If a fictional movie had been made about the dispute between the construction union (CFMEU) and building giant Grocon, the lead parts would revolve around the two respective leaders, John Setka from the CFMEU and Daniel Grollo from Grocon.
If a scene included a fatal industrial accident occurring right across the road from the union headquarters, with Setka pushing up hoarding to attempt to save the lives of the injured, it would have been rejected as ‘too Hollywood’. Yet this is exactly what occurred in Melbourne on March 28 when oversized, illegally erected hoarding acted as a sail in high winds and dragged over a brick wall onto busy Swanston Street in the Melbourne CBD. Subsequently three pedestrians were killed.
The tragedy has destroyed what was left of the brand name of Grocon and underlined the view of most Victorians that this company is a danger to the health and safety of its workers and even bystanders. The union, the Coroner’s Office, and the police all now have their own separate investigations into the Swanston Street tragedy.
Grocon’s attitude to safety is superficial to say the least. Relatively minor safety checks such as site inductions and hardhats are emphasised over genuine issues such as working in high winds or safety representatives elected by workers rather than stooges hand-picked by the boss.
There has been a string of serious incidents on Grocon sites in the lead up to the March 28 tragedy. Yet the rhetoric of Grocon company literature is both evil and cynical in its self-praise for its safety standards. For example a publicity piece “The Grocon Culture” claims they have “an excellent safety performance…which serves as a useful marketing tool in a business environment increasingly sensitive to sustainable business practices and social responsibility.”
On Grocon sites the reality is prison warden-style management pushing atomised and scared employees to work in all weathers, often with inadequate fall protection and no industrial or safety representation.
The CFMEU have an ongoing dispute with Grocon. They are attempting to force the company to allow their workers to elect their own on-site safety reps, as is the case with the vast majority of builders in commercial construction in Victoria.
This dispute flared up most prominently at the Myer job in central Melbourne late last year, where at one stage 1,000 police were used to break a picket line at the site. Now the industrial action is more sporadic, with Grocon claiming the union are systematically targeting their access to concrete on their Melbourne jobs.
The rumour mill in the industry is that Grocon are in dire financial straits and very much over-leveraged. Many of Grocon’s jobs are state government contracts issued by the previous ALP administration.
Disappointingly the union is still affiliated to the ALP and continues to donate millions of dollars to ALP election campaigns. A basic non-negotiable demand of the CFMEU must be that any future ALP state government refuses to give contracts to Grocon on the basis of their poor attitude to job safety.
Instead of pumping hard earned union members’ money into the ALP, the CFMEU should unite with other progressive unions and community groups to form a new party for working people.
This dispute with Grocon is a potential game-changer. With tighter margins and a slowing economy, building companies resent more than ever the cost of decent safety standards. If Grocon survives their current dramas and continues to ignore safety standards, other companies will try to follow suit.
On the other hand, a defeat for Grocon would be a much needed boost for building workers safety and the union movement in general. This is just what is needed as the economy slows and political tensions are set to rise.
By Stephen Jolly