Workers stand strong in West Gate dispute

May 2, 2009

Construction company John Holland and unions are locked in discussions to settle a nine-week-long industrial dispute.

The May 2 Melbourne Age reported that, on May 1, a Federal Court ruling had ordered an end to picket lines at at work sites related to the Westgate Bridge project

Earlier in the week, in a show of solidarity, 1000 workers from various Melbourne building sites downed tools on April 29 to attend the West Gate Bridge picket in Port Melbourne. They joined the picket in support of 39 workers sacked from the bridge strengthening project.

The workers were sacked because they refused an inferior work agreement offered by construction giant John Holland.

Protesters set up barricades and closed off the main entrance of the worksite to block scab labour from entering or leaving.

Close to 200 police with horses, divvy vans and intimidating riot gear were at the protest. Contrary to a report in the April 30 Age, it was scab labour at the site who covered their faces with black balaclavas, not the protesters.

At the same time, another protest on the West Gate Bridge by 100 workers got a great reception from motorists. Many tooted their horns in support.

John Holland has used large numbers of Victorian police to bus in scab labour during the dispute.

Over the nine weeks of the campaign, the company has found it hard to attract workers willing to break the picket. This has delayed the $240 million government-funded project.

The unfairly sacked workers, all members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU), have led a community protest since early March.

They have called for John Holland to reinstate all the sacked workers on industry standard wages and conditions. The workers are especially concerned about company plans to weaken health and safety standards. They say this could lead to loss of lives in an already dangerous industry.

John Holland has a notoriously bad health and safety record. Thirty-five workers died during the construction of the West Gate Bridge in 1970. John Holland was a key contractor on that project. The company now faces court action over a workplace death in 2008.

On its website, the Independent Contractors Association of Australia has accused the sacked workers and supporters of thuggish behaviour, making death threats and violent actions. They even make the ridiculous claim "that bikie gang members have been paid to man picket lines".

These false claims have been uncritically reported in the corporate media.

Yet in a clear case of intimidation, inspectors from the building industry's secret police force, the Australian Building Construction Commission (ABCC), have been following workers around.

The ABCC has taken pictures and made recordings of the sacked workers since the beginning of the dispute in March.

The ABCC was set up in 2005 to destroy the industrial power of militant building unions. It is able to penalise industrial action with heavy fines on unions and individuals. Failure to cooperate with the ABCC can result in a stiff jail sentence.

The sacked workers have also been threatened by John Holland with legal action. On April 27, the workers received a letter from the company accusing them of being in breach of the Building Construction Improvement Act 2005 and the Trades Practices Act 1974.

The letter said John Holland was seeking compensation and/or damages from the CFMEU, AMWU and others involved in the industrial action. The damages sought could total more than $1 million.

The letter also threatened that the company would seek compensation from individual workers, unless they promised in writing to not be part of any more protest actions.

Despite these threats, the West Gate Bridge workers have stood strong. The courage and determination shown is an inspiration to other workers around the country. They've shown it's possible to fight unjust industrial relations laws and stand up for workers' rights.

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