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Issue #1727      April 20, 2016

Union witch hunt & election trigger

The Dirty Double

There will be a July 2 federal election following a double dissolution after the Senate’s rejection of the government’s attempt to re-establish the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission.

Parliament returned this week for a special three-week session to consider two industrial relations bills that the Senate had previously blocked and for the Budget which has been brought forward to May 3. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has opportunistically used the bills to bring on the double dissolution of Parliament in the hope of gaining control of the Senate. The trade union movement and working people of Australia now may face WorkChoices Mark II: an even more vicious onslaught on trade union rights, wages, working conditions and living standards.

The Turnbull government hopes to rid the Senate of the independent cross-benchers who cannot always be relied upon to support its legislation.

The bills that were being considered this week are the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Bill 2014 and the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 (BCIIP).

The Registered Organisations Bill applies to all trades unions. It aims to set up a special Registered Organisations Commission and Commissioner with draconian powers to regulate, monitor and impose a stringent financial accounting and disclosure regime on trade unions with far heavier penalties than those currently operating under the Fair Work Act.

In many respects it is modelled on the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) as if trade unions were corporations, but in some areas demands more of trade unions than corporations.

The government plans to play the “union corruption” card during the election campaign, drawing on Labor’s close links to the trade union movement.

Royal Commission

The Abbott government set up the Heydon Royal Commission into alleged trade union corruption with the aim of trying to justify the draconian, undemocratic legislation as well as to vilify trade unions and so discourage workers from joining them.

The Royal Commission ran for 20 months. During that period, in a heavily biased coverage weighted against the union movement, the media ran hot, daily reporting on alleged union corruption, violence, bikie gang links with the construction union – the CFMEU – and criminality. It did not give the same coverage when many of these allegations were proven to be false or withdrawn.

The Heydon Royal Commission made sweeping, totally unsubstantiated claims about “widespread and deep-seated” misconduct in the trade union movement. It’s “revelations” were the “very tip of the iceberg”, offering no proof of an iceberg.

As the Guardian pointed out: “It denigrated individuals and cast a stain over the trade union movement in order to undermine the legitimacy of trade unionism – all, in the final analysis, to boost profits. That was its ideological thrust.” (“Coward punch on workers’ rights”, 20-01-2016, #1715)

It was an expensive, taxpayer-funded political witch hunt. Apart from trying to damage the Labor Party and boost construction company and developers’ profits, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott had the aim of vilifying and destroying the reputation of trade unions. This could then be used to try to justify the introduction of one of the most reactionary, undemocratic, union-busting pieces of legislation – the Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013.

The Royal Commission’s “findings” are now being used to justify the restoration of the Howard government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). But the ABCC does not deal with criminal offences such as corruption. With a few exceptions, the offences under the legislation are civil.

Abbott claims that the (BCIIP) restores the ABCC with its industry specific police force. The truth is that it goes further than the original ABCC.

ABCC Mark II

The bill replaces the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate (Labor’s modified version of the ABCC) with a reincarnation of the ABCC.

Its provisions include:

Coercive investigatory powers of ABC Commissioner – require a person to attend an interrogation session, answer questions (eg repeat what their fellow workers or a union official said at a meeting) under oath or affirmation.

No right to remain silent – this basic legal right has been taken away from construction workers.

Workers would not have right to lawyer of choosing.

Criminal offences – refusal to attend, answer questions, take an oath or affirmation or answer questions is an offence punishable by six months jail.

Illegal industrial action – all industrial action is illegal with the exception of “protected” action. The definition of “protected” action here is narrower than under the Fair Work Act. If one or more non-members of the union negotiating a new enterprise agreement join the action, it is not “protected”.

Picketing unlawful – a new offence where organising or engaging in a picket with the aim of supporting claims against an employer is illegal. That includes solidarity and community pickets as well as pickets by employees of the company being targeted.

Coercion and discrimination – these and other clauses are designed to prevent unions gaining uniform wages and conditions across a construction site. The aim is for subcontractors to be pitted against each other in a race to the bottom reducing costs. This affects health and safety as well as wages and working conditions. They also relate to union recruitment.

Hours of work – EBAs specifying maximum hours of work would be illegal.

Penalties – for unlawful industrial action, picketing, coercion, etc are $34,000 for individuals and $170,000 for body corporates. These are five times larger than penalties for similar offences covering workers in other industries under the Fair Work Act.

Extension of definition of building worker – to include the supply and transport of building goods to building sites (including resource platforms), prefabrication of building components on and off the building site.

Reversal of onus of proof – workers who stop work because of health and safety concerns have to prove they had those concerns.

Building Code – applies to companies that contract or tender to work on Commonwealth projects and their private work. This 33-page Code removes numerous rights, restricts what can be included in enterprise agreements and makes it more difficult for unions to recruit, organise and protect wages, working conditions and safety.

It takes away shift allowances, rostered days off, the right of unions to be consulted regarding redundancies and labour, and other matters. It prohibits clauses that prevent unlimited ordinary hours worked per day, or that guarantee the right to certain public holidays.

It outlaws “no ticket no start” signs and “show card” days, restricts union logos, mottos and indicia on clothing, property or equipment. The company must not employ a non-working shop steward or job delegate.

Non-union members are not required to pay a “bargaining fee” for services provided by the union i.e. negotiation of an agreement.

The building and construction industry is the most dangerous industry in Australia. During the period of Howard’s ABCC and WorkChoices worker fatalities rocketed from an average of 2.5 to almost 5 per 100,000 employees.

The Budget is set down for March 3, the third week of the special sitting. Turnbull has until May 12 to call a Double Dissolution election which render all Senate and House of Representative seats vacant to be followed by a joint sitting of both Houses to consider the trigger bills. This clearly appears to be his aim.

In the face of such a threat, there is an urgent need for left and progressive unity on policies of struggle for the rights and needs of working people. The Your Rights @ Work Campaign succeeded in uniting community and trade union forces, and throwing out the Howard government.

A similar campaign is required now, to defeat the government and to defeat this draconian, anti-democratic legislation which breaches ILO and Human Rights Conventions.

To quote the Guardian again, “The road to unity, the creation of class conscious trade unionism and solidarity will be a long and complicated one but the first steps must be taken. The alternative path of capitulation leads to fascism.” (“Coward punch on workers’ rights”, 20-01-2016, #1715)

Next article – Editorial – A common struggle

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