In March Victoria Police forced two construction union (CFMMEU) officials off the McConnell Dowell level crossing removal site in Laverton, one of the Victorian Labor government’s signature projects.
A dispute had flared up at the site when management called the police alleging that a ‘breach of the peace’ had occurred. This so-called breach was in fact the two union officials inspecting safety concerns at the site, including the fact that concrete panels were being lifted over operational rail lines.
The union officials maintain that they were acting lawfully and that they had a legal right to be on site to investigate safety issues.
The company claims that the union officials breached their ‘right of entry’ permits and it seems that the police contacted the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) for advice. Usually the WorkSafe agency would look into safety matters.
Clearly the approach to the ABCC was a political decision hatched up at the behest of the bosses at McConnell Dowell. It has been reported that the police remained at the site for five hours to ensure the union officials did not return.
The CFMMEU has now announced that it is preparing to sue both Victoria Police and the company, alleging that numerous workplace laws were breached. The union is demanding the Labor state government also instruct the police to only take advice from WorkSafe in the future rather than the politically biased ABCC.
The reasons for this are clear to any trade unionist familiar with the work of the ABCC. Its role is to undermine the ability of construction workers to organise, including their ability to organise safe and healthy workplaces.
The construction bosses benefit from the repressive approach of the ABCC, for when workers are kept in check, corners can be cut and more profits can be made. It is obvious why profit-driven employers seek the intervention of the ABCC, but why is a so-called Labor Party allowing them to interfere on state government projects?
That the Andrews Labor government have not come out and admitted the intervention of the Victoria Police was a huge mistake speaks volumes.
The wider union movement, including the CFMMEU, campaigned for the election of Labor at the state election last year, but Labor have shown the unions very little appreciation. During the election campaign the unions lauded the government’s $100 billion infrastructure rollout, saying that it would create thousands of jobs.
But as far as Andrews is concerned it seems that these jobs are not necessarily union jobs.
On another signature government project, the West Gate Tunnel, the employers chosen by the government have tried to push through a workplace deal that excludes the unions altogether. At this site the unions have also complained about lax safety practices.
Any government that genuinely had workers’ rights in mind would use a government owned-and-run agency to build big infrastructure projects, cutting out private profiteers who cream taxpayer funds. They could even stipulate conditions for union access to sites and safety standards before selecting private construction companies for government work, but even this seems too much for Labor.
Making matters worse, when it comes to the public sector the Andrews government wants the unions to accept a 2% wage cap. So much for the Andrews government being pro-worker and progressive!
All this raises vexed questions for the trade union movement, in relation to the leadership’s political strategy of working to get Labor governments elected. If this is what we can expect from supposed left figures like Andrews, what hope do we have with the right wingers who dominate the party?
Unions need to break out of the Labor Party straightjacket. They need to instigate an industrial campaign to win the pay rises and working conditions that we deserve. The entire union movement should unite behind a campaign to end the imposition of penalties for industrial action, and to end the use of the police and courts to keep workers’ conditions down.
Furthermore, the unions need to break from the fake Labor Party and begin the process of setting up a genuine political alternative for working class people.
By Michael Naismith