Why the government scapegoats union leaders

CFMMEU rally to protect penalty rates in Brisbane, 2017.

I’ve been a Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) member for 15 years and I cannot remember a time when the union was not portrayed as a pack of gangster-like thugs, who standover "innocent" bosses.

Somehow the nature of a tough, multi-billion dollar industry with a history of being the most dangerous in the country always gets lost in the propaganda.

So imagine my delight, along with tens of thousands of other CFMEU members, when blackmail charges against union officials John Setka and Shaun Reardon were dropped on May 16.

Of course, even the less vehemently anti-union media referred to them both as Victorian construction union “bosses”, while ignoring they are actually elected officials. Never let the truth get in the way of continuing to promulgate a bad image.

It is critical that the Australian electorate see the leaders of construction unions are even worse than the corrupt captains of industry. Otherwise there is no justification for a succession of royal commissions into our most militant unions.

Embarrassingly for the Malcolm Turnbull government, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption led by Dyson Heydon, on a million dollar salary, cost $46 million and resulted in only one conviction.

That is why Michaelia Cash, federal minister for bungling workplace relations, was reported by several media outlets as saying, “The CFMEU are without [doubt] one of the most notorious, in fact, they are the most notorious union in Australia. I think we’re up to $14 million in fines.” She had to justify why they had led a witch hunt against the CFMMEU leaders based on trumped up charges.

Compare this with the endless criminal allegations coming out of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. The daily stories of theft and heartbreak, where ordinary people have been ripped off through bald-faced lies and fraudulent claims, and where CEOs have been forced to squirm and then resign as the depths of their corruption has been revealed.

The other problem for the right-wing media and their mates in the federal government is that CFMEU members love their union. The media highlights the tales of workers supposedly shotgunned into joining the union, but they fail to recognise that every time our union or the officials are under attack, it strengthens members’ loyalty.

Throughout the country, but especially in Victoria, we know that good wages and improving safety conditions are directly due to the role of our militant union.

In 1998 there were 19 deaths in the Victorian building industry; 20 years later there are rarely more than 5 or 6 per year and that rate is declining. Most construction workers realise that this is directly due to the safety campaigns unions have led. These include everything from walking off the job every time there is a death, to insisting that every worker must complete both a site induction and a one day general induction course before they begin work — let alone our insistence that hazards can and must be engineered out of the industry.

Do you think bosses want to spend thousands of dollars on safety out of the goodness of their hearts? No. It was only after the unions insisted after our mates died!

At the 120,000 strong rally in Melbourne on May 9 you might have noticed that perhaps one in three workers wore fluoro shirts. I think the majority of these were CFMEU members. Why were they so keen to lose a day’s pay? Because their leaders were unfairly under attack and by implication their union.

The reality is we can only keep exposing the truth if we have independent media. The union journals try to do this but not everyone has access to the CFMEU’s great little rag, so this is where Green Left Weekly comes in. Week in and week out, we report on royal commissions, on union successes and attacks.

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