State vice president of the CFMEU’s Victorian Construction and General Division Robert Graauwmans gave this speech at Socialist Alliance’s May Day Dinner in Geelong on May 6. Below is an edited version of his speech.
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I’ve been asked to speak on the topic of “Why we should break bad laws” and while I welcome the invitation and the topic, tonight I will not talk about the whether we need to break bad laws, but rather, why we must defy injustice.
Dr Martin Luther King had some thoughts on “unjust laws”. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham” he said: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty.
“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect of the law”.
Our struggle is also a struggle against injustice.
We must not let ourselves be dragged into a simplistic debate about “good” or “bad” laws. Our enemies would like nothing more than to limit the debate about the injustice inherent in the industrial laws of this country, to a debate about whether the laws are “bad and should be broken”.
We must not give them that opportunity. Instead we must remain steadfast in our focus on how injustice has been constructed into the very DNA of our industrial landscape.
We are part of a movement that has been struggling against injustice in its many forms since the industrial revolution began. Those who have sought to profit from the exploitation of others have consistently done so through their control of capital and the levers of industry. But throughout, they have been eagerly assisted by their allies in the institutions of the state, notably parliament and the courts.
Since the deportation to Australia of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834, successive parliaments have passed laws that have, in turn, been aggressively enforced by the courts. Many of these laws were specifically designed to entrench privilege and injustice. And at every turn, we as workers and unionists have opposed them.
In 1856, the Stonemasons laid down their tools to win the Eight Hour Day.
In 1938, the members of the Waterside Workers Federation workers recognised the evil of shipping pig iron to Japan.
In 1949, the Coal Workers Union struck to win long service leave.
In 1976, the Seaman’s Union of Australia enforced the oil boycott and waterfront ban against South African apartheid.
In 1980, AMWU members walked off the job for industry superannuation, which was eventually won in 1986.
In 2016, 55 sacked workers held out for 180 days after they were sacked by Carlton and United Breweries and refused to reapply for their jobs on vastly inferior pay and conditions.
These, and so many other examples of unions and workers taking a stand, are all acts of resistance to injustice.
Yet since the early 1980s, the union movement has been fighting a rearguard action against a global coalition of reactionary forces, intent on its destruction. The CFMEU has been on the front line of this fight and we have been steadfast in our opposition to unjust laws.
The CFMEU has a proud history of standing up to injustice, but few senior figures in the labour movement have been prepared to put their head above the parapet and stand alongside us.
However, it didn’t take the incoming ACTU Secretary Sally McManus long to stand by our side. Her stand against unjust laws was both brave and honest. She said what she believed. In so doing she shocked an establishment used to doublespeak.
Her stance demonstrated real leadership and emboldened much of the union movement, and it has given the CFMEU space to continue what we are doing with the support of the wider movement.
I believe Sally’s stand will harness the increasing sentiment among regular working people that the system is unjust. She spoke the truth and workers can tell it apart from all the bullshit.
We all know workers aren’t stupid. They just get tired. But we also know that the day-to-day pressures of long working hours, debts, putting dinner on the table and getting the kids off to school on a daily basis, doesn’t leave much time for them to interrogate how systematic injustice effects them every day.
However, in recent years, this has begun to change. The working class is again having an awakening.
One of the reasons for this awakening has been the explicit nature in which grotesque neoliberal capitalism has so effectively concentrated wealth and power among a tiny percentage of (mostly) white men. That injustice has been laid bare for the working class to see through the many layers of crap that the media has so consistently pushed down our throats.
As the working class awakes, they are able to perceive injustice. Our opportunity now is to capture their anger and focus it on the real structures of injustice: unbridled neoliberalism and its beneficiaries in industry.
The CFMEU is now confronted by both the ABCC and the Building Code. Bad laws have been passed; a political police force has been established in an attempt to destroy us and the courts are eagerly waiting to convict us. A line has been drawn.
Union officials now have to walk the walk and talk the talk. The CFMEU will not be submitting 24 hours’ notice and if you’ve still got your Right of Entry you haven’t been doing your job.
A little bit of civil/industrial disobedience is good for the soul, and if it’s good for the soul, it must be good for the heart.