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Issue # 1415      17 June 2009

Message on the ABCC is clear

Abolish the anti-union body NOW!

The message is loud and clear. The witch hunt and jailing of innocent workers for failing to attend compulsory interrogation sessions when summonsed by the special building and construction industry police force, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) is not on. Nor is the singling out of one group of workers and the denial of their basic legal and other democratic rights acceptable. The demand of the trade union movement to Deputy Prime Minister and Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard is “It’s not on Julia! Abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission NOW”.

The trade union movement is organising a large march and protest demanding the abolition of the ABCC outside the ALP national conference in Sydney on July 31.

The government has responded by trotting out former trade union leaders – now MPs – to defend the retention of the ABCC in its new guise as a special division of the so-called Fair Work Australia legislation. It now plans to rush its laws through Parliament before the national ALP conference, where it faces being rolled by angry party members and trade union delegates. Its actions are contrary to ALP policy adopted at the 2007 national conference. Prime minister Kevin Rudd has made it clear that he has no intention of abiding by conference decisions.

Unanimous opposition

Delegates to the ACTU Congress in Brisbane on June 2-4 were unanimous in their call for the abolition of the ABCC. Their pleas fell on pro-employer ears. Gillard and Rudd remain as determined as ever to hold onto the Howard government’s most repressive anti-union measure which criminalises and imposes heavy penalties on basic trade union activity.

When Gillard took the platform at the ACTU Congress, almost every one of the 500 delegates wore the yellow campaign T-shirt calling for the abolition of the ABCC. They listened politely as she told them they should be “pounding the pavements” in support of the Fair Work Act and forget about getting anything more out of the Labor government. But when she tried to defend the retention of the ABCC’s powers and functions with references to violent, lawless thugs wearing balaclavas, patience ran out, and the booing began.

Her reception was in sharp contrast to that of construction worker Ark Tribe. He received three standing ovations. Ark is a rigger who was working on a site at Flinders University in South Australia in May 2008 when a dispute arose over serious safety breaches by the construction company.

The ABCC visited the site only after the dispute had been resolved. There was no sign of the ABCC when the company locked its workforce out. It was the union that called in the government watchdog SafeWork SA which issued prohibition notices and forced the company to rectify its serious breaches.

Instead of pursuing the employer who put workers’ lives at risk, the ABCC went after its workforce questioning them one by one about who said what about safety issues. Ark, a rank and file member of the Construction Division of the CFMEU, now stands accused by the ABCC of failing to attend a compulsory interrogation by that body. Employers who kill workers may receive a fine. If found guilty, Ark faces a six-month jail sentence.

The ABCC has a track record of chasing workers and turning a blind eye to illegal behaviour by employers.

Ark is the second construction worker to face the courts over allegedly failing to answer questions and to not report in detail on union meetings or what fellow workers may have said in private discussions. The first worker to face such charges was Noel Washington in Victoria. His charges were dropped following a highly successful campaign by the trade union movement.

Ark appeared before the Magistrates Court in Elizabeth on June 9. He made a grand entry into the court, walking down an isle of unionists and other supporters wearing the yellow campaign t-shirt. The court adjourned the matter until August 11, safely after the ALP national conference.

The ACTU Congress unanimously pledged its support and called for the abolition of the ABCC and the unjust laws that underpin it. Fair Work Australia – with the retention of Howard’s most draconian anti-union institution – is looking more like “Unfair Work Australia”.

Rotten apples

Since the ACTU Congress, right-wing secretary of the shop employees union, Joe de Bruyn has broken ranks and supported the government’s position, claiming the government has no mandate to abolish the ABCC. Where was his protest over the government’s 20-30 percent hike in military spending in the budget? There was no mandate for that either.

Former ACTU presidents Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean, former ACTU secretary Greg Combet, and the extreme right-wing former secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, Bill Shorten, Richard Marles and Mark Butler – all former union leaders – have shored up their front bench careers under the Rudd/Gillard team by giving the nod to the ABCC’s paint over.

Greg Combet stunned many of his union colleagues, telling them to be “pragmatic”, bed down and not fight for new laws.

The newly promoted right-wing Employment Participation Minister Mark Arbib tried to justify the laws saying, “There is a small group of rotten apples and we need to ensure there is a cop on the beat to stop any outbreaks.”

Outbreaks of what? The only “outbreaks” that the ABCC is interested in is punishing unionists with $22,000 a day fines for taking action to protect workers’ rights – their health and safety, entitlements and working conditions. The ABCC spends millions of dollars taking action to keep elected union officials off work sites, away from their members, and court actions aimed at bankrupting building and construction unions.

There are rotten apples – the corrupt and unscrupulous construction companies that exploit and endanger the lives of workers. The ABCC is not chasing them. That is not its purpose. Its focus is on ordinary innocent workers and trade unions attempting to do their work and counter the short-cuts and rip-offs that companies take to boost profits.

To his credit, former union secretary Senator Doug Cameron has had the guts to speak out strongly against the treatment of building workers as terrorists or criminals, but it seems he will fall in line and vote for the bill.

Gillard continues to repeat her derogatory claims that it is necessary to keep “a tough cop on the beat”, implying that building and construction workers are some species apart that do not deserve the same democratic rights as the rest of the population.

Funding for the ABCC was increased by $3.2 million to $32.8 million in 2008-09 and the May budget provided further increases with it rising to $35 million in 2011-2012! This is one item that should be deleted now.

The construction companies should be pleased that their millions in donations to Labor’s coffers were well invested, a sentiment not shared within trade union ranks.

Unionists are also wondering what happens when their officials, including some leading lights of the Left, enter parliament. They become tied and bound to the right-wing who have a tight grip on the parliamentary party. They may not always agree with decisions but soon learn not to breach “caucus loyalty”. Some succumb quickly to ministerial ambitions or doing what is necessary to hold onto their seat. A few naively think that they can make things better from within while a number never had a genuine commitment to the working class.

The question of trade unions standing their own, independent candidates has been raised. Some union leaders are querying their affiliation to the ALP, wondering whether they could do more for their members as a politically independent force.

The Communist Party of Australia strongly supports the independence of trade unions and the standing of left and progressive candidates by unions and community organisations. There are also other electoral options. The Australian Greens have sound industrial relations policies and have stood by their principles in Parliament, opposing WorkChoices and the ABCC. The Communist Alliance has been registered by the Australian Electoral Commission and will be standing candidates in the next federal election with a platform supporting working class interests, including trade union and workers’ rights.

For further information on the trade union campaign to abolish the ABCC visit: www.rightsonsite.org.au. Follow the links and send a message to Ark.

Next article Editorial – Racist attacks and the right to protest

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