ABCC is bad news – just like last time

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The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) legislation was the trigger for the July 2 double dissolution election. Turnbull made the play with two aims in mind: hoping to use the double dissolution to clean out the crossbench in the Senate, while pushing a piece of anti-worker legislation designed to make it more difficult for construction workers to organise.

The ABCC has been part of the Liberals platform of attacking unions and construction workers for a number of years. When John Howard introduced the ABCC alongside the hated Workchoices laws in 2005, the number of deaths in the construction industry spiked. Prior to that deaths in the industry had been falling at a steady rate.

Now Turnbull wants to revive the ABCC, along with the Registered Organisations Bill, under the guise of improving productivity. Turnbull and the Coalition have used an Independent Economics report to claim that the ABCC improved productivity by 20%. Those conclusions have been discredited, with the 2014 Productivity Commission report saying the evidence for increased productivity due to the ABCC was weak.

The Coalition also claim that industrial disputes increased after Labor transferred most of the ABCC’s powers to Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC). This too is highly questionable with industrial action at historic lows and ABS data showing no link. In contrast the evidence linking the ABCC to deaths in the construction industry is much stronger. It’s clear that Turnbull is acting in the interests of his big business backers and has no regard for those that work in the sector.

If reintroduced the ABCC would have special powers over workers in the construction industry that don’t apply to any other sectors of the workforce. Workers could be subject to compulsory interrogations, they wouldn’t have the right to silence or to choose a lawyer, and could be imprisoned and fined for refusing to comply.

The laws would mean that workers could not even tell their family if they had been interrogated. Criminals have more rights.

The proposed new laws also seek to broaden the ABCC’s scope to transport workers delivering to construction sites and manufacturers producing building materials, as well as further limiting the right to strike.

The Registered Organisation Bill has already been voted down by the Senate twice, and similarly it too is designed to make union organisation more difficult. It increases civil penalties and introduces criminal liability for union officials.

It is expected that a number of proposals from the Royal Commission into trade unions will be included in future versions of the bill. While ostensibly aimed at union corruption this bill does little in that regard. While Turnbull waxes lyrical about corruption in the trade union movement he has very little to say about corporate corruption or the obscene wealth being hidden offshore by the super wealthy.

The ABCC and the Registered Organisation Bill form part of a broader attack by the Coalition on the trade union movement. The government sees the construction unions as the backbone of the movement and one of the last vestiges of militancy. They are a target as they have historically set an example about how best to fight for better working conditions.

At the same time with the mining boom essentially over, construction and investment in property are some of the only sectors propping the Australian economy up. The government and the big businesses they represent hope that by reducing the effectiveness of the unions, profits can increase at the expense of wages and conditions and profiteering off property can be prolonged.

Clearly it is in the interests of all workers to oppose the ABCC. If the government gets away with attacking the most militant section of the class it will only give them confidence to then target other sections.

It is understandable that people will want to vote the Liberals out on this basis. The problem is that workers are currently without a genuine alternative. Labor’s FWBC retained all the coercive powers of the ABCC under a sunset clause (extended by the Liberals). Under Labor it was also still illegal for workers to strike outside of protected action periods.

The trade union movement needs to demand that all anti-worker laws, whether introduced by the Liberals or Labor, are repealed. With no major party currently prepared commit to that the trade union movement should set about the task of creating its own political organisation. Alongside the unions themselves such an organisation would give workers the tools necessary to not only defend our rights but to turn the tide against wealth inequality and big business rule.

By David Suter