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Issue # 1422      5 August 2009

Labor recycles the ABCC

Building unions maintain the struggle

Close to a thousand angry and determined building workers and supporters marched on the ALP National Conference at Darling Harbour in Sydney last Friday calling for the abolition of the building industry police force and its coercive powers. Labor had promised to rip up Howard’s anti-union building legislation and the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) that singled out workers in that industry for special treatment.

In the lead up to the ALP Conference, Unions NSW had pulled the plug on their support for a large march and rally by the trade union movement against the ABCC legislation. They instead organised a lunchtime forum with the ACTU on “Australian Unions Working for a Better Life” in an auditorium at Darling Harbour. The building unions were left to resurrect the march, which they did.

The building, plumbing and electrical trade unions were joined by the Victorian Trades Hall Council, Maritime, Nurses and other unions and left parties including the Communist Party of Australia. The march was a sea of brightly coloured union banners and placards added to by the strong beat of drums. The banners and placards demanded:

Scrap the ABCC

One Law for All

End ABCC coercive powers

No more workplace deaths

Trade unionists are not criminals

Right of entry

Right to strike

The protestors marched from the old Trades and Labor Council to Darling Harbour. Many of them filed into the auditorium for the lunchtime forum, drums beating and banners still flying high. They remained to hear the ACTU and Unions NSW speakers tell them that they still opposed the discriminatory laws. A number of Conference delegates joined them.

They were treated to a professionally produced video covering the Your Rights @ Work campaign, the defeat of the Howard government and the Rudd government’s new laws. The building workers booed Howard, cheered his defeat but were decidedly cool on Rudd – with boos or deadly silence.

WorkChoices recycled

The video featured a clipping of ACTU president Sharan Burrow symbolically throwing a WorkChoices booklet into a wheelie bin. It now appears that the bin was a recycling bin; that WorkChoices and the ABCC are being recycled, but under the watch of a Rudd/Gillard Labor government. The slick video and speeches were not reassuring, falling far short of a strong commitment for a national campaign of action to defeat the laws.

Building workers were badly let down by the ALP Conference, with the adoption of a motion that watered down the ALP’s previous policy to rip up the legislation and give building workers the same rights as other workers.

Backroom deals with union and ALP leaders prior to the Conference saw a resolution that allows for the ABCC’s continuation with its special powers transferred to a special division of Fair Work Australia.

“Labor understands that coercive investigation powers impinge upon people’s civil liberties and that their use should be limited to circumstances where these powers should have a continuing role in the enforcement of workplace laws,” the resolution stated.

Conference also said that one set of laws should apply to all – but apparently not yet!

There has to be change in the industry, to ensure there are “harmonious workplaces characterised by safe work,” Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard told ALP delegates. It was a grim reminder of her insulting reference to “balaclavas, violence and intimidation” in the industry at the ACTU Congress in June when she was booed by delegates. She was not referring to the Howard government’s balaclava-wearing hired goons that forcibly removed Maritime Union members from their jobs in the dead of night, but to union activists in the building industry.

The building industry is a dangerous place and has been made even more dangerous by anti-union laws that effectively outlaw industrial action to protect working conditions and the health and safety of workers. Under the ABCC’s watch, workplace deaths have nearly doubled. Building workers, union officials and unions have been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for carrying out legitimate trade union activities.

Right of entry has been curbed. Union members have been summonsed to secret interrogations sessions, with the threat of jail hanging over their heads if they do not attend and dob their mates in. South Australian building worker Ark Tribe is due to appear in court later this month for allegedly failing to attend an interrogation session. If found guilty he will be locked up for six months.

The Rudd/Gillard Labor government has before parliament a bill that seeks to change the ABCC’s name and transfer its powers to a special division of Fair Work Australia. It retains a special police force with powers far beyond those of police dealing with suspected criminals or terrorists.

Proposals to amend the bill so that it restricts the use of the ABCC’s coercive powers to when it is in the “public interest,” are nothing more than a sick joke to weaken and divide opposition to the legislation.

“The Australian economy performs best when there is an effective respectful partnership between employers, unions and government”, Ms Gillard told the ALP conference. In other words, the laws will apply until building unions give up the class struggle and stop defending the rights and lives of their members.

There is the added danger that the government will extend coverage of the ABCC’s coercive powers to all industries or workplaces where such “harmony” does not exist.

These laws need to be incarcerated, not recycled.

The ALP conference might have surrendered to the pro-employer agenda of Labor’s right-wing parliamentary leadership but the building unions and their supporters, including the Victorian Trades Hall Council, have not surrendered. Trade union rights and workers’ lives are non-negotiable.

Next article Editorial – Resist the attack on public education

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