The CFMEU has now dropped all pretense about not signing the government’s Construction Code compliant agreements. The fighting talk was apparently just a ruse to maximise the union’s bargaining position.
The union now claims that signing Code compliant agreements is a ‘victory’, with pay rises won in exchange for 99% of all conditions being secured. But as of yet the full details of the agreement have not been revealed.
The only Code compliant agreements that have had publicity are with Probuild and Lendlease. These agreements were reached through the ‘variation clause’. The very existence of a clause that allows for ‘variations’ was a clear sign that the union leaders were preparing to compromise rather than fight.
In response to media questions about the union’s about-face, CFMEU leader Dave Noonan replied that the Code compliant agreements had been struck based on “pragmatic decisions in the interests of its workforce”. He went on to say that the union was not prepared to be “complicit in destroying a business”. While ‘business interests’ are paramount, the long-term security of our hard-won wages and conditions is being put at risk.
The Code bans full-time shop stewards. Some of us thought this might provide an opportunity to get rid of a layer of rotten stewards and replace them with reps elected by the rank and file, but no such luck. Deals are already being done to shift these people into health and safety roles where they will nominally be ‘working’ stewards.
The Code also removes the ‘contractor’s clause’, fixed RDOs and any visual representations of trade unionism from clothes to flags. Authorities are already going after Probuild in relation to union flags on its sites. While these changes won’t happen overnight, the Code provides the framework for conditions to be undermined in a piecemeal way.
In the early 1990s, socialists warned that a move away from industry-wide agreements to enterprise based agreements would lead to the weakening and decline of the union movement. Sadly, we have been proven correct. The Code is a similar step towards our own demise.
Once we are all covered by Code compliant agreements, all future agreements will be arbitrated by the ABCC. This anti-union body will be able to rule any clause ‘non-compliant’. This will further weaken the hold of the unions and speed up the race to the bottom.
You can understand why Probuild and Lendlease are happy to throw a bit of coin the CFMEU’s way in the short term. In the long term they will have gained a fundamental advantage. These companies have been earning record profits, and modest pay rises are easily affordable. It’s more a question of how much they pay now for you to stick your head in a noose? They will decide when the hangman’s trap door is released.
There is no guarantee that Labor will win the next election and even less of a guarantee that they will wind Turnbull’s anti-union laws back. They haven’t done it in the past. In fact, Turnbull has built upon the worst aspects of Labor’s misnamed Fair Work Act.
The Liberals are now attempting to follow up their Construction Code win with the ‘Ensuring Integrity’ bill. If passed, this bill would further tighten the noose, with increases in fines from $750,000 to $10 million for strikes or boycotts.
Any interested individual, from a government minister to a boss, can apply to have unions deregistered or union reps removed from their positions. The government, not union members, will decide whether unions can amalgamate. The bill is currently stalled in the Senate but its contents are music for the future.
In response to unrelenting government and employer attacks, the ACTU has put forward a campaign to ‘change the rules’. The ACTU have put no real pressure on Labor, refusing to organise a single meeting, let alone a rally or general stoppage. Instead they have allowed Labor to run cap in hand to the bosses organisations asking what changes they would accept.
Labor’s vision is for an Accord 2.0 where workers are ensnared in a rotten compromise and diverted from the real strategies needed to win. What we desperately need is rank and file organisations across all unions that can begin to formulate an alternative to the compromise and ‘vote Labor’ approach of the ACTU.
Rather than a ‘change the rules’ campaign, we need to break the anti-union laws. Only by the working class regaining its independence and returning to the idea of withdrawing our labour en masse will we be able to turn this sinking ship around.
By a construction worker