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Issue #1625      February 5, 2014

Strength in the union

Employers, the corporate media and the Coalition government have launched all out class war on the working people of Australia. The big take-back is on as far as they are concerned. The government is hell bent on taking back social and economic gains and destroying the trade union movement. The media runs a constant barrage of articles declaring “the age of entitlement” is over, that present health and social security spending is unsustainable and portraying the trade union movement as a barrier to economic progress and employment.

(Photo: Anna Pha)

The truth is that the trade union movement is a barrier to the government’s anti-worker, pro-big business agenda. It is the trade unions who stand in the way of slashing wages, the removal of workplace health and safety regulations, and longer unpaid hours of work. In keeping with the approach of the Howard government, the plan is to destroy the strongest, most militant unions first.

In line with this approach, the CFMEU Construction Division is presently being subjected to a massive attack, in particular in the Fairfax media. Its Sydney Morning Herald’s (SMH) “INSIDE THE BUILDING RACKETS” series paints a picture of an industry rife with bribery, corruption, death threats, dirty deals, extortion, violence, and infiltration by organised crime, and notorious bikie gang figures.

It could well be an accurate portrayal of many of the developers and companies involved on construction sites and how they land contracts on big projects. But the CFMEU is more than tainted with the same brush, especially in the ABC 7.30 Report, (SMH 28-01-2014) with specific allegations of corruption.

The headlines at times are misleading. For example, under the main heading “State building union boss stands accused”, is a boxed text carrying the headline “Extortion attempt may be linked to gangland killing” with some text continued from page 1. (31-01-2014) While the main story is centred on accusations about a union official, the extortion story is about organised crime and heavy-handed debt collectors in the industry. Nothing to do with any union official or union.

A reader could easily be left with the impression that the CFMEU is riddled with corrupt, criminal elements, being bribed by or making cosy deals and being paid off by labour hire companies and other corrupt players in the industry.

Political agenda

In fact a considerable proportion of articles in the series have nothing to do with alleged criminal activity by unionists but rather allegations of corrupt building companies and labour hire outfits and their links with organised crime.

“Whilst the union has made it very clear it does not condone corruption and this should be dealt with under the criminal law, clearly there is a concerted Abbott government-led political and corporate agenda here to smash militant unionism and the power of workers to come together to fight for their rights at work by branding such union militancy as corrupt and thuggish behaviour,” Rita Mallia CFMEU NSW Construction President told the Guardian.

“It has been militant union action that bought about better safety, superannuation, annual leave, etc. This campaign seeks to justify the expenditure of millions of dollars of money to re-establish a body, the ABCC, and a set of laws which do not at all address corrupt behaviour, but which target workers and their unions and seek to weaken workers’ capacity to win better pay and conditions and to erode safety conditions, which in the construction industry will cost lives.”

That is why the union is under attack – for doing its job, and doing it well.

The media, including the ABC, have aired some potentially damaging allegations against specific union officials, in particular NSW CFMEU secretary Brian Parker and the Victorian secretary John Setka. Both officials have strongly denied these allegations.

Brian Fitzpatrick who made the accusations on the ABC against Brian Parker was a former employee of the union. In a statement issued following the allegations, Brian Parker states, “The CFMEU does not employ gangsters or members of motorcycle gangs and our office is not infiltrated by criminals. We are deeply concerned about any such activity in the industry. CFMEU Construction National Secretary Noonan has written to the NSW Commissioner requesting that the police investigate the allegations raised in the media.” (See for full text)

In another statement following articles in the SMH on January 28, Parker stated:

“We play a major role in recovering underpayments and non-payment of wages and entitlements for workers whose employers rip them off – a problem that is rife in our industry. This includes companies in labour hire where most workers are employed on a casual basis …

“The CFMEU recently recovered approximately $250,000 in entitlements owed to the employees of Active Labour Pty Ltd, a claim that is in the process of being finalised.”

Parker points out that it is ASIC (Australian Security and Investments Commission) that continues to register companies that have a history of phoenixing (going bust, workers not paid, then registering a new company under another name to repeat the exercise). “The union might have a view about a contractor and their history of compliance, but ultimately, whether a subcontractor wins work is up to the builders who contract with them.

“As Secretary of the CFMEU I have a professional relationship with George Alex from Active Labour – as I have with many other employers who operate in the construction industry in New South Wales. I do not have a social relationship with George Alex and have not played any role in promoting Active Labour Hire on the Barangaroo project,” Parker said.

James Massola sums it up in The Age: “CFMEU revelations set targets for minister Abetz” (29-01-2014), when he refers to Fairfax newspapers’ “revelations”, saying they “have given the would-be union buster [Industrial Relations Minister] Abetz just the sort of evidence he needs.”

Criminal investigations required

The Australian Crime Commission has commenced investigations along with Victoria Police, NSW Police and the NSW Crime Commission into organised crime links in the building and construction industry.

Justice Minister Keenan has already pre-empted its findings, saying, “These allegations highlight the need for the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) to provide a strong, independent watchdog for the industry.”

This attempt to justify the re-instatement of the ABCC’s powers because of alleged criminal activity is outrageous and dishonest, but that doesn’t stop the media or government running with it.

The ABCC does NOT have the power to investigate organised crime or the other alleged criminal offences. Its jurisdiction is restricted to enforcement of industrial relations legislation – illegal strike action, right of entry breaches, failure to pay workers’ entitlements, “coercion” to join a union, etc.

The investigation of alleged criminal offences is the responsibility of law enforcement bodies such as state and federal police who, as just stated, are doing just that. It is not a matter for the ABCC – unless the government has plans to extend the powers of the ABCC into criminal matters already covered by the justice system.

The ABCC legislation provides the building industry police force with powers to interrogate innocent people far beyond those of law agencies. There is no right to silence, with six months mandatory jail sentence for failure to answer questions, failure to dob in mates, report who said what at a union meeting, etc.

The ABCC legislation draws heavily on the anti-terrorist laws, denying building workers and their unions fewer rights than accused murderers. (See GuardianDouble whammy for building workers”, #1279, 28-06-2006, for Howard’s ABCC)

Real criminals not pursued

On the same ABC 7.30 program Nick McKenzie interviews Nigel Hadgkiss, director of the Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC)Inspectorate. The last Labor government failed to abolish the ABCC, instead weakening a few of its powers, reducing the penalties and transferring to the Fair Work umbrella as the FWBC Inspectorate.

McKenzie asks Hadgkiss: “For a decade now you’ve been consistently saying there’s organised crime and serious corruption in the building industry. In all that time are you aware of a single Australian police agency that’s conducted an investigation?”

Hadgkiss responds: “No. No, I’m afraid to say no.”

Previous Royal witch hunts

There is a history of accusations regarding criminal activity and failure to act on findings. In recent times there have been three Royal Commissions that were aimed at building unions and now the Abbott government is considering whether to launch a fourth one or some other type of inquiry. Building companies are not so keen on the idea, clearly fearing what might be exposed.

The first of these Royal witch hunts was in Victoria, into the militant Builders Labourers Federation in the early 1980s. This was part of the process leading to the deregistration of the BLF, a Special Operations raid by police in riot gear and seizure of its assets.

In 1992, the Gyles Royal Commission in NSW failed to find evidence of alleged union violence. The Commission revealed the employment of criminals to stand over workers by several major employers and use of gangsters to infiltrate the workforce as sham unionists and intimidate union delegates.

It could not find any evidence of widespread or serious corruption relating to the unions, but this did not stop it recommending the deregistration of the Building Workers Industrial Union – essentially for standing up and protecting the rights of its members against the intimidation. (The BWIU later merged with other unions to become the CFMEU.)

The Cole Royal Commission, set up by the then Minister for Workplace Relations Tony Abbott in 2001, paved the way for the establishment of the ABCC. The Commission made little attempt to disguise its aims, with 97 percent of its time spent listening to allegations against unions and the unions given almost no space to refute them, let alone put the record straight about employer corruption and illegal conduct.

The Commission was more interested in delving into union affairs. The media had a field day running unsubstantiated muck across the front pages with the unions denied any semblance of justice. When allegations were disproved, they didn’t make the front page, if any page at all.

The aim of any Commission or inquiry will be no different to those of the past – destroy the union, in this case the CFMEU.

Victorian Premier Denis Napthine has called for a federal inquiry into union corruption on building sites, either a Productivity Commission inquiry or a Royal Commission to investigate claims of bribery on sites. The Victorian government is determined to ban builders who make “union-friendly” deals in the industry from government sites.

(Photo: Anna Pha)

Unions can’t do it alone

ACTU president Ged Kearney issued a statement (January 30) supporting the right of trade unions to defend workers and social gains. “Each year trade unions are the ones building the economic case for an increase to the minimum wage; every week we are questioning government policy to ensure workers are not forgotten; every day we negotiate workplace agreements that give workers a say; every hour unions are calling unscrupulous employers to account; every minute a member is calling their union for help and advice over safety, redundancy or discrimination,” Kearney said.

“Along with the leadership of our movement, I support tough penalties in cases of corruption and other criminal behaviour by union officials. But I don’t support the Abbott government’s proposed Royal Commission into unions.

“We have the criminal law to deal with criminal behaviour. Allegations such as those raised in the construction industry – with corrupt behaviour alleged against many players including contractors and labour hire firms – should rightly be dealt with by the police. I support the leadership of the CFMEU in referring these matters to the police.” (See “Royal Commission into unions a witch hunt, says ACTU” in this issue of the Guardian for full text.)

Class war with vengeance

The real issue is the future of trade unionism in Australia. Individual workers have no power to defend themselves in the workplace. They are at the total mercy of unscrupulous bosses and in the case of the building industry, criminals, gangsters and other stand-over merchants. Their power lies in unity with other workers.

It extends beyond the workplace to fighting for and defending health care, public education, public transport, social security and all the other social and economic gains we tend to take for granted. The ABCC legislation, which is stalled in the Senate, is also an attack on basic democratic rights as well as trade unionism.

The stronger, militant unions are the biggest barrier to employer dreams of union-free workplaces, of a life without unions, and the government/big business agenda of destroying the social security system and public sector.

As stated at the beginning, it is class war that is being waged by the government, media and employers. It is people versus profits. The battle to protect the CFMEU and other trade unions affects all working people, all students, pensioners, unemployed and vulnerable in the community.

The Communist Party of Australia is standing by the CFMEU and other trade unions under attack.

The unions cannot win it on their own. The attack on the CFMEU is an attack on all of us and it requires the broadest movement possible to defeat it.

Next article – Editorial – Industry super funds latest target

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