Over 5000 workers attended a protest rally outside the headquarters of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) in Melbourne on December 2.
The rally was initially called to defend Noel Washington, a Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) official who faced the possibility of a six-month jail sentence for refusing to attend a compulsory interview with the ABCC.
He was due to appear before the Melbourne Magistrates court on December 2. The federal Labor government has committed to keeping the anti-worker building industry watchdog until 2010. The ABCC has wide-ranging powers that breach Australia's human rights obligations as set by the International Labour Organisation. The legislation that set up the ABCC takes away construction worker's right to silence, their right to choose their own lawyer, and their collective bargaining and free association rights.
Mysteriously, on November 20, perhaps fearing an all out shutdown of Melbourne's major construction sites along with national protests, the Department of Public Prosecutions dropped the charges against Washington on a "technicality".
The December 2 rally focused on the fact that the dropping of charges was a victory for Noel Washington and all unionists but also called for the abolition of the ABCC immediately.
Noel Washington's lawyer, Marcus Clayton, told the rally that the ABCC was "a complete outrage. It's one law for building workers and another for everyone else". He also cautioned that as long as the ABCC existed it could continue to issue further notices against other unionists.
Electrical Trade Union Victorian secretary Dean Mighell, who himself had been subjected to a vicious smear campaign by the mainstream press and the ALP, gave a rousing speech and mentioned that the Greens have tabled a bill in the Senate to abolish the ABCC. He invoked the Eureka stockade as a fine example of rebelliousness and the need to fight bad laws.
Dave Noonan, National Secretary of the CFMEU Construction Division told the rally: "Dropping these charges is the first step forward. There is a will for more and more people to confront these unjust and undemocratic laws. While we do not have equality we will not respect these laws. No more co-operation with the ABCC!"
Assistant National Secretary of the CFMEU Construction Division, Martin Kingham, pointed out that the ABCC has endangered the lives of construction workers. He said: "It's absolutely criminal! Workplace deaths have been going down in every industry except one — construction. There has been 34 construction deaths from July last to June this year. If we can't get on the job [site] to enforce and improve workplace health and safety more people will get killed."
The biggest cheer was given for Noel Washington, whose principled stand in defying the ABCC has highlighted its draconian powers and encouraged many to take up the fight. "These laws that were introduced are bad laws, they have to be defied and defeated- and they will be.what happens at a union meeting is nobody else's business! These laws must be smashed", he told the crowd.
The rally was also addressed by officials from the Maritime Union of Australia, the Australian Workers Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Victorian Trades Hall Council.
The mood of the protest was very defiant and the theme of non-cooperation struck a big chord with workers.
Many workers and some union officials, however, also raised concerns that the protest was downgraded and the venue changed once the charges against Washington were dropped. As one worker told Green Left Weekly, "We should have stuck with the initial plan and mobilised everybody. Noel's charges have been dropped but the ABCC is still here making our lives hell".