Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

CFMEU under attack

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Article by CFMEU rank and filer on the Federal Government’s attack on the union and the indirect help they are getting from the National Secretary, John Sutton. Plus interview with Victorian union President, John Cummins.

CFMEU under attack: What way forward?

As expected, the Royal Commission in the Building Industry recommended the establishment of a National Taskforce (the Australian Building and Construction Commission or ABCC) to police the industry. What this means is a group of Government-appointed police officers with search warrants to enter building sites and homes of union activists and leaders to try and smash compulsory unionism and union-influence on sites. The ABCC can impose damages on unions and individual workers for “unlawful industrial action”.

They can seek the deregistration of unions if fines are unpaid. The Government definitely got what they paid for ($66 million, including $2,500 a day for the Commissioner Admiral Terence Cole). Compulsory unionism and on-site union delegate presence on most Victorian and Western Australian building sites mean that the array of health and safety legislation and Enterprise Bargaining provisions that bosses technically must adhere to, are actually adhered to. In other States, you wouldn’t wipe your backside on the legal protection of workers’ wages and conditions as these rights are never policed. So from the point of view of the Government and the industry bosses, smashing union influence is not just ‘ideologically-motivated’ but is key to them boosting their profits. That these extra profits will come at the expense of dead and injured workers, and from workers living on less pay is never openly stated but it is nevertheless true.

The Royal Commission also recommended an end to pattern bargaining, where unions organise for all Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) between the thousands of building companies and their employees to terminate at the same time, so that workers can unite for the same wages and conditions. The bosses want EBAs to be used as a divide and rule tactic. The Commission seeks the criminalisation of unprotected industrial action (all industrial action apart from when EBAs are being negotiated). Even when strikes are allowed, it recommends secret ballots (where bosses can tell who is voting what way), cooling off periods (it of course doesn’t recommend any cooling off period for bosses when they decide to lay off workers). Finally, the Commission seeks a new, seperate Act to cover industrial relations in the construction industry, targetting the great conditions workers have won.

The construction bosses’ whooped with joy when they heard the recommendations of Admiral Cole’s Commission – or at least bodies like the Master Builders Association did, few individual bosses had the guts to come out and openly say what they want and they hid behind their own ‘unions’.

Three things must happen before many of the recommendations – which were quickly accepted by Federal Industrial Relations Minister Tony Abbott – become law. They must get through the Senate, where the Government is in a minority. They need State Government backing as it is State police who will have to make up most of the numbers on the Task force. They need the active support of at least some of the major builders.

To the ACTU, this means that building workers and their unions need to go into pleading mode with the ALP, Democrats, Independent Senators, etc as well as State Labor Governments and even the construction bosses themselves.

This weak strategy has been tried and failed many times. ACTU Secretary Greg Combet told 1,000 union delegates in Melbourne last month that they should write letters and send faxes to Democrat Senators – that was his contribution to defending construction workers’ rights!

‘Leaders’ like Combet have a class collaborationist approach rather than a class struggle approach to their job. Militant trade unionism understands that we live in a class society. Workers own nothing bar their ability to work. Trade unions help them sell that labour for the highest possible price, and bosses own the means of production. Bosses and their political representatives always want to smash unions, they only deal with them when forced to by the relationship of class forces. To save our unions today, we need to show at every possible opportunity in the next year that we are strong, organised and willing to fight any attack. Going soft to win over Senators and Labor traitors will only embolden the bosses. Bullies have their appetite whetted by weakness and shy away in the face of brave resistance. The best way to get the minor parties and ALP State Governments to stop the Government is by showing our strength.

We also need to weed out the enemy within. Next years NSW CFMEU election will provide an opportunity for the rank and file to replace the disastrous Ferguson leadership with a new team that will work in real unity with the WA, Queensland and Victorian branches. The NSW leadership and the National Secretary John Sutton called for a National Crime Authority investigation into the union and this gave the green light to the Government for the Royal Commission).

* Reject Royal Commission recommendations
* Defend decent health and safety standards and our wages and conditions -no retreat to factory conditions
* 100% unionism – no freeloaders!
* No cooperation with police or Taskforce
* Defend all our leaders and members who are charged. Defending workers’ rights is not a crime!
* Hands off our unions


Interview with John Cummins

John Cummins, President of the Victorian CFMEU (construction division) spoke to the Socialist Party about the Royal Commission and other developments in the industry.

SP: The ACTU’s Greg Combet told union delegates recently to write to Senators if they wanted to stop the Royal Commission. Is there a more
serious strategy coming from the CFMEU?

JC: There is a political strategy (of lobbying) but also an industrial strategy, talking to other unions, keeping up pressure on the Taskforce and so on. For example yesterday the Task Force turned up to a Baulderstone job in Melbourne and our members shedded up and we had a delegation turf them off the job. The few Federal government jobs that exist aren’t even applying the new Government code (that strictly implements the Workplace Relations Act).

SP: Is it essential for the Government to get their Royal Commission recommendations through the Senate?

JC: They’ve made it clear that if they blocked, they’ll just keep the Interim Taskforce going.

SP: What’s the major difference between the situation facing the CFMEU today and the BLF back in 1986?

JC: The CFMEU has much more support from other unions, the State Government and the ACTU. We have a working relationship with the (Victorian) State Government and that’s true elsewhere too, including in WA despite the differences between (Premier) Gallop and Reynolds (WA CFMEU Secretary).

SP: The 36-hour campaign victory still leaves many workers working up to the 56 hour maximum. What do you think about this?

JC: Our victory means there is regulated overtime as well as a wage rise for the members. So now construction workers have some say in the hours they work. After the Royal Commission, we will try to flow the full effects of this victory to other States and to the off-site sector of the industry.

SP: Labour or Body hire is better regulated in Victoria than elsewhere (Cummins is the organiser for labour hire) – why is it so different in other States?

JC: We’ve sort to regulate it on our own terms. In Queensland on some sites almost all the blokes are employed by a labour hire company, as it is on some metal trades jobs in Victoria. But then they don’t have the problems of casualisation when members are on the end of a phone waiting for work.

SP: What’s the best, most transparent way to ensure unemployed members get looked after by the union in terms of finding them work?

JC: It’s a bit hit and miss at the moment. In the BLF days we tried a form of list system. Some organisers and delegates are better than others at getting blokes a hook. But in reality we try to get blokes who we feel we have an obligation to into work. For example, the members laid off by Grollo earlier this year.

SP: Many CFMEU members are disenchanted with the Labor Party? Does the leadership want to put off a discussion on this until after the Royal Commission, so as to keep the ALP onside?

JC: Our number one priority is to defend the union. Therefore we have to mobilise all positive forces to our side. So at the upcoming State Conference we’ll have the ALP, Greens and Democrats there and the rank and file can put them through the ringer on what they intend to do on the Royal Commission.


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