Defend Noel Washington! Hands off Dave Kerin!

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Anyone who thinks the Rudd government has ripped up WorkChoices needs only

consider the situation facing respected unionists, Noel Washington and Dave Kerin, to

see that anti-union laws not only remain but continue to be used.

On 24 April 2008 the Workplace Ombudsman issued a notice to Dave Kerin, coordinator

of the Union Solidarity Group, ordering Kerin to produce documents relating to a three-

week strike at Boeing’s Port Melbourne plant. The notice demands “all documents

recording any communication, contact, dealing or otherwise between any member,

sponsor, volunteer or other person affiliated with Union Solidarity,” stating that this

was to determine if a section of “the Workplace Relations Act 1996 is being or has been


In 1990, unionist John Cummins was jailed for
disobeying an order stopping him from entering a
jobsite. Bad laws are meant to be broken!
Photo from

Union Solidarity describes itself as “a network of community and union activists building

a movement to resist attacks on workers, unions and the community.” The group played a

key role, mobilising solidarity for workers who defied anti-strike laws by walking off the

job for three weeks in defence of unfairly sacked workmates. They won a partial victory

and returned to work with the union intact.

The notice served on Kerin was widely seen as an attempt to intimidate and derail

support for the Boeing workers. This failed, with Union Solidarity declaring that it would

continue to throw its full support behind the strike. A 24-hour union and community

picket was maintained for the duration of the dispute. I was a solidarity observer at that

mass meeting which ended the strike, and was heartened by the determination of Boeing

workers that Dave Kerin and Union Solidarity must be vigorously defended. Kerin told

the meeting that he would defy the Workplace Ombudsman, a principled stance that sees

him facing six months in jail.

Noel Washington, a senior vice-president with the Construction, Forestry, Mining

and Energy Union (CFMEU) in Victoria, has been charged for refusing to attend a

compulsory hearing of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

Washington will appear in the Geelong Magistrates Court on

8 August. Noel Washington is the first person charged for refusing to cooperate with the

ABCC, a “crime” which could also see him jailed for six months.

Just before the federal election, Bovis, an employer who had enthusiastically enforced

Howard’s laws against the union, sacked its shop stewards at a Docklands building site.

The restrictions on union right of entry meant that the union meeting could not be held on

site or during working time, so the CFMEU put on a BBQ lunch in a nearby park. Five

hundred members attended this private function in their own time. Someone allegedly

referred to a certain manager as “Lassie.” In the eyes of the unaccountable ABCC, this

“intimidated or prejudiced” the boss.

Noel Washington was later summoned to appear before the ABCC, where he’d be

required to undergo hours of interrogation, expected to inform on those who spoke, report

what was said and by whom. Already, more than 85 rank-and-file construction workers,

delegates and health and safety representatives have been hauled before the ABCC and

threatened with jail if they didn’t cooperate.

It’s an appalling misuse of public money in an attempt to suppress free speech. But

suppression of unionism is the purpose of the ABCC, which received $33 million in

Rudd’s first budget to continue intimidating construction workers on behalf of the

construction bosses. Meanwhile, in service delivery agencies such as Centrelink and

high-volume departments such as the Tax-Office, overstretched workers are expected to

make do with less.

In an interview with The Age’s Michelle Grattan, Dave Noonan, national secretary of the

CFMEU, cut to the essence of the witch-hunt: “Noel has been charged with refusing to

dob in a mate for what was said at a union meeting held off-site by workers in their own

time. That’s the only thing he is accused of.” It really is that simple.

It is essential that this issue quickly becomes much more than an “embarrassment” for

Rudd and Gillard. If Washington is jailed, emergency industrial action is needed not only

to win his release, but also to render the ABCC inoperable and guarantee that the Rudd

government scraps the plans to transfer its powers to another body.

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