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Issue # 1417      1 July 2009

No major crisis in the industry

During the debate in 2005 on the Howard government’s legislation to establish the ABCC, Labor MP and former ACTU president Martin Ferguson spoke strongly in defence of building trade unions and what they had achieved through years of struggle on building sites. His father was a building worker and staunch unionist involved in the struggles in the 1950s through to the 1990s. The following are extracts from his speech:

The bill was clearly born out of a political exercise. That political exercise was the Royal Commission headed by Justice Cole [in 2002 –Ed].

The facts show that at that time there was no major crisis in the building and construction industry. No one asked for the inquiry – not the unions, the industry, the clients or the workers. Building activity investment at the time was robust.

I suggest to the House that this government has never been about cleaning up the building industry. Its real goal has been, and always will be, to smash the union movement and hand power back to employers who have no regard for the welfare of building workers and their families.

I saw directly in my own household the sacrifices my parents made in just trying to make ends meet, because of the lack of decent working conditions for building workers in the post-Second World War period.

The struggle commenced on building sites. Yes, it was a struggle, and we are not ashamed of the fact that it was a struggle. It was about bringing to building workers a sense of decency and dignity at work.

The Cole Royal Commission did not uncover the so-called endemic corruption or criminality by union officials, which the government used as an excuse to set up the Commission.

It is also worthwhile reminding the House that this government spent $60 million [on the Cole Commission] to set up a framework to erode the rights of building workers, to reduce their wages and conditions of employment, while spending only $30 million inquiring into the HIH [insurance company] collapse, where there was real corruption.

The effect of this bill is to try and ensure that building workers will be second-class citizens with weaker awards, less access to unions and a reduced right to protect their rights through industrial action.

I want to take people back to the 1950s... You were hired for the time of the job…. There was no guarantee of 52 weeks of employment a year…. When it rained there was no pay. There was no wet pay, there was no sick pay and, in most instances, little attention was paid to issues of health and safety in the building industry. So we actually achieved through the ‘50s and the ‘60s the right of building workers to wet pay and sick pay.

With regard to annual leave, we had to set up a fund to enable workers to accrue annual leave by payment into a building industry fund.… We had to set up a portability of long service leave scheme to guarantee to building workers what was received by all other workers in Australia.

One of the major achievements of the 1980s was the development of industry superannuation.

Even with the improvements in health and safety in Australia, we still have an industry which sees over 50 deaths per year. It is a dangerous industry. These conditions are important to building workers, but more importantly they are about security for building workers’ spouses and families in the case of accident or, worse still, death on the job.

Finally they actually achieved the introduction of severance pay. So I make no apology for the struggle of building unions over many years to actually bring a sense of decency to the lives of building workers and their families.

To me the historic fact is that building workers have rights to collectively organise and bargain. This bill is about eroding those rights…

June 2009 and Martin Ferguson, now a Labor Minister in the Rudd government, falls into line, supporting the transfer of the ABCC and its coercive powers to the Fair Work Australia legislation, and the continued outlawing of industrial action.

Next article Repeal the Act, dismantle the ABCC

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