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Issue # 1417      1 July 2009

Repeal the Act, dismantle the ABCC

The Rudd/Gillard Labor government’s amendments to the Building Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 (BCII Act) and its other legislation leave in tact the most coercive and anti-union provisions of the Howard government’s WorkChoices regime – the effective outlawing of industrial action, the targeting of a group of workers for special treatment, the coercive interrogation powers of the Australian Building and Construction Industry Commission (renamed as Building Industry Inspectorate) and the threat of imprisonment for exercising the right to silence and refusing to inform on fellow workers.

The quotes from Liberal and Labor politicians on the page opposite illustrate alarming similarity in the positions of the Howard and Rudd governments – not just in the content of their anti-union legislation but in the slanderous attacks on building workers and their unions to try to justify such laws.

Former minister Kevin Andrews refers to “unlawful union demands”, “an entrenched culture of lawlessness”, “unlawful industrial action”, “a unique opportunity to implement lasting cultural reform”.

Gillard talks about a “culture of unlawful behaviour”, “the need to drive cultural change”, “industrial unlawfulness”, and accuses some of engaging in “intimidation and violence”.

She talks about benefiting “industry and the economy”. No mention of benefiting workers. Andrews speaks in terms of “productivity”. Both mean boosting corporate profits at the expense of workers.

Pro-employer

Andrews is upfront in admitting the legislation is “specifically targeted” to address the “unlawful conduct of unions”. Gillard also makes it clear that the target is trade unions but includes the odd reference to other players in the industry to sound even handed. The content of the bill is pro-employer.

Labor’s amendments to the BCII Act, presently before Parliament retain the main thrust of the Howard government’s legislation. (See Guardian June 24, 2009 for details of modifications.) In particular, the following features remain:

  • the targeting of workers and union in one industry for special treatment;
  • the outlawing of industrial action with heavy fines and the threat to individual workers and trade unions and their officials of multi-million dollar uncapped damage claims by employers;
  • the right of entry restricted, inhibiting unions from carrying out their functions;
  • the coercive interrogation process – compulsory attendance at interrogation sessions, now quaintly called “examinations”;
  • denial of the basic right to remain silent during interrogation.

The ABCC’s record confirms that its target, as Andrews pointed out, is the trade unions, nothing in the Rudd/Gillard bill changes this.

During the debate on the Howard government’s BCII Bill Labor MPs spoke strongly against its draconian anti-union, anti-worker provisions. They now defend the very same provisions in the Bill transferring the ABCC to the Fair Work Australia umbrella. The right-wing, led by Kevin Rudd, have a tight grip over the parliamentary Labor Party.

Several Labor MPs, including former ACTU president Jennie George and former union leader Doug Cameron expressed opposition to Gillard’s bill. They are not the only Labor MPs to be shocked by the bill. As yet no Labor MP has indicated their preparedness to stand up and be counted.

Unions, workers and many others in the community are shocked by the failure of Labor to meet their expectations. Even more so because of the large number of former trade union leaders who are now turning their backs on the working class of Australia. They include former ACTU presidents Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean, former ACTU secretary Greg Combet, former ACTU assistant secretary Richard Marles, Bill Shorten and Mark Butler.

Labor or labour?

There is a history of union officials entering Parliament as Labor MPs and forgetting the working class. Even the left and other democratically minded Labor MPs become prisoners of the Right as Labor MPs.

The electorate of Australia threw out the Howard government, seeking real change, in particular the repeal of the repressive anti-union laws referred to as WorkChoices. The Labor government has no intention of restoring workers’ rights or standing up to employer demands.

The federal elections will be held within the next six to 18 months. Who will the people of Australia turn to then? Will they keep Labor? Will they let the Coalition back in or open the door to even more extreme right-wing forces?

Or can the left, progressive and democratic forces organise and offer the people of Australia a genuine alternative, one that recognises trade union rights and protects the wages, working conditions and health and safety of workers?

Trade unions poured millions of dollars into throwing out the Howard government. No way will their now angry and disappointed members cop similar expenditure in the next elections to keep Labor in. Many would, however, be prepared to support and campaign for the election of trade unionists as independent MPs, not bound by Labor caucus, but free to represent the interests of the working class.

They could be joined by other candidates such as from the Greens who have consistently taken a principled stand, progressive organisations and the Communist Alliance which will be standing in the next federal elections.

They could be backed by other candidates such as from the Greens who have consistently taken a principled stand, the Communist Alliance which will be standing and progressive organisations.

Such a grouping of MPs could form the basis for a government of a new type, a government of people’s unity, that not only defends workers but stands up for the environment, health, education, and for the rights of women, Indigenous Australians and migrants.

For further information on the ongoing campaign to dismantle the ABCC and support Ark Tribe visit
www.rightsonsite.org.au

Next article Who protects workers?

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