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Issue #1634      April 9, 2014

Assault on unions steps up

Govt sends in bailiffs to take workers’ homes

In the past Australian governments have sent troops in to break strikes, jailed union officials, used the courts to impose massive penalties but never before have they sent in the bailiffs to seize the cars and homes of workers. Yet this is what the Abbott government began doing to 33 construction workers in Western Australia whose only “crime” was to take strike action to defend their rights. At the same time in Victoria, the Construction Division of the CFMEU was fined $1.25 million over protests against the Grollo construction company in Melbourne in 2012 and found guilty of “criminal” contempt of court.

Individual fines

Last September, the federal court found 117 construction workers guilty of “unlawful” industrial action under the Fair Work Act. The action was taken in 2008. The majority of the workers belonged to the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and some to the CFMEU. They were employed by CBI Construction on the expansion of a Woodside liquid natural gas plant in the Pilbara. They had gone out for eight days in defence of entitlements under their union collective agreement to a redundancy payment and re-employment on the next phase of the project.

The dispute was resolved, work continued but that did not stop the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), renamed by Labor as Fair Work Building Construction inspectorate (FWBC), taking the matter to the federal court.

The court hit them individually with fines and penalties totalling over one million dollars. They were ordered to pay a total of $680,125 within 60 days. Payment of the remaining $387,875 was suspended but would become immediately payable if they breached any industrial law during the next three years. In some cases the fines were as high as $10,000 each.

The amount of fines outstanding when the FWBC sent in the bailiffs last week was $196,000. The FWBC is set to have their property confiscated and sold to pay the outstanding fines and the costs in collecting the money.

“Where we have been able to identify property, most commonly cars and houses, we have filed and served property search and seizure orders,” FWBC director Nigel Hadgkiss said. “Where we could not identify property we are going to require those workers to attend means examination in the Federal Court.

“Proceedings have been filed and are in the process of being served on the workers. Hearings in early May have already been scheduled by the court.

“This is a warning to all workers that if they breach workplace laws, FWBC will not hesitate to enforce penalties imposed by the courts,” Hadgkiss said.

Big bully

And that is what it is all about – a warning designed to instil fear and intimidate other workers who might dare to take collective action to defend their entitlements and ensure their workplace is safe.

There is a big difference between fining a union as against individual workers who could lose their car or home with all the ramifications for families and relationships.

Mick Buchan, the WA state secretary for the CFMEU, said the FWBC’s tactics were about intimidation not restitution. “They are acting with malice, and callously pursuing these workers, some of whom can’t afford to pay,” Buchan told ABC Radio.

Criminalised

Last week Supreme Court Judge Anthony Cavanough fined the CFMEU in Victoria $1.25 million and ordered the union to pay the costs of the Grollo construction company, reportedly around $2 million. That is on top of its own costs, believed to be close to $1 million.

In all, a hit of $4 million or more on top of millions of dollars in fines and costs already incurred in recent years. Grocon also intends making a multi-million dollar civil claim for damages arising from the “illegal blockades” of its sites.

The allegations relate to peaceful protests that were set upon violently by police. As reported in the Guardian (“Grocon dispute highlights growing war on workers”, #1563, 05/09/2012), Grocon workers were demanding the right to be represented by a recognised safety and union rep and 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…,” the Guardian article reported.

The court chose to find the union guilty of “criminal contempt” in relation to breaches of court orders to end “illegal blockades” of Grocon sites. This is far more serious than contempt of court.

Since the Grocon dispute, the Victorian government has outlawed community pickets.

The question of union rights and safety is at the heart of many of the attacks on the CFMEU and other unions. The employers and government talk in terms of bullying and a “culture of fear and intimidation” referring to the CFMEU as the perpetrators.

There is certainly a growing “culture of fear and intimidation” and no shortage of bullying, but the unions and their members are not the guilty ones. They are on the receiving end of the bullying and harassment.

There is clearly one rule for the companies that exploit the workers and another rule for the workers and their unions who are defending their rights.

The ABCC is not chasing up the employers who breach occupational health and safety regulations or fail to pay workers their legal entitlements.

Where, for example, were the building industry police when the CFMEU uncovered in excess of $150,000 unpaid wages of up to 46 workers on the new Perth International Terminal (1) developed by Leighton’s Holdings subsidiary Broad Constructions? No prize for guessing the answer to that question.

That’s not the only breach of the law. Despite this project being funded by the Australian Industry Super Funds, these workers had not been paid their statutory requirements including superannuation and long service leave involving many more thousands of dollars.

The CFMEU is constantly pursuing employers who wilfully breach the law and know that if workers take action to enforce their rights or to ensure safety is maintained, they will be fined for “unlawful” action.

The toll continues to mount. (See, for example, Guardian, “Abbott wants bosses’ unions or no unions”, #1630, 12/03/2014 for more details of construction site accidents.) Last week there was another tragedy; a young worker was electrocuted on a construction site in Jurien Bay, WA.

The safety situation and non-payment of wages and other entitlements will only worsen without a strong union presence. And that is the aim of the Abbott government and employers – to rid construction sites of a militant union presence.

The appointment of Nigel Hadgkiss as director of FWBC and plans to fully restore and increase the powers of the ABCC are just one line of the Abbott government’s all-out attack on unions.

Hadgkiss served as deputy Commissioner of the ABCC from 2005-2008 under the Howard government. He is a former Assistant Commissioner with the Australian Federal Police and was the National Crime Authority’s liaison officer during the Howard government’s kangaroo court known as the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry.

Hadgkiss is setting up a “cold-unit” to re-examine ABCC/FWBC cases handled under the Labor government, with the aim of pursuing them further where possible. He is also reported to have flagged in a secret report to the Premier of Victoria the deregistration of the CFMEU.

The employers accuse the CFMEU of using “safety” as an industrial tool. They are not “using” safety; they are pursuing the safety of workers and the public.

The Abbott government’s Royal Commission into union corruption is another arm of this attack. There are more anti-union laws in the pipeline.

The FWBC/ABCC is a tool, set up with the explicit purpose of destroying the CFMEU through intimidation of members, denying union officials their right of entry to construction sites, bankrupting the union through massive fines and crippling its ability to defend workers through industrial action.

The government’s aim is to deregister the union and, more widely, discredit the whole union movement and take down the Labor Party in the process. At the same time employers, whose dirty work the government is doing, are heightening their offensive on workers’ rights, wages and working conditions.

The CFMEU is not backing down. It carried out inspections of a number of Lend Lease sites in NSW. The Lend Lease site at Barangaroo has had two recent fires and its UTS site was the scene of a crane fire. The union found numerous safety breaches but instead of moving quickly to acknowledge and rectify them, the company went into denial, instead attacking the union.

“There is a concerted onslaught against this union from the Commonwealth government and a number of state governments coming up over the next 12 months,” CFMEU construction division national secretary David Noonan said.

“That is not going to deter the union from doing what it needs to do in ensuring what it can do to maintain safety at work.”

Except under limited conditions during the negotiation of a new enterprise agreement, all industrial action is illegal in Australia. The weakening of the union movement in Australia has reached a critical point. The Senate results raise to a new level the CFMEU’s struggle to exist, let alone to defend workers. The Abbott/employer offensive requires maximum unity and concerted action by the trade union movement as a whole.

Next article – Editorial – Abbott’s “open for business” in context

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