Interview: Australia’s Most Wanted
Industrial: The Fox and the Contractor
Unions: Industrial Wasteland
International: Two Bob's Worth
Economics: National Interest
Environment: The Real Dinosaur
History: Only In Spain?
Review: Clerk Off
Justice, Applied Liberally
Australia’s Most Wanted
Has the ACCC served papers on you yet?
What does the action relate to and what are they seeking, by way of penalty?
It stems out of Bovis Lend Lease certified agreement negotiations, going back about three years. They are alleging there was collusion in the termination of a sub-contractors' contract. They are seeking fines against the union and Bovis Lend Lease, they are seeking injunctions against myself and a Canberra branch official who is a retired bloke now. We will be defending the matter.
Potential fines on the union could be as much as a couple of million dollars but we don't anticipate paying them because we don't anticipate being found guilty.
Your union appears to be being singled out for special attention. It faces multi-million dollar damages claims, more than 100 rank and filers face $28,000 fines, you've had the Cole Royal Commission and now have a standing commission with sweeping coercive powers. Why building workers?
Since the election of the Howard Government in 1996, building workers and their union have been reasonably successful in maintaining wages and conditions. Union organisation has been maintained. This government has a deep hostility to workers and organised labour. It believes any successful union has to be attacked and dismantled. So, part of it, is a response to our success on the job. This government's first Workplace Relations Minister, Peter Reith, nominated a number of areas for attack - coal mining, the waterfront, the meat industry and construction. We have all been targeted in various ways. This is part of that process.
So, where does it end?
This can only end in one of two results. The first result is the smashing of organised labour and the reduction of the Australian workforce to a group of individuals competing for crusts from the master's table. The only other possibility is the defeat of the Howard Government and that's what we're working for. The choices are that stark.
How much affect has this campaign had on your ability to protect members and their families?
Right across Australia, CFMEU organisers are still getting on jobs and negotiating collective agreements. We are still recovering entitlements and, most importantly, continuing to have a positive impact on safety standards. We are doing those things but they are made much harder by these developments. The price our officials pay for going on sites is risking being dragged before the courts on spurious charges. A lot of the litigation you have talked about will, in fact, be unsuccessful. It seems to us they don't care because their real aim is to bleed the union dry by taking on all sorts of cases. It's a shotgun approach.
Can you give us an example?
Go back to the start, to the Cole Inquiry that made lurid allegations, for public consumption, none of which were borne out by any successful prosecutions at all. The job he did for the government is seen in draconian building industry legislation but, it is also worth remembering, that a lot of his recommendations formed the basis for WorkChoices. The government said Cole had demonstrated the building industry was a special case but many of his recommendations have been imposed on the entire Australian workforce. That lays bare the real agenda here. Cole did a job for the federal government and was handsomely rewarded.
The CFMEU has a proudly militant history. Do you see a need to significantly change that approach to survive these assaults?
No, we will remain a militant union, we won't walk away from militancy as an industrial tactic. But we will be disciplined, mature and measured about the exercise of the power our members have.
Do you see any room for reasoning with Andrews or Howard?
None. They've made it clear they want to destroy collective organisation. Well, to be fair, Howard is the driving force and Andrews is just a tool. That's why they've had to bring someone off the interchange bench to prop him up. Some people were optimistic there could have been discussion, or negotiations, over WorkChoices but they've made it clear they are not interested.
You're standing for the national secretary's position at an obviously difficult time for the CFMEU's Construction Division. What do you see as the union's immediate priorities?
The first priority will always be the safety of our members, the right to go to work and go back home to their families. Second, is wages and conditions, the ability to get on jobs and represent people on those issues. Thirdly, the human and civil rights of building workers who, through special legislation, now have fewer rights than other Australians. Our people face higher fines for defending wages and conditions and protecting their safety, and being able to be hauled in front of a secret industrial police force and imprisoned if they refuse to answer questions put to them.
Where does political labour fit into this battle for workplace rights and how do you see the union-ALP relationship playing out?
I see unions and the Labor Party as separate. I don't see them as one organisation, at all. It is, however, important that they complement one another in their objectives. There have been some in the ALP happy to accept the support of trade unions at election times but then had no regard for the objectives of working people. I think the days of those sorts of politicians are numbered in the Labor Party. The approach of the current federal leader on core issues has been refreshing. Kim Beazley has been up front about his support for construction workers, he has visited sites and been to our meetings. He has pledged to do away with, not just WorkChoices, but also the building industry legislation and the ABCC. If elected, Labor will face challenges in doing that, through a hostile Senate. We expect them to hold their nerve.
Have you been able to identify other potential allies in the federal political arena?
The Greens have taken a very positive approach to industrial relations matters and been on the front foot about building industry issues, and we welcome that. Obviously, a number of parties on the left have progressive policies but, in federal parliament, the options are limited. The Democrats, frankly, have been disappointing. They recognised the building industry legislation wasn't warranted, when they still held the balance of power, and indicated they would vote against it, then they co-operated with the government in giving coercive powers to its taskforce. It's hard to see them being very relevant in the future but, sure, we will have dialogue with them while they are still around.
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