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Issue #1483      1 December 2010

Ark Tribe victory

The workers united will never be defeated

Thousands of cheering workers greeted Ark Tribe as he left the Adelaide Magistrates Court last Wednesday. Magistrate David Whittle had just announced his verdict – “not guilty” of the charges brought by the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The scaffolder had endured 18 months of uncertainty and 11 court appearances. Six months jail had hung over his head as he became a target of the much-loathed building industry spy outfit.

Every step of the way to this victory, Ark had the support of his union (the CFMEU), the broader trade union movement and the community. The law in countries like Australia pretends that it operates in splendid isolation but there is no doubt that the judgement was achieved by the magnificent campaign waged to ensure that Ark was not sent to jail for sticking up for his rights in the workplace.

The original charges were laid when Ark refused to attend an interrogation to be conducted by the ABCC regarding a workplace meeting at a construction site at Flinders University in 2008. At the meeting, the workers had drawn up a long list of hazards that they wanted fixed for their own safety. A building worker dies nearly every week on Australian construction sites but the Howard era ABCC has not targeted shonky contractors or unsafe working practices: it has gone gunning for union members. Ark Tribe was going to be made an example for others – organise on the job and you will be hounded and punished.

Every one of Ark’s court appearances drew large and vocal demonstrations. Protests were held in other Australian capitals and regional centres. Supporters even gathered in London to voice their support. Messages of solidarity were sent to the CFMEU from unions all over the world.

In the end, the magistrate found that the Deputy ABCC Commissioner had not conducted the investigation according to the relevant legislation and had not received lawful delegation from the Commissioner. This wasn’t a matter of “getting off on a technicality”, however.

The case showed that the ABCC was prepared to go beyond what the magistrate called its “significant and intrusive powers” under section 52 of the Act to get Ark Tribe and others like him.

The ABCC is reported to have spent around $1 million of taxpayers’ money on the exercise. It has now squandered $100 million on its war on building unions – money that should have been spent on urgent social needs including workplace safety.

The verdict is a victory but the campaign must go on. The legislation is still on the books and the ABCC will no doubt learn from this experience for next time. Its reputation has taken a hit but even more pressure must be built to make sure it is abolished and not restored in some other guise. Newly appointed ABCC Commissioner Leigh Johns expressed “sympathy” for construction workers for being singled out for attention by a body like the ABCC. “We don’t want his sympathy - we want equal rights,” CFMEU Construction and General national secretary Dave Noonan said.

The Gillard government tries to hide its shame over the issue by claiming a new body will be established within Fair Work Australia. It will still be a “tough cop on the beat” but will somehow shake off the appalling reputation of its forerunner. It will, in fact, be a rebadged ABCC. The Greens are set to challenge Gillard over the matter in parliament and have consistently called for the abolition of the ABCC. As things stand, the Liberals would vote with the government to thwart any such effort. The movement in the community must be strengthened to show that there will be a political cost to the major parties if the anti-union outfit is not given a fitting burial.

“Today’s verdict will see Australian unions redouble their efforts to have these unfair and unjust laws abolished. These laws criminalise legitimate industrial activity and deny building workers the right to silence,” ACTU secretary Ged Kearney said last week. It will be a challenge to do that without the focus of a case like Ark Tribe’s but it must be done so that others are not put through the hell suffered by that courageous construction worker.  


Next article – Editorial – Public rejects “big business” Labor

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