After almost three months the West Gate Bridge dispute in Melbourne has ended. The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) negotiated a settlement with construction company John Holland after weeks of mediation.
After a successful series of pickets John Holland backed down on attempts to bully workers into accepting a work agreement undermining industry standards. However, of the 39 workers who were originally sacked for refusing the sub-standard agreement, not all have been reinstated. The settlement also includes a controversial ‘bad behaviour clause’ that could potentially limit future industrial action. Under the agreement unions could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for undertaking certain types of industrial action on John Holland sites across Victoria.
Not only does the inclusion of such a clause set a dangerous precedent, it legitimises attacks on workers’ rights to engage in certain forms of industrial action. As we have seen in recent years, the threat of fines and legal action has already weakened the industrial responses of even the strongest unions.
The police presence during this dispute made it clear the State Government did not side with the workers. The reality is that the Labor Government could have ended this dispute in minutes by threatening to ignore John Holland for future Government contracts.
Tragically both the CFMEU and AMWU hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars in members’ money to the Labor Party despite the fact that they have clearly shown they are more interested in siding with bosses than protecting jobs in this difficult economic crisis. The unions should immediately stop handing over workers’ money to a party that endorses attacks on basic workers’ rights.
One of the lessons to draw from this dispute is that when called on to fight, workers hold strong. Despite massive intimidation from both John Holland and the police, and defamatory lies circulating in the media, workers came out in their hundreds to support the picket.
John Holland used the police to act as their personal bodyguards, escorting the small handful of scabs they could find willing to cross the picket. Yet it was the picketers who, on multiple occasions, used their collective strength to control how and when the scabs entered and exited the site. When the struggle moved from the picket to the courtroom this strength was lost.
This dispute gave a glimpse of the potential mass action can have when taking on anti-union employers. Unfortunately it also highlighted all of the contradictions that exist within the current union leadership. The union’s relationship with the Labor Party and their reliance on the courts instead of mass action needs to be challenged as more employers choose to wind back wages and conditions as the economic crisis gets worse.
By Mel Gregson