Tony Abbott deliberately portrayed himself as an industrial relations moderate before the election. But he is no moderate. His aim was to undercut any fear campaign from Labor and the unions of a pending industrial relations nightmare with a return of the Liberals’ Workchoices legislation.

While so far Abbott hasn’t been confident to bring back Workchoices, at every chance he’s trying to undermine workplace rights and the union organisation that defends those rights.

On the second day of the new parliament he passed laws re-establishing the Howard-era anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), an inspectorate with special powers designed to go after militant construction unions.

Under the ABCC, construction workers were treated like suspects under anti-terror laws, denied the right to silence and forced to front secret interrogation sessions. They had no right to chose their own lawyer or to reveal to anyone afterwards what they were questioned about. If they refused to cooperate, they faced a six month jail sentence.

The ABCC’s aim was to make the unions ineffective by imposing massive fines and damages. The interrogations were used to get evidence of so called “illegal” strike activity.

Abbott has not only restored the ABCC but extended its powers:

  • The building industry is now more broadly defined to include off site prefabrication, offshore oil and gas platforms, and transport of materials to building sites, making the Transport Workers Union and the Maritime Union of Australia potential targets.
  • The definition of picket lines has been extended with the onus of proof now falling on unionists to prove they weren’t acting as the ABCC allege.
  • Employers access to the courts to stop industrial action has been sped up, fines have been increased, compensation claims for damages will be uncapped and unions will also be hit with more court costs.

While Labor and the Greens will block the bill in the Senate until July, Abbott is looking for different ways to go after the construction unions in the meantime. One is beefing up the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate (FWBII), Labor’s replacement for the ABCC.

He has already appointed Nigel Hadgkiss, the former head of the ABCC, as FWBII head. Hadgkiss is an ex-cop connected to the far right HR Nicholls society. For over two years he pursued ordinary rank and file unionist, Ark Tribe, threatening him with jail for non-cooperation.

Employers complained that the FWBII was a “toothless tiger”. But it maintained the power to interrogate construction workers with the threat of jail and its former head, Leigh Johns, bragged to employers that the Inspectorate was “investigating more unlawful industrial action and coercion matters than in the past”.

Anti-union commission

This is not the only front Abbott is attacking on. During the election he promised an judicial inquiry into the AWU and its slush fund. This has been dramatically widened into a Royal Commission targeting the whole union movement and it is expected the commissioner will be given wide powers to interrogate union officials and no doubt some Labor MPs.

It is clearly a union bashing exercise that will be used to justify further attacks. Abbott has done this before. In 2001 while Workplace Relations Minister he established the Cole Royal Commission into alleged criminal activity in the building industry. Over $60 million was spent yet no evidence of organised crime was found. Yet 87 per cent of the Commission’s recommendations were directed against union activity and included the establishment of the ABCC.

There is no doubt that unions have to defend themselves: the question is how?

Traditionally they’ve had a two pronged approach. On the job they’ve continued to organise by finding creative ways to duck and weave around the full thrust of the law, while at the legislative level they campaigned for the re-election of a Labor government and relied on them to make more favorable laws.

This approach has failed. The unions’ 2007 “Your rights at work” campaign succeeded in sweeping Labor to power, but Labor squandered that support by continuing to serve the big end of town. Workchoices faced only mild changes while the ABCC lived on in all but name.

Unions continued to pay millions in fines for unlawful industrial activity under Labor. This is set to get worse.

Last time around, the construction unions campaigned to support unionists Noel Washington and Ark Tribe, who both faced prosecution for refusing to co-operate with the ABCC. On both occasions, the Commission dropped the cases. The ACTU too has now pledged to support any worker prosecuted for non-compliance.

A campaign of mass defiance against the ABCC, including industrial action whenever it steps on site or tries to interrogate a unionist, is the way to make the body inoperable—not putting our hopes into re-electing Labor.

By Mark Gillespie

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