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Issue #1772      April 5, 2017

Dare to win

Last week a full bench of the Federal Court increased fines relating to industrial action by members of the building and construction union (CFMEU) by more than ten-fold. A single judge of the Federal Court had previously fined the union a total of $23,500 in penalties but the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) appealed the decision.

Enough is Enough rally held in Perth in March. (Photo: Vinnie Molina)

The appeal, heard by a full bench, overturned the previous fines and clobbered the union and its organisers with a ten-fold increase in fines totalling $242,000. The fine on the union was $190,000 and individual union officials received penalties ranging from $2,500 to $17,500.

The industrial action occurred in 2013 when around 150 workers building the Terminal 1 Extension 2 at Perth International Airport had gone for up to eight weeks without payment. Their employer had also failed to make superannuation and long service leave payments.

Repeated attempts by the union to get employers and contractors involved were unsuccessful. In desperation, the workers eventually took industrial action.

Unable to keep up repayments, some had lost their cars, had problems making their mortgage repayments and pressure was put on relationships at home when no income was coming in.

The company owing most of the money, Concealed Interiors and Exteriors was in financial difficulties.

As a result of the action by the union, the workers were back-paid almost $480,000 in wages, super and long service leave entitlements.

In a majority decision the Court found that the original judge “failed to have regard to the need to deter serial recidivists” and that the penalties that had been imposed by that judge were “manifestly inadequate and unreasonable.”

It was the union that turned the situation around, that won justice for the workers. But it is the unions and its officials who are being fined almost a quarter of a million dollars for ensuring the law is enforced and the workers receive what they are entitled to.

The decision comes hot on the heels of the statement by ACTU secretary Sally McManus that, “When laws are unjust no, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking them.”

The penalty has all the appearances of a political and retaliatory action against the trade union movement, in particular the moral and social justice principle that unjust laws do not have to be obeyed.

The decision deliberately sets out to warn others who might dare to take action to defend their rights.

The ABCC states on its webpage: “The vision of the ABCC is that all Australian building and construction workplaces are fair, efficient and productive.”

“The mission of the ABCC is to ensure that the rule of law prevails in the Australian building and construction industry,” it would have us believe.

The political, anti-union bias of the ABCC is clear for all to see. Although it knew at the time that the employers had not complied with the law, took no action against them or to ensure those workers were paid according to law.

Attack on wages

While building and construction workers are being subjected to a hammering by the ABCC, the Turnbull government is getting on with its attack on low paid workers.

The government’s submission to the Fair Work Commission’s review of minimum wages said: “The panel should take a cautious approach, taking into account the uncertain economic outlook and the need to boost employment and job creation, particularly for young people and the low-skilled.”

Whenever the government or employers talk about job creation, it is spin for low wages and lower living standards for working people. It is a capitalist myth that low wages increase jobs. Low wages increase profits which are then distributed to shareholders, go offshore or are invested in labour saving technology.

Low wages reduce the power of workers to buy goods and services and this reduction in demand costs jobs. Every cent of an increase in the wage of those on low incomes is spent in the economy. It is not spent on luxury trips overseas or stocks and shares.

The government also claimed that “excessive” pay rises could imperil job creation in a changing economy and asserted that increasing the minimum wage was “not an efficient way to address relative living standards or the needs of the low-paid”.

The government would have us believe that reducing income improves living standards. It whole-heartedly supports the slashing of penalty rates for low income workers. It is lining up further cuts to payments for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the forthcoming budget.

These cuts will be used to fund the dirty deal it made with Senator Nick Xenophon and his team last week for $24 billion in corporate tax cuts this year and over the next two years.

“The panel should take a cautious approach, taking into account the uncertain economic outlook and the need to boost employment and job creation, particularly for young people and the low-skilled,” the 85-page submission noted.

McManus used her speech to the National Press Club on March 29 to announce that the ACTU is making a claim for a $45 increase in the minimum wage. She pointed out that in 1985 the minimum wage was nearly two-thirds of the average wage. Today it is well under half.

The ACTU claim is modest in the circumstances. It should be supported as a first step towards providing a living wage for the lowest paid workers.

In a call to action, McManus, noted that the union movement has achieved so much “that our rights can sometimes seem inevitable or eternal.

“They are not. They were won by generations of working people in their unions. Brave people, courageous people. Working people.”

In a reference to penalty rates, she said, “The Fair Work Commission decision is a timely reminder to all Australians that – what was won can also be lost.

“The times compel the Australian union movement to make a decision,” McManus said.

“We could meekly accept the taking away of rights that those before us fought for.

“We could say growing inequality and mass job insecurity are just inevitable and there is nothing much we can do. Or we could say, no more. Not on our watch. We will not be bystanders.

“This is the decision we made. It’s just not in us to take the first option.

“We are running onto the field and we are going to change the game.”

Next article – Editorial – On political correctness / Power play

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