Rally against Howard’s industrial Gestapo

by

Jenny Haines

Supporters of the 107 Leighton’s workers from Mandurah, WA, gathered at the Sydney Trades Hall on August 29, at a meeting organised by the NSW branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. The rally was held on the day the workers were due to face court in Perth.

The workers are charged under the so-called Building Industry Improvement Act, a piece of legislation with an Orwellian name, if ever there was one. They could be fined up to $28,600 or imprisoned.

The newly renovated Trades Hall auditorium was full to overflowing. The crowd, which spilled into the foyer and up the steps, was composed of members, and officials of the teachers, nurses, liquor and hospitality, CFMEU, health services, transport workers, AWU, maritime, fire brigades, metalworkers, tertiary teachers and academics, UHU, metalworkers and public transport and rail unions. Also present were Jack Mundey, Kerry Nettle, Mick Tubbs, a few DSP members, a couple of Spartacists, and one activist in a Socialist Alliance T-shirt.

CFMEU official Tony Papa, who is chair of the Building Industry Group of Unions NSW, chaired the proceedings, introducing John Sutton from the CFMEU national office, who told the story of the Mandurah workers.

Peter Ballard, the union representative whose sacking precipitated the dispute, eventually secured a payout, which he donated to charity. Sutton explained the role and powers of the Building Industry Taskforce, which he called an “industrial Gestapo”. The taskforce is funded with $100 million of taxpayer’s money.

Sutton said he had heard the head of the BIT, John Lloyd, say at a recent seminar in Sydney that the body may pursue up to 400 of the workers at Mandurah, and that it had the option of pursuing individual workers for damages. Sutton point out that could bankrupt some of these workers, but that seemed to be of no concern to Lloyd.

John Sutton went on to explain that the BIT had special powers that exceeded anything he had seen in Australia before. It has the same powers to detain and interrogate building workers as ASIO has to detain and interrogate terrorists.

The taskforce can spy on building workers, gather covert evidence and pull in building workers for secret interrogations. The building worker cannot tell anyone that they have been detained. They cannot tell their family or workmates, and definitely not their union. Under interrogration, if they refuse to inform on their wokrmates, they can be jailed for up to six months.

Sutton pointed out that there had been uproar in the media about the use of such powers against terrorism suspects, but there was a conspiracy of silence about their application to building workers.

There was nothing to stop the government extending these laws beyond the building industry to any other industry, Sutton said. Four metalworkers had already been charged with illegal industrial action in Perth under the recently introduced Workchoices legislation.

Sutton said there was a need for:

  • Meetings of unionists to explain the consequences of the Workchoices and Building Industry Improvement laws.
  • Letters to politicians protesting against these laws.
  • Petitions opposing these laws and calling for their repeal.
  • Donations to the ACTU Fighting Fund (phone 02 9749 0400).
  • A campaign to remove the Howard government at the next federal election.

John Sutton added that there was to be a march after the meeting to the offices of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, and he urged restraint on the marchers, as a peaceful rally would be more useful in the struggle against the Howard government.

Unions NSW secretary John Robertson, told the meeting that this campaign was sending a message to John Howard that unionists would not stand by and see fellow workers prosecuted and persecuted.

Howard and his ministers had gone after individual workers in an attempt to instill fear and terror. But, Roberston said, unions were standing shoulder to shoulder with the workers under attack.

Robertson said the biggest security threat to working people in Australia at the present time was John Howard and his government. He got a roar of approval and loud applause for this statement. He quoted Tony Abbott’s statement: “if these laws are successful, why wouldn’t you roll them out to other workers”.

Robertson said that John Howard, and his mates were simply repaying big business for favours and unionists should continue a community campaign for the following objectives:

  • Our right to be heard.
  • Our right to collective bargaining.
  • Our right to democratic decision-making.

After the meeting, 107 of the participants, about five from each union present at the meeting, organised themselves into a chain with numbers on their chests to march from Goulburn Street to the ABCC building in Castlereagh Street. I was sorry we didn’t have leaflets to explain to the startled pedestrians in Sydney City why chained unionists were marching through the streets. The March was colourful and noisy with chants against Howard and Workchoices.

Outside the ABCC building, speakers included Craig Emerson, former opposition spokesperson on industrial relations, who looks more relaxed in the presence of unionists than Labor’s present industrial relations spokesperson, Stephen Smith. The actor Tony Barry, a well-known face on Australian cop shows, quoted Martin Luther King: “We have the power, you, me, all of us, have the power.”

The Miners Union from Newcastle donated $10,000 to the fighting fund. Jack Mundey reminded the crowd that it was the left unions that had led previous fights in Australia, against conscription in World War I, for the unemployed in the Great Depression, after World War II in the coal industry, on the waterfront in the 1990s and now today, left and right unions were uniting for what could be the biggest fight in Australia’s history. In an earlier era, Mundey said, he had thought the Penal Powers couldn’t be beaten but they were, and with unity these laws could be beaten too.

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