Where are Ark Tribe's rights at work?

Ark Tribe worked as a rigger on a construction site at South Australia's Flinders University in May 2008 when an industrial dispute arose due to safety issues. He has been charged by the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) with refusing to answer questions from the Australian Building Construction Commission (ABCC) in relation to the dispute.

The ABCC was created by the Howard Coalition government in 2005 to crush the building unions by criminalising basic trade union activity. Under the ABCC's draconian powers, it is illegal not to attend interrogation hearings.

Tribe's court hearing is on June 9. If found guilty, he faces a potential six-month jail term.

Workers at the construction site had raised occupation heath and safety issues with the contractor, Hindmarsh Constructions: plant equipment being operated by unlicensed workers; scaffolds with improper access; no evacuation plan and a lack of overhead protection, change rooms, decent amenities and clean drinking water.

For several weeks, the workers' concerns were ignored. The Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) tried to gain access to the site but were obstructed. On May 31, management locked workers out of the site for "safety reasons".

In response, workers signed a petition calling for a safety committee and for the union to be involved. Management refused to accept the petition.

At the CFMEU's request, the state government watchdog, SafeWork SA, visited the site. Subsequently, two prohibition notices were issued against Hindmarsh Constructions. Management fixed the safety problems and work resumed.

Following the dispute, ABCC investigators visited the site. A CFMEU statement said they "wanted to know who said what about the safety issues and tried to haul workers in to answer questions". Tribe refused to answer.

The investigators did not question Hindmarsh Constructions about the lock-out or why the safety breaches existed in the first place.

CFMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan told Green Left Weekly: "It is an absolute disgrace that a worker has to face court and potential imprisonment for refusing to tell the ABCC what was discussed between workers, or at a union meeting. This case shows clearly that these laws are being used to intimidate workers."

Tim Gooden, secretary of Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council, said Tribe's case illustrates clearly that the ABCC was never intended to be a neutral body but a political tool to crush the building industry unions. "We can also see that this situation has not changed at all with the Labor government", he told GLW.

The federal government has promised to abolish the ABCC in 2010. However, the recently released Wilcox report, which reviewed the ABCC's powers, recommended the continuation of a "special industry watchdog" beyond this date.

SA CFMEU secretary Martin O'Malley said: "What could be said about a Labor government accepting a review which allows a special industrial police force to continue? There are great shades of Germany circa 1930 or thereabouts."

Gooden said it was critical that the ABCC — by any other name — be opposed. "It is blatantly obvious that under the current government we still have this fight to win", he said.

Noonan agreed. "These laws should have ended with the Howard government. Members of the Labor Party caucus need to think hard about being part of a government that uses these kinds of laws against workers", he said.

"Recent delegates' meetings and large rallies of construction industry workers on April 28 have endorsed an industrial campaign if a worker gets imprisoned or penalised under the ABCC laws. This campaign also includes the Australian Council of Trade Unions."

O'Malley stressed the importance of involving other unions in the campaign: "We want to involve all other unions, SA Unions and ACTU community groups into a rejuvenated 'Your Rights at Work'-style campaign. We want to educate the masses to the dangers arising out of this legislation while defending Ark and keeping him out of jail."

Tribe is the second person charged for refusing to cooperate with the ABCC. Victorian CFMEU official Noel Washington was also charged but had his charges formally withdrawn by the Commonwealth DPP in November, 2008, following a powerful union campaign.

Over the past 12 months, and especially during the campaign in defence of Washington, many unions have passed resolutions pledging non-cooperation with the ABCC and industrial action if workers are penalised. Gooden said that all still stands. "We got charges against Noel Washington dropped, we can do it again", he said.

Tribe will attend the Australian Council of Trade Unions congress in Brisbane this week. Congress delegates will hear first-hand why an ordinary construction worker faces jail for refusing to talk about what happened at a union meeting.

A demonstration will be held at Tribe's court hearing at 9.30am on June 9 at Elizabeth Magistrate Court, 15 Frobisher Rd, Elizabeth.