Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Grocon dispute: What’s behind the new boss’s offensive?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The industrial dispute at the Grocon Myer Emporium construction site in the Melbourne CBD was a major national news story in late August. Footage of mass pickets and a huge police presence was shown on TV screens and in newspapers across the country.

The construction division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) blockaded the site for more than two weeks after Grocon reneged on an arrangement over the appointment of Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S) representatives.

The dispute drastically escalated on the morning of Tuesday August 28 when the riot squad and mounted police attempted to smash through the protest lines. Hundreds of workers held their ground and beat back the attack. For the remainder of the blockade large numbers of police were stationed at the site. The Victorian Government reportedly spent over $4 million on the police operation.

Grocon is still pursuing the CFMEU in the Supreme Court for contempt after the union refused to adhere to orders directing its officials to end the blockade. The Victorian State Government has also joined those proceedings. Grocon and the State Government have said that even if an agreement is reached over the appointment of OH&S reps they will sue the union for damages alleging that the blockade cost the company almost $7 million in losses.

The company and the Government have been well supported by the capitalist press who have published story after story painting construction workers and their union leaders as criminals and thugs. Some of the stories attempted to paint the dispute as a battle of personalities. The truth is that there is much more than personalities behind this new boss’s offensive.

The issue of how OH&S reps are elected can seem trivial but in the construction industry it is of vital importance. Every year in Australia around 50 construction workers die at work. This is two to three times the national average for other industries. The industry is dangerous because of its constantly changing environment and transient workforce. In a more static workplace it would make sense for the workers on the job to elect their own representatives based on who they know and trust.

In construction however the workforce is always changing. At the beginning of the job the workforce can often be very small. As the project progresses certain workers may be there one week and then gone the next. The only way to ensure safety standards are adhered to constantly, and for the duration of the job, is if the safety representatives and union shop stewards are fixtures from the start of the project.

The long fought for custom and practice in the industry is for unions to nominate representatives at the beginning of the job. Once the project has started, and a core group of workers are on the site, an election can then be held. If this does not happen inevitably the company will put forward someone of their preference in the early stages.

Employers would prefer that OH&S reps either did not exist or they were under the direct control of the project managers. This would allow employers to have full control over work sites in order to cut corners on safety and ultimately get projects finished more quickly. This would help them increase profits.

It is this approach that has been resisted by the unions over the years and as a result projects have tended to proceed more safely and with fewer accidents. Thanks to union influence in construction the number of workplace deaths and injuries has been in steady decline.

From Grocon’s point of view they see this dispute as the first step towards breaking the organisation and influence of unions in the construction industry. The want to exercise full control over work sites so that they can bully workers into doing things more quickly. To this end Grocon has also employed a group of ex-boxers and nightclub bouncers as site supervisors.

Primarily Grocon is driven by the necessity to maintain profits against the backdrop of an economic downturn. Construction activity in Australia has declined for 25 months straight. At the same time debate is raging about whether or not the mining boom has peaked and what affect that would have on the non-mining sectors which are already effectively in recession.

While construction activity has declined, and workers have lost their jobs, profits in the sector are still steady. The Australian Bureau of Statistics website reported that “The operating profit before tax of the Construction industry increased by 15% in 2009–10, to $27 billion, while the profit margin of the industry increased to 9.7%.”

Grocon wants see this trend continue and if times get tough they want to ensure that it is workers and not shareholders that bear the brunt. They are looking to get an edge over their competitors and they see the winding back of union influence on work sites as a key way to make the company even more profitable.

It is in the interests of all workers to oppose these moves. If Grocon are allowed to get away with undermining health and safety we will see other employers attempt to follow suit as they try to match Grocon’s low standards. A win for Grocon in this dispute would only speed up the race to the bottom for all workers.

While on the one hand employers are divided, trying to gain an edge over their competitors, on the other hand they are united in their calls for tougher industrial laws which will help wind back wages and conditions across the board.

At a State level Grocon has the Baillieu Liberal Government on board. They have recently introduced a new Code of Practice for the construction industry and they are looking for opportunities to test it. The Baillieu Government has also flagged that they would like to see stronger Federal laws in place that would allow for the deregistration of unions who continue to protest in defiance of the courts.

At a Federal level Tony Abbott has said that the Liberals want to stiffen up the already draconian laws that cover industrial relations in the construction industry. He is clearly trying to get developers and big construction companies to come in behind his campaign in the lead up to the next federal election.

Regardless of who wins the next federal election it is not ruled out that in the midst of a recession the government of the day will try to deregister the CFMEU. By breaking one of the country’s strongest unions they will try to give a boost to employers in tough times. As we have seen elsewhere capitalist governments will be looking to make workers pay for the economic downturn despite the fact that it was not of their making.

The union movement needs to prepare for this possibility now. The CFMEU needs to urgently start the process of politicising the issues around the Grocon dispute and generalising the lessons in the eyes of all workers. Work needs to be done now to ensure widespread support is forthcoming in the event of a more serious attack on the union.

While Abbott and the Liberals are no friends of working people the dilemma that the workers movement faces is that Labor are no better. Labor has merely rebadged the anti-worker laws introduced by Howard. In fact more fines and costs have been issued against unions under recent Labor Governments than under the previous Howard regime.

Julia Gillard and Industrial Relations Minister Bill Shorten have both made a series of derogatory remarks about the workers that have been involved in the Grocon dispute. Without an ounce of evidence they have labelled these workers as “violent” and said that the blockade should end. At one point Gillard said that the blockade was “unacceptable”. At the same time she has said nothing about negligent employers who oversee unsafe workplaces that lead to deaths and injuries.

Rather than defending the unions that are affiliated to it, Labor prefers to try and outbid Abbott in an attempt to be the best representatives of the construction bosses. It’s high time the CFMEU and all other progressive unions ditched the ALP and put their time, money and efforts into building a new party that unashamedly represents workers and the union movement.

Such a party would campaign in the parliament, but more importantly in the workplaces and on the streets for all of the anti-worker laws to be scrapped. It would fight for decent wages, conditions and safety standards for all and defend the right to protest in order to win these things. A workers party in power would embark on a massive public works program to build the homes, schools, hospitals and transport networks that people need. This would create thousands of safe, well paid jobs in construction.

As a step towards the goal of building a political alternative to the major parties the unions should aim to strike a blow at the State and Federal governments who are behind the anti-worker laws and who are backing companies like Grocon.

At the moment in Victoria a number of unions are in dispute with the Baillieu government. Teachers are demanding decent pay rises and more job security while public sector workers are similarly trying to lock in an agreement on wages and conditions. The government has slashed funding from the TAFE sector and looks set to make cuts to the fire fighting services. Meanwhile construction workers are campaigning against Baillieu’s new Code of Practice for the industry.

It is only logical that these struggles should be linked up. The Victorian Trades Hall Council should convene an emergency meeting of unions to discuss plans for an all union’s campaign against the Baillieu government. The campaign needs to be more than just advertisements, it needs to include industrial action.

A mass meeting of all Victorian shop stewards and activists should be held to outline a campaign strategy and this should be followed up with mass meetings in all workplaces. The meetings should be used to build for a 24 hour state-wide strike and a march on parliament house.

Such an action would give workers a taste of their collective power and send a strong message to both the Government and to aggressive employers like Grocon. Subsequent strike action should be prepared for until these attacks are defeated.

As we go to press negotiations between the CFMEU and Grocon are taking place. If these discussions do not lead to all of the unions demands being met then blockades of Grocon’s sites should be resumed. We can not however allow the government and employers to isolate the CFMEU. We need to link up the issues of the day and unite the struggles. This is the best way to win.

The Grocon dispute can not be looked at in isolation. It is merely an indication of the more volatile period that we are moving into. For the most part Australia has been buffered from the world economic crisis but this is beginning to come to an end. The employers have recognised this. It’s time that the union movement also put plans in place for a serious fight back.

The Socialist Party says:

-Unite the struggles. For construction workers to link up with teachers, health workers, public sector workers, fire fighters and all those opposed to Baillieu’s anti-worker agenda
-For a state wide delegates and activists meeting to prepare an industrial and political campaign against the government
-For mass meetings at every workplace to build for a state wide 24 hour strike and rally at parliament house
-For regular days of strike action and mass protests aimed at bringing down the Baillieu government
-For unions to break with the ALP and build a new party that genuinely represents the interests of workers, students and the unemployed

By Anthony Main


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