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Issue #1563      5 September 2012

Grocon dispute highlights growing war on workers

“Building union’s workplace war goes national.” That’s how a report in The Australian Financial Review described the industrial dispute focussed on Grocon’s $1.2 Emporium project in Melbourne. The day before, the public had been bombarded with stories about the police operation against unionists protesting outside the site. But viewers of the telecasts weren’t left to draw their own conclusions. The voice-overs alleged that union members “kicked and punched” police horses. Later reports claimed capsicum spray was used in order to protect police officers who had been dragged to the ground. Bikies and underworld figures were supposedly being brought to the protest to do their worst. A frenzy was being whipped up but far from being a union “war”, the incident marks a disturbing new stage in a war on workers’ rights in Australia and the corporate media is playing its part.

The undefeated protestors soon after the failed union-busting attack by police. (Photo: Corey Oakley)

Victorian Police later admitted the protest had been one of the most disciplined they had attended and now consider the dispute to be a “civil matter”. Unionists had shown magnificent commitment, assembling in the rain at 5am to defend rights vital to worker safety in an industry that still claims a worker’s life every week. The protesters had exercised great restraint in the face of a frightening display of brute force. The ETU is reported to be considering legal action against police for capsicum spraying a member. Despite company and media claims to the contrary, only a handful of non-union workers had subsequently got into the site. The union-busting exercise that had been planned for days had ended in humiliating failure.

Fair Work Australia agreed to a request from federal Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten to host talks between the parties last Friday. Company chief Daniel Grollo complained that he was unhappy about attending while the “illegal blockades” on his sites continued. Mr Grollo had appeared often in the media to put his position on the dispute in the most inflammatory terms possible. “The blockades are more than illegal. They are unprovoked, based on lies, and involve a systematic campaign of long-term physical threats to individuals, their careers and in some cases their families.”

Getting facts straight

What is truth and what are “lies” concerning the Grocon dispute is becoming clearer as workers speak out. The “blockades” are actually peaceful protest. Threats and real violence have been inflicted on the unionists taking part by riot police. The intimidation on the Grocon site that helped trigger the response from workers includes the employment of a night club bouncer and a former state heavy-weight boxing champion to back up the anti-union message of the employer. Despite claims of “world’s best” standards, safety at the site is not satisfactory. The Construction Division of the CFMEU website carries several photos of serious breaches.

Safety is at the core of the dispute and part of a nationwide push by bosses to cut costs by lowering the standards defended by industry unions. At Grocon the workers are demanding:

  • The right be represented by recognised safety and union reps
  • The right to talk to their union organiser without interference

In spite of a previous agreement between Daniel Grollo and the CFMEU, the current, company-appointed safety officer is the son of the human resources manager. The company will not allow union posters in the lunch sheds and has sought to ban the wearing of union logos and clothing. Grocon has snubbed an offer by unions for a 14-day cooling down period made at the Fair Work Australia discussions.

“Unions are willing and able to sit down with Grocon management at any time to talk through these issues,” as ACTU President Ged Kearney said recently. “But Grocon management needs to drop its hardline approach and show respect for its workforce to negotiate a speedy and peaceful resolution to this dispute so that the employees of Grocon can get back to work.”

Forces at play

It appears Grocon has taken it upon itself to be in the vanguard of a renewed anti-union push. “If the CFMEU is given the space and the oxygen to continue to run this illegal blockade and the fear campaign that goes with it, then it will demonstrate the system really is not working,” Daniel Grollo told The Australian Financial Review recently.

It is clear that, in reality, he and like-minded employers have launched a campaign to deny the CFMEU the “space” and “oxygen” required to represent workers and defend their interests.

Grollo wants to demonstrate that the present system is “not working” and needs to be replaced with something that does. Industrial action and protest would be dealt with swiftly. “I think the construction industry needs a very speedy regime to help get those efficiencies,” he commented elsewhere.

The Grocon dispute takes place against the backdrop of a new anti-union construction industry code imposed by silver-tail premier Ted Baillieu who has put considerable police resources at Grocon’s disposal. Federal opposition leader Tony Abbott is threatening to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission even though most of its functions and powers continue to exist in the Fair Work Australia Building and Construction agency. Abbott is also being egged on by commentators like former Prime Minister Howard to be up front and say that he will re-introduce individual workplace agreements. The big end of town is baying for blood.

Solidarity the answer

The response from workers across the country to the challenge has been outstanding. Work on a major site in Sydney stalled on the news of the attack on the Melbourne workers. A Brisbane site was affected. The Building Industry Group of unions is considering its options. “One of the options is to call a state-wide stoppage in support if the issue, but it’s not the only option that was discussed today,” Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Brian Boyd said last week.

The Grocon dispute was to be considered by the Victorian Supreme Court again as The Guardian went to press. But the workers involved have already demonstrated the sort of unity and discipline required to head off the latest attacks from the bosses in the building and construction industry. They will need our support in their ongoing struggle.  

Next article – Dental alert

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