WA workers face massive fines: Defend the right to strike!


Ian Jamieson, Fremantle

In an unprecedented and alarming move, 107 construction workers employed on the Leighton Kumagai consortium's $1.5-billion Perth to Mandurah railway line project were issued with writs on July 5 that could result in them being forced by a federal court to pay massive individual fines for taking a collective decision to strike. They are the first workers to feel the wrath of the Howard government's Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and the first to face criminal charges for striking in over 100 years.

They could be joined by a further 200 co-workers and be forced to pay up to $28,000 in fines for breaching section 127 of the Workplace Relations Act 2006 for remaining on strike for 12 days in February this year, allegedly in defiance of an order of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). An additional 82 workers face further fines of $6600 for allegedly breaching ABCC orders.

All of the workers are members of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).

The strike occurred over the sacking on February 24 of Peter Ballard, a CFMEU shop steward on the rail-line construction site, for carrying out his responsibilities to his members under an agreement reached between the union and management. However, there had been serious problems with Leighton Kumagai well before this year, which had led to massive cost overruns on the project.

The multimillion cost blow-out has also led to the state government being threatened with legal action by Leighton Kumagai to recover lost profits.

Employees on the project have highlighted at least 80 serious health and safety violations, management reneging on negotiated agreements and ramped up working hours beyond an agreed 56 hours per week as sources of conflict. The sacking of Ballard was a final straw.

So shocked and offended at the construction bosses rough-handed and arrogant treatment of their rights and conditions, the CFMEU members continued their strike despite recommendations to return to work from their union officials.

CFMEU officials knew the ABCC was vigorously investigating allegations of industrial action taken last year on the site and as the penal powers of the newly created ABCC were made retrospective, construction workers could be penalised for action that was legal at the time it was taken.

The ABCC also has powers to coerce cooperation from construction workers, including an ability to jail individuals for up to six months for non-cooperation. These powers have no parallel under the normal criminal code, but reflect an extension to the ABCC of powers granted under the "anti-terrorism" laws to the ASIO secret police agency.

Typically, the Western Australian corporate media has been baying for the construction workers' blood, echoing the line of employer organisations such as the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Prime Minister John Howard has been reported as saying the laws he created with the establishment of the ABCC should stand.

Federal ALP leader Kim Beazley has declared that the ABCC should be abolished. However, he has also said that unions, rather than individual workers, should be penalised for "illegal" industrial action. "Individualising punishment is a bad development. When [workers] act collectively, frankly they should be dealt with collectively", he told reporters on July 5.

However, he suggested that the workers who are facing individual fines might have disobeyed the AIRC order because they did not respect the new industrial relations laws that the commission operates under. "People should obey lawful orders but people should obey orders from commissions they can respect", said Beazley. "We want an independent umpire, when you've got an independent umpire you get respect."

At a meeting of WA CFMEU members on July 9, the union took a strong stand in support of its members and their families — including a commitment to collect funds throughout Australia to help pay the possible fines. The CFMEU has declared that the 107 workers will not face the law on their own.

Supporters of the 107 workers and their families are looking to show their solidarity when the first are expected to appear in the Federal Court on August 29.

The CFMEU is also urging every Australian worker, their unions, their political organisations, and social and sporting groups, to send messages of solidarity to the WA branch of the CFMEU. A massive show of solidarity is necessary to defeat the unprecedented powers the Howard government has assumed and to defend the basic human right for a worker to withdraw their labour.

From Green Left Weekly, July 19, 2006.

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