union leaders in Australia have threatened to withdraw support for the country’s Labour government, if it does not give in to their demands to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
Hundreds of building workers marched through central Sydney to the ABCC offices yesterday, blocking lunchtime traffic.
Speakers at a noisy rally called on the federal government to abolish the ABCC and keep its election promise of putting fairness back in the workplace.
The ABCC was set up by the previous right-wing government of John Howard, who was the Australian ally of outgoing US President George W Bush.
The New South Wales secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), Russ Colleson, told yesterday’s Sydney rally that Howard’s government had passed legislation to destroy the trade union movement.
Addressing Australia’s new premier, Kevin Rudd, Colleson said: ‘Mr Rudd, now is the time. Take the training wheels off and do what you said to the workforce in this country.
‘But unless you do, be warned, be warned because you won’t have us behind you next time.’
Australia’s trade unions backed Rudd’s election campaign.
Another New South Wales union leader, Mark Lennon, told yesterday’s rally in Sydney that the trade union movement wanted to send a ‘clear message to abolish the ABCC’.
Lennon said the ABCC was an ‘anachronism from the Howard-Costello years’.
‘It doesn’t belong here,’ he insisted. ‘It is not just, it is not fair and it is time it goes.’
Yesterday’s rally in Sydney was part of a national and international day of action, with trade unions rallying in New Zealand, South America and London to support the fight to immediately scrap the ABCC.
Rallies were staged in every Australian state, as workers cheered the decision by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to withdraw its prosecution of Noel Washington, an official of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).
Washington, 62, was facing the prospect of a six-month jail sentence for refusing to give evidence to the ABCC about what he saw and heard at a union meeting in 2007.
The Melbourne rally outside the ABCC’s St Kilda Road headquarters was addressed by Washington, who had been due to appear before Melbourne Magistrates Court for refusing to attend a compulsory ABCC interview.
Washington told the rally the laws underpinning the ABCC had been designed to destroy unions.
‘These laws must be smashed into a thousand pieces and the sooner the better,’ he said.
Police formed a line outside the ABCC’s offices, near the intersection of Commercial Road, and diverted outbound traffic into St Kilda Road’s middle lanes from about 10.00am, causing delays for about an hour.
Demonstrators were told that while alleged murderers were not forced to answer police questions, construction workers could face jail if they did not co-operate with the ABCC.
CFMEU national secretary, Dave Noonan, said union members who had stopped work to attend the rally were breaking a ‘bad law’ and called on workers to refuse to cooperate with the ‘star chamber’.
He said the ABCC had engendered a climate of fear in the building industry because of its powers.
Noonan added: ‘We’ve still got repressive laws that cover 900,000 Australians who have less rights than other citizens and the campaign to repeal those laws will continue.
‘When people start to actually see the way these laws operate, and understand the fundamental position that you have a different set of rights for people because of the industry they work in, then there’s very widespread opposition.’
Slater & Gordon lawyer, Marcus Clayton, said the discriminatory laws denied construction workers the right to silence and breached Australia’s international legal obligations.
‘It’s a complete outrage,’ he said.
Clayton continued that, while the charges against Noel Washington were withdrawn by federal public prosecutors because of ‘bungled paperwork’, the move could also be seen as a backdown.
Electrical Trades Union state secretary, Dean Mighell, said the campaign against the ABCC would not stop until it was abolished.
‘John Howard introduced these laws but it is Kevin Rudd’s choice to keep them and that is a disgrace,’ he said.
Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary, Jeff Lawrence, said: ‘This is a fundamental question of human rights.
‘We’ve turned the tide on (Howard’s) Work Choices, now it’s time to wash away the ABCC and its discriminatory powers.’
But, he added, while the Rudd government’s new industrial relation laws were a ‘significant step’, the trade union movement still had unfinished business.
‘Until these laws go there won’t be justice for Australia’s workers,’ he concluded, telling the rally that the ABCC has had a negative impact on workplace safety and is an attack on workers’ rights to bargain collectively and be represented by their unions.
Earlier, Victoria state CFMEU branch assistant secretary, Bill Oliver, said the branch would be pursuing court costs from the ABCC Commissioner John Lloyd.
In Brisbane, the main city of Queensland, thousands more workers marched on Prime Minister Rudd’s Brisbane CBD office, demanding an overhaul of the law.
CFMEU spokesman Michael Ravbar told 2,000 angry construction workers that the death of 25-year-old Tom Takurau on a Woollongabba roadworks site on Monday should never have happened.
While an official investigation is still underway, Ravbar said that the concrete beam, which severed at least one of Tom Takurau’s legs and crushed him to death, had not been properly tethered.
He had been working as a cherry picker on the corner of Ipswich Road and O’Keefe Street at the site of the Eastern Busway – or Boggo Road – project at Buranda, when the incident occurred just after midday.
He was rushed to the Princess Alexandra Hospital but died soon after.
‘Tom was only on site for a few months,’ Ravbar said.
‘He was involved with – I still can’t believe (it) – a beam rolling off a bridge that should have been secured.’
His death is the third on a Queensland construction site in a fortnight and the 18th worksite fatality this year.
Ravbar said it represented a 35 per cent increase on last year’s death toll.
‘Fatality wise, it is an absolute shocker of a year.
‘This is the worst in 28 years,’ he told the rally.
‘We will continue this fight until the ABCC is abolished,’ Ravbar added.
He warned: ‘Until then, the nearly one million workers in the construction industry are in danger of being fined $22,000 or imprisoned for six months just for refusing to talk to this shadowy group.
‘We should all be working together to ensure a safe and productive industry, not fighting secret interrogations and punitive prosecutions.’
Ravbar said workers were also under pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines, resulting in fatigue and dangerous corner-cutting.
‘Then the next minute, unfortunately as with Tom yesterday, someone dies,’ he said.
‘When there were health and safety issues on a site, the blokes would pull up and fix it or the union would come in and fix it, but they can’t do that any more because they get fined and jailed.’
Similar Rights on Site rallies were held in every state capital, as well as the major east coast towns of Newcastle and Wollongong.