The government is re-introducing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bill to parliament, along with two amendments to the Fair Work Act – one attacking the United Firefighters Union (UFU), and the Registered Organisations amendment aimed at increasing state powers over unions. All three of these bills are designed to weaken union activity.
The ABCC bill allows the government to establish a commission that can interrogate workers, while denying them access to a lawyer and to the right to silence, on threat of fines and imprisonment. This is meant to be used to push out unions from building sites, thus helping employers to increase profits.
In the construction industry, poor union representation can lead to increased injury and even workplace deaths. In 2012 the CFMEU rallied 10,000 workers in Melbourne in response to poor safety standards on building giant Grocon’s sites. The CFMEU were fined for their trouble. The very next year, Grocon was responsible for the deaths of three pedestrians unlucky enough to be walking past one of their sites.
The anti-UFU legislation is also guaranteed to threaten the lives of working people, as it is designed to undermine firefighters by changing the Fair Work Act to strike out certain clauses in union agreements where emergency services are involved. This is specifically targeted at preventing the UFU from winning more paid firefighters to staff stations in suburbs on the urban fringe.
Bosses such as the CFA management and Grocon have always had a vested interest in putting cost-cutting or profit before safety, while unions have an interest in pushing for better safety and representation of the people on the front lines fighting fires.
The Registered Organisations bill is a more subtle attack on unionism, and will give the government greater powers to pour through the books of unions. On the surface this is supposedly to fight corruption, but a government body regulating unions is not a neutral entity. The government acts on behalf of bosses. Corruption must be attacked in the union movement by working people fighting to take back their unions from those who are running them into the ground and wasting member’s dues.
The Liberals introduced the ABCC and Registered Organisations bills in 2013 and 2014, and both were rejected by the Senate twice. This was used by Turnbull as the trigger for a double dissolution election. Turnbull’s goal was to clear out the crossbench and make it easier for his party to govern, but this backfired spectacularly. The Liberals are now being forced to negotiate with unpredictable and undisciplined micro-parties.
For example, at the time of writing all four senators from the racist One Nation party need to support the bills for them to pass. While one, Brian Burston, declared his support immediately, the others, including Pauline Hanson, are holding back. Unions are focused on courting these kinds of people to block the bill, but none of these micro-parties are friends to working people. Unions need to be calling for working class people themselves to put pressure on the government.
Both major parties support the measures in these bills, even though the ALP sometimes opposes them in name for strategic reasons. They show that capitalist governments will always try to use the law against workers who organise to improve their conditions. For example, workers are not permitted to strike outside of a formal bargaining process. Because of this, to protect lives, conditions and pay at work, it is necessary to defy the law.
Unions need to mount an industrial campaign to pressure the government to abandon these bills. A 24-hour nationwide strike should be called if they are not taken off the table. Most union leaders have been reluctant to strike ‘illegally’, to avoid fines such as those levelled at the CFMEU after the Grocon dispute. Workers should defy the laws en masse and unions should refuse to pay such fines.
We face a situation where perfectly legal – and non-disruptive – industrial actions are failing to produce results. A militant strategy is necessary to win. This is why they attempt to outlaw it. We cannot trust fickle parliamentary ‘allies’: the union movement must act independently to stop these bills from passing.
By David Elliott