The draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) that was introduced by Howard and continued by Rudd is again prosecuting an ordinary worker for nothing more than maintaining the right to silence.
Ark Tribe, a construction worker from South Australia, is facing up to 6 months in jail for refusing to answer questions. Tribe was summoned for questioning in relation to a safety dispute at Hindmarsh Flinders University in May 2008.
Workers at the site had been raising safety concerns for several weeks and CFMEU organisers had been stopped from entering the site. The safety concerns had been continually ignored by management. One Saturday workers were locked out of the site by management, citing ‘safety reasons’. The workers, fed up with having their concerns ignored, drew up a petition on a hand towel demanding a safety committee with union involvement. Management refused to accept the petition so the union called in SafeWork South Australia. Two prohibition notices were issued, the problems were fixed and work resumed.
The bosses then called in the ABCC. The ABCC had no interest in why the safety concerns existed in the first place, preferring to harass workers about who had raised the concerns. Workers can face fines of up to $22,000 for stopping work to ensure their safety, and can face 6 months in jail for refusing to answer questions. Under the ABCC the union could be fined more for stopping work after a fatality than the bosses would if convicted over the death. Under these anti-worker laws a trade unionist can be imprisoned, but a boss cannot. Even the police don’t have the powers that the ABCC has.
Labor in opposition made it official policy to disband the ABCC however Rudd soon scrapped this policy after becoming PM. In fact it is only under Labor that the ABCC has used its powers to prosecute workers. Charges against Noel Washington were dropped in the face of pressure from protests, but now with industrial action at its lowest level since 1913, Labor and the ABCC are again testing the strength of the unions.
Despite the union movement playing a key role in putting Labor in office, they have made it perfectly clear that there will be no more changes to industrial legislation and no favours for workers under their leadership. Then ACTU secretary Greg Combet promised to go to jail to defeat Work Choices in 2005, now as a Labor minister he defends those same laws and worse.
Janet Giles, Secretary of SA Unions, congratulated Tribe on the stand he was taking and said “I promise you we will be with you all the way.” We can only hope her words mean more than Combet’s. There needs to be a 24-hour general strike called in South Australia for the opening day of the trial with rallies in all the major cities co-ordinated by the CFMEU and local Trades and Labour Councils. If Tribe is jailed there needs to be an immediate walkout on construction sites in South Australia and a nationwide freeze on all financial support for the Labor Party.
Workers like Tribe should be defended to the end, not just in words but in deed. The task for the union movement is to mount a campaign of mass mobilisations linked with industrial action against the repressive powers of the ABCC and all anti worker legislation, not plead with the Labor Party for a few crumbs off the cake.
It is clear that Labor is a party for big business not ordinary workers. While the unions continue to hand over millions of dollars in affiliation fees, Labor continues to bite the hand that feeds them. The union movement needs to break with Labor and establish a political alternative that represents the needs of working people. Such a party could draw behind it support from all those who are sick of the pro big business major parties and put forward a programme to ensure that workers are not made to pay for the economic crisis.
By David Suter