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Issue #1631      March 19, 2014

Time for fightback

It was a miracle that no one was seriously injured or lost their life in the fire at the Lend Lease construction site at Barangaroo in Sydney’s CBD last week. Thick black fumes poured out over the city centre as the inferno reached temperatures of over 1,000° C and surrounding buildings were evacuated. At the same time as 500 workers were evacuating the site, their union, the CFMEU, was being hit with more than $680,000 in fines and damages, much of it for trying to keep a site in Perth safe.

Thousands of people around Australia took part in anti-Abbott “March in March” actions, last weekend. Photo – Adelaide.

The Abbott government and construction companies are waging all-out war on the unions and bankrupting them in the court system as part of their armoury of weapons. They have taken up where the Howard government left off and are determined to finish the job, using every means at their disposal.

The Productivity Commission has launched an attack on construction workers in its review of public infrastructure. The Fairfax media leaked the draft terms of reference for the forthcoming Productivity Commission review of the Fair Work Act and industrial relations in Australia. It comes as no surprise that these also target unions and workers’ wages and working conditions. The government has set up a panel of big business representatives to review restrictions on 457 visas for skilled workers.

It took almost 24 hours to extinguish the Barangaroo fire. Several thousand people had to be evacuated from nearby buildings, major city roads were closed, including the ramp onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for fear of a 20-storey crane toppling. Black plumes of smoke, containing who knows what dangerous particles, poured out over the city centre.

Previous incidents

It was the second fire on a Lend Lease construction site in 18 months. Unions have had issues over safety at Barangaroo since commencement of work on the site, beginning with the presence of highly toxic substances. In January this year, a worker died in a fall on the site.

In November 2012, a crane caught fire on Broadway in Sydney, shutting the building site down for a fortnight and causing traffic chaos and evacuations. Two workers were injured when scaffolding at a construction site in Mascot, Sydney, collapsed a few weeks ago. Again, it was incredible luck that no workers, pedestrians or motorists were killed. (See Guardian, “Abbott wants bosses’ unions or no unions”, #1630, 12-03-2014).

Following the Barangaroo fire, Unions NSW called for an urgent safety review of all major building sites. “We have seen three major safety scares at building sites in the last 18 months. Only luck prevented mass tragedy on each occasion,” UNSW secretary Mark Lennon said.”

WorkCover and the government, under considerable public pressure, responded by announcing a six-week blitz of building sites in Sydney and regional NSW with 30 inspectors! That won’t change much. Maybe a few slaps over the wrist with a few subcontractors fined peanuts. These sites need constant, independent monitoring with serious penalties for infringements.

The powers of union occupational health and safety representatives should be strengthened. The right of unions and workers to take industrial action around safety issues is vital. They should not face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and damages claims when taking action around safety issues. But this is what is happening.

It has become a “crime” to attempt to enforce safety on a major construction site.

Perth.

Massive fines

The Howard government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission’s (ABCC) has hit the CFMEU with millions of dollars in fines and costs since it began hounding unions and workers on construction sites. The attacks continued under Labor which brought the ABCC under the Fair Work umbrella and renamed it as the Fair Work Building Commission (FWBC). Since the election of the Abbott government the FWBC has stepped up its attack on unions and militants.

Last week, the CFMEU and several of its officials in Western Australia were hit with fines and costs of more than $680,000 for contraventions of the Fair Work Act. This includes the union and its officials’ alleged role in demanding payment from Brookfield Multiplex during a strike, until plant on site were inspected after a runaway water tanker almost killed two workers who were working in a trench.

Keeping organisers off the sites

As if the hefty fines and damages payments to employers were not enough, the court banned the union’s militant assistant secretary Joe McDonald from entering Brookfield Multiplex sites for three years.

The right of entry provisions are already extremely limited. Now, elected union organisers and other officials are increasingly being denied entry to workplaces. The aim is to prevent contact with members and make it as difficult as possible to organise, defend members, collect membership dues and recruit new members.

The Master Builders’ Association of Victoria has sent out a list with photos of 13 CFMEU officials to 7,500 building companies saying they do not have right of entry permits. The letter says that these officials “can be refused entry onto your site under all circumstances as they do not have authority to enter your workplace under the Fair Work Act 2009.” They can call the police if they wish if an official attempts to enter.

Treated like criminals

Last month, Theiss management on the Regional Rail Link job in Victoria called the police when a CFMEU organiser went onto the job. He was handcuffed and thrown into a police van last month. His crime? He was responding to a call from workers on the site regarding safety issues. The safety issues involved access and egress to a wall that was being pulled, and lifting tilt up panels.

CFMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan said the organiser had authorised right of entry and had been on the job many times before. He happened not to have his papers on him when he walked on the job that day.

“The fact that they called the police on an organiser who had been on the job many times and who had been called by workers on the site in relation to a safety issues raises serious questions about what Thiess are trying to hide.”

76 charged

The FWBC has now singled out 76 building workers in WA for prosecution in the courts. Without warning, process servers began turning up at their homes at all hours, serving summonses on workers in front of stunned partners and children – scare tactics designed to create tensions in the home. Their crime? They allegedly walked off the job to attend a rally on February 28, 2013. The 76 were working on the new Children’s Hospital in Nedlands at the time. They face individual fines of $10,200 – totalling over three quarters of a million dollars – and possibly more.

The rally was part of a union and community campaign for local jobs and local content in WA’s resources sector in which the CFMEU, MUA, ETU, AWU and plumbing unions also took part. The union has not received answers to why these 76 were singled out for charges when in all 4,000 or more construction workers took part, including around 300 from the same hospital site.

FWBC has targeted these workers for exercising their democratic rights in defence of jobs. They are not in dispute with their employer. The fact they are being charged a year after the event demonstrates the political, anti-union motives behind the charges.

To get an overview of the intensity of the campaign against building unions and the CFMEU, it is worth visiting the FWBC’s site, fwbc.gov.au/latest-news. There is page after page of reports on the ABCC’s court victories against unions and their officials. Any industrial action or attempt by a union official or workers to respond to safety issues is “unlawful” and hence subject to court penalties.

As in the case of the 76 Perth workers, it is not about employers taking the union to court to resolve a dispute. The employers are sitting by, watching the government spend millions of dollars attempting to rid them of unions and militant workers.

Sydney. (Photo: Bernadette Smith)

Multi-pronged attack on unions

The FWBC/ABCC is not the only weapon in the Abbott and Minister Eric Abetz’ assault on trade unions and workers’ wages and working conditions. Nor is the target limited to building and construction unions.

The terms of reference of the $100 million Royal Commission into trade unions are broad when it comes to looking into any union it wishes but exclude employers and their corrupt and illegal practices.

The Productivity Commission’s draft report on public infrastructure costs released last week, expressed concerns over “widespread unlawful conduct”, adverse industrial relations cultures and problems with enterprise agreements.

The draft terms of reference for the Productivity Commission’s review of the Fair Work Act and industrial relations system, where “everything is up for grabs”, were leaked by Fairfax media on March 7. They include penalty rates, pay and conditions, unfair dismissal, enterprise bargaining flexibility (spin for individual contracts) and “union militancy”.

The panel inquiring into 457 visas for skilled workers is stacked with big business representatives and, as is the pattern with Abbott-appointed committees, there is not even token union representation. Unions can make a submission if they wish! Immigration Minister Scott Morrison made the outcomes clear, saying the changes were about “regulation reduction, removing union red tape which was put there by the previous government.”

In particular, the requirement that employers test the market first for local labour is set to be lifted.

This week the government launched its “Red Tape Challenge” propaganda website for companies and others to put up their wish lists for deregulation – including labour, health and safety, planning, environmental and other laws. It has already identified 8,000 laws and regulations it plans to scrap including sections of the Fair Work Act and 457 visa regulations. (Details were not available at the time of writing.)

There are a number of bills to amend the Fair Work Act and legislation to restore and expand the powers of the ABCC, now before the Senate. The ABCC bill extends the ABCC’s tentacles to maritime, transport, construction and manufacturing unions and workers that serve the construction industry,

The FWBC/ABCC offensive, the legislation and the host of reviews is an indicator of what the Abbott Coalition government has in store for unions and workers, the worst of it scheduled for a second term of office. At present that looks a distinct possibility.

Profits first

Apart from attempting to quash action and deunionise construction sites by intimidation, the ABCC is being used to try to bankrupt trade unions.

It is time for an investigation into the FWBC/ABCC, in particular, a total of how many millions of dollars have been drained from union funds – members’ money – in fines, damages and legal costs in relation to legitimate union activity.

The unions are the only force on building sites and other workplaces consistently fighting to enforce safe working conditions and protect the public. The government is hell-bent on bankrupting unions in the courts and giving employers a free reign to ignore health and safety regulations. It is all about cost-cutting short-cuts to maximise profits.

Without the union, constructions sites would deteriorate overnight. It is not just workers who would be injured or lose their lives. Building standards would collapse and endanger future occupants and the public.

Act now

The Communist Party of Australia is calling for the immediate repeal of the FWBC legislation. A secretive police force that hounds innocent workers has the makings of a police state, not a democratic society. The legislation has been found to be in breach of international conventions. The Abbott/Abetz government bill to restore and strengthen the hand of Howard’s ABCC must be defeated.

The Fair Work Act still contains many of the provisions of the old WorkChoices legislation. It should also be repealed. Before any government can refer to Australia as a democracy, basic trade union and workers’ rights as recognised in international must be enacted.

The right to join a trade union and be active in a union is a basic human right. In particular, no worker should be subjected to massive fines, threatened with the loss of their home or job if they take industrial action, join a political protest or attend a union meeting. Nor should they be subjected to secret interrogations under threat of jail if they refuse to answer questions.

As Dave Noonan asked, “What sort of a country are we living in when a worker is handcuffed for not having his papers on him?

“What sort of a country are we living in when workers are treated like criminals for attending a peaceful protest?

“It’s something you might expect in an authoritarian state, not in a democracy like Australia”.

Next article – Editorial – Pressure building for media “reform”

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