The ABCC must go!
The Howard government has gone, but one of its most repressive anti-worker bodies —
the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) — remains. Established
in October 2005, this body was given sweeping powers that remove the most basic of
civil rights from building workers. In gathering evidence, the ABCC operates in absolute
secrecy. Workers summoned before the commission can have legal representation,
but neither the workers nor their lawyers may speak about the process, under threat of
imprisonment. Workers compelled to appear before the ABCC have no right to silence
and face up to six months’ jail if they do not attend to answer questions or respond to the
questions put to them.
Building workers were a mainstay of mass protests against Howard’s
industrial laws. Photo by Alison Thorne.
In the lead-up to the federal election, determined to flaunt its pro-big business credentials,
the Australian Labor Party (ALP) promised to keep this ideologically driven commission
until 2010, when its powers will be transferred to a division of the Fair Work Australia
inspectorate. The ALP leadership reneged on an earlier unanimous decision of the ALP
National Conference to abolish the ABCC. On 28 August Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard
announced their “Forward with Fairness” Industrial Relations Policy, in which they
promised to “get the balance right between fairness and flexibility.” The policy contained
ten elements, including “a stronger cop on the beat in the building and construction
The building industry has a strong history of “closed shop” unionism (union-only labour),
and this is what the ABCC is out to smash. In August 2007, the ABCC declared it illegal
to fly the Eureka flag on building sites, claiming that the very sight of this flag — used
extensively by militant unionists — breaches freedom of association!
Civil rights campaigner, Julian Burnside QC, demolished the ABCC’s argument in an
article in The New Matilda: “Thus, showing the Eureka flag denies people the right not
to join the union and breaches the freedom of association provisions of the Workplace
Relations Act. If this logic were taken to its natural conclusion, the ABCC would prohibit
any reference to unions at any workplace, on the footing that to be told of the existence of
a union implies that you have no choice but to join. Thus, in the anti-union Utopia of the
ABCC and its political masters, ‘freedom of association’ means you are not allowed to
know of the existence of unions, although you are free to associate with them if you find
out about them.”
Flags raising money for the John Cummins Memorial Fund have also been targeted by
the ABCC. The flags, which sell for $100 each, raise money for the Austin Hospital for
cancer support, as part of the fund named after the former union militant who died of a
tumour in 2006.
The ABCC has persuasive powers to ensure that companies comply. Employers who
refuse to enforce the ABCC directions are excluded from being able to tender for
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) understands that
education about the ABCC’s union-busting role is essential to building a movement
capable of forcing its abolition.
The union funded the production of a documentary exposing the effects of Howard’s
laws. Filmmaker Joe Loh made the film, Australia’s Secret Industrial Inquisition —
Every member of the CFMEU was given a copy to share with friends and neighbours. It
was also sent to members of the ACTU Executive and to ALP members of parliament.
In the film, union members from both Victoria and Western Australia speak about being
pursued by the ABCC. We meet Victorians Brodene Wardley and Charlie Corbett.
Wardley, a single mum who is a health and safety delegate and crane driver, was hauled
before the ABCC to answer for herself. Her crime? She had called a site meeting after a
bus carrying construction workers was nearly hit by a train on a level crossing. A short
strike brought a quick result and caution signs were installed. Corbett, a CFMEU official
in the Latrobe Valley was also forced to appear before the ABCC to answer questions
about his role in a dispute where he successfully defended an apprentice.
We also get to hear the story of the WA107. This is the collective name for 107
workers on the Perth-to-Mandurah railway construction project who, in early 2006,
were threatened with fines of up to $28,600 each for taking “unlawful strike action” to
reinstate a sacked union delegate and restore safety standards.
Charlie Isaacs, one of the 107, relates how the workers made a democratic decision to
strike — despite a recommendation from CFMEU officials not to, because this action
could trigger the anti-union laws. The ABCC proceeded to serve each of the 107 workers
with individual fines.
Isaacs tells it like it is: “It all comes down to one thing. If you can’t stand up for what you
believe in, then you’re a slave. And I ain’t no slave.” Charlie Isaacs is right. We are not
slaves, and that’s why we must demand that all charges be dropped against the WA107!
We cannot accept laws that are about frightening building workers into submission.
The Freedom Socialist Party is hosting a screening of Constructing Fear, Thursday, 28
February, 7 pm at Solidarity Salon, 580 Sydney Road, Brunswick. Come and discuss how
to build a movement that will dismantle the ABCC. This anti-union commission must go
CPSU wins $30,000 fine from DWER
I was a Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) delegate and public servant
working at Centrelink back in 2005 when the Department of Employment and Workplace
Relations (DEWR) issued some extraordinary instructions to managers in government
departments. They were to immediately cancel all leave — flex leave or annual leave
— previously approved to enable public servants to attend protest actions held as part
of the Your Rights At Work campaign. Some managers were a little tardy to act on this
instructions, but others responded with extraordinary zeal!
The CPSU took this to court and, after a two-year battle, won a ruling that DWER, in
issuing this instruction, was unlawfully discriminating against unionists in what the
court described as “a serious contravention of the law.” The CPSU argued that the
commonwealth government had breached the freedom of association provisions under
the Workplace Relations Act by refusing employees leave on the basis of their union
membership. On 30 October 2007, the Federal Court fined DEWR $30,000. The fine
was only $3,000 short of the maximum penalty that could be applied under the Act. The
CPSU used the money to help keep Your Rights At Work advertisements on air.
The court ruling is a very important one, because it confirms that public sector employees
are entitled to complete freedom of political expression, in their own time. It also
confirms that employers have no right to tell their employees what they can or can’t do
on their day off.
Hard Labour: Stolen Wages
On August 30, 2007, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation launched Hard
Labour, Stolen Wages: A National Report on Stolen Wages by historian Dr Rosalind
Kidd. The meticulous 146-page report details the extent of the theft of Indigenous wages
in every state and territory of Australia.
Governments controlled wages, savings and benefits belonging to Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people for most of the 20th century. Much of this money was held in trust
and has still never been paid to its owners. Trust account funds were transferred to public
revenue, or disappeared through fraud or negligence along with many of the records. This
practice condemned Indigenous families to poverty, while their unpaid labour was used
to establish lucrative industries, such as beef cattle and pearling.
Queensland claimant, Marjorie Woodrow, who authored the forward to the report,
expresses her frustration that the stolen wages have still not been paid. “You’d think they
would just write a cheque and be done with it. We could have had our own homes from
the wages we are owed, and had the ability to set things up for our children. It breaks
your heart to see our children still struggling. Why couldn’t they just pay us outright, not
like that foundation in Queensland that you have to ask for money, filling out paperwork.
It’s unsatisfactory. It’s like we still have to beg. The money cannot replace what has
been lost. The government needs to know, to understand how much pain we suffered.”
Gary Highland, National Director of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation,
wrote the introduction to the report. He describes the unresolved issue of stolen wages as
one of the nation’s greatest barriers to reconciliation and justice for Indigenous people.
For information about how you can support Indigenous workers’ struggle to win back
their stolen wages, see Freedom Socialist Bulletin #29 & #30. To download the full Hard
Labour: Stolen Wages report go to www.antar.org.au/images/stories/PDFs/StolenWages/stolenwages.pdf
Creating effective cross-border campaigns
Global Unions: Challenging Transnational Capital Through Cross-Border Campaigns
is an important new book that sets out to challenge the myth that global capitalism
is unchallengeable. It does this effectively through a series of essays, each of which
documents a successful fight.
In 2006, over 600 trade unionists, academics and activists from all over the world got
together in New York for a conference on the subject of global unions and international
organising. The book is based on this conference.
Edited by Kate Bronfenbrenner, the publication looks at unions’ successes against
global corporations. It focuses on a number of key sectors, including dockworkers,
manufacturing, food processing and services, and finishes with a look at key lessons for
strengthening union power in relation to global capital.
In her conclusion, Bronfenbrenner says: “what the cases in this book show is that the
world’s unions have a greater potential than most realise to take on the most powerful
corporations and win.” She explains: “the first step in global wealth redistribution is
stopping the race to the bottom.” To do this, it is essential that workers in advanced
capitalist countries organise in solidarity with their sisters and brothers in the global
south. She stresses the importance of emulating unions in Latin America “which do not
limit their efforts to the organising and bargaining arena.” Bronfenbrenner argues that
real change means creating a system where “one does not accept that the IMF, World
Bank and WTO set trade and investment policy.” “Global unions,” she says, “are the