Work Choices on steroids

by

The Building Industry Improvement Act

Jenny Haines

“Who’s got $28,000 sitting aside to pay for something like this? We are ordinary working-class people. We live from week to week. If we can’t pay, he will have to go to jail. I can’t sleep at night.” Bernie, mother of three, whose husband is among one of the 107 construction workers victimised for taking industrial action.

On July 24 I attended the solidarity evening held by the NSW CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Minining and Energy Union), for the 107 West Australian workers who are facing $28,000 fines or jail under the Howard Government’s Orwellian-named Building Industry Improvement Act.

The meeting was very well attended in the newly renovated Trades Hall Auditorium. All the seats were full, and many of the audience had to stand. Visiting from Western Australia was Mal Peters and his wife Bernadette.

Mal is the safety delegate for the WA CFMEU on the Leighton’s Project, the Perth-to-Mandurah rail link. The evening was chaired by Peter McClellan, President of the CFMEU in NSW. Mark Lennon, assistant secretary of Unions NSW, opened the meeting and expressed the solidarity of Unions NSW with the Mandurah workers.

George Williams, a lecturer in law from UNSW, who has recently expressed interest in running for Parliament, put the Building Industry Improvement Act in context, aptly describing it as “Workchoices on steroids”.

Under this legislation any worker taking industrial action can be fineed or jailed. Curiously, workers can take industrial action if they have permission to do so in writing from their employer.

Employers, and the Building Industry Taskforce can interrogate employees and force them to answer questions on pain of six months in jail for failing to answer.

Peter McClellan also explained that workers who fail to inform on workmates who take industrial action can face six months in the slammer.

CFMEU secretary Andrew Ferguson said the agenda of the Howard Government for the building industry is:

  • To ban union meetings.
  • To involve police in industrial disputes.
  • To deregister building unions.
  • To sequester union assets
  • To imprison union officials who refuse to answer questions.

In the building industry, on average, one worker is killed every week somewhere in Australia. Andrea (her last name wasn’t given) spoke of how her husband died after he cut through a live electrical wire on the Westfield Tuggerah construction site. Her very cute eight year-old son was sitting next to her. Her speech was a heartbreaking and impassioned plea for workplace safety.

David Shoebridge, an industrial barrister, who will be a Greens canditate for the Senate at the next election, had appeared for Andrea at the coroner’s inquiry into her husband’s death.

He read from a solicitor’s letter that demonstrated clearly that Workchoices, far from being a simplification of the industrial system, has complicated it beyond belief. He described Workchoices as “a feast for lawyers and a trap for the unwary”. He expressed concern at the impact of Workchoices, and government moves on Welfare to Work, on the living standards of ordinary Australians.

Mal Peters discussed event on the Mandurah project. The Mandurah workers have employers that are difficult in ordinary circumstances, and they have to fight constantly to maintain their rights .

When their delegate, Peter Ballard, was sacked, the workers walked off the job and not long after that stoppage, on July 5, the Australian Building and Construction Commission started legal action against them in the Federal Court.

On July 6, 60 workers were served with writs at their homes, charging them with taking unlawful industrial action. They face fines of up to $22,000 under the building legislation and some face a further $6600 for allegedly ignoring an Industrial Relations Commission order banning strikes on the project.

This matter comes to court again on the August 29-30, and the workers are seeking support from workers all over Australia. The remaining 296 workers on the Perth-to-Mandurah railway project may also be charged, and similar prosecutions are being prepared against individual workers in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, NSW and Queensland.

The CFMEU had organised for donations for Mal Peters to take back to the Mandurah workers: $5500 from the officers of the CFMEU in NSW ($100 each), and donations from several building sites.

Susan Price from the university staff union (NTEU) called for a solidarity rally in NSW on the days the Mandurah workers face court in WA. She also announced that John Howard would be opening the new Law Building at UNSW on August 31 at 10am, and all were welcome to attend a rally on that campus that day.

Justine, a metalworkers union delegate from Victoria, said the Howard government was targetting regional areas to set industrial precedents. The evening was capped with the beautiful acapella voice of Karen McWhinney of the CFMEU singing The Ballad of Joe Hill and and The Union Keeps us Strong.

A collection was taken for the Mandurah workers, and as I left the collection was doing very well, with people throwing in $50 and $100 notes.

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