done. But it was ruled out of order.
"The main motion had already called for a rally the day Noel goes to court. In the building sector, history shows that we get better mass turn-outs if rallies do not coincide with a 24-hour strike. To get a mass turn-out, like we did when Craig Johnston was called in, workers have to realise it is not a day off and make an effort to turn up.
"A 24-hour stoppage the day of the hearing would require all the union's resources to build that stoppage - which would detract from building a mass rally outside the court hearing.
"But, there should be national 24-hour stoppages across all industries if Washington is jailed. Every boss across the country should feel enough pain so that they phone the Prime Minister and demand the laws are dumped."
He worries that the general public, and even his own union members, are still not fully aware of the seriousness of the ABCC's powers, and said the unions needed hold workplace meetings about the ABCC and Washington's case and to show the DVD Construction of Fear.
An "all-out effort", Gooden said, was needed to build rallies on the day of the court hearing. "This should include combined media stunts and national weekly protests outside federal MPs' offices, starting with the offices of the PM and the industrial relations minister, Julia Gillard."
"It's the federal Labor government that is attempting to jail trade a unionist. When workers finally understand this, there will be hell to pay. Unions should announce at the court rally that if Noel, or anyone, is jailed or fined then the next day we should have a 24 hour state-wide stoppage", Gooden concluded.
[Construction of Fear is available at CFMEU offices around the country.]