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 www.cfmeuvic.com.au
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.