Two leading officials of the Victorian branch of the CFMEU Construction Division faced court in March on ludicrous charges of blackmail, for industrial action against Boral, a building supplies company.

Secretary John Setka and Assistant Secretary Shaun Reardon were charged in December last year, after dramatised arrests on a Sunday.

Mike Kane, head of Boral, suggested the charges of blackmail be laid while giving evidence to the Trade Union Royal Commission in 2014.

The CFMEU’s lawyer described him in court as “an industrial warrior of the first magnitude”.

The charges are ludicrous in the context of industrial action but carry a maximum of 15 years’ jail.

They come as the Construction Division in Victoria gears up for a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) with major builders and safety remains a real issue on building sites. This means the union can take protected industrial action.

In February, a Melbourne construction worker fell 20 metres to his death when a platform gave way and a crane caught fire and collapsed.

While the union organised a strike and rally for the first court appearance of Setka and Reardon in December, there was no action this time. The next court appearance is not until November. The union is seeking to fight the charges mainly through the courts, with Setka downplaying the threat, telling a union monthly branch meeting, “It is what it is.”

The real reason for charging two union officials is the long standing hatred building companies have for the union’s ability to extract decent wages and conditions for its members. The charges are part of a concerted attempt to discredit and weaken the union.

Malcolm Turnbull wants to go further by reviving the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission if he wins the election.

In the Herald Sun last year, Mike Kane claimed that, “We have the largest construction union in this country under control of criminal elements”.

The government, the Royal Commission and the courts are trying to discredit the CFMEU by repeatedly throwing flimsy charges at it. Four charges referred by the Royal Commission have already failed.

In early March a charge of intimidation brought against ACT CFMEU Secretary Dean Hall was dropped, over a safety dispute with a Worksafe inspector. Another charge of intimidation against NSW official Michael Greenfield resulted in a verdict of not guilty in February.

“These actions seem to be designed to create a storm of negative publicity for the union without amounting to anything”, Dave Noonan, CFMEU National Construction Secretary rightly commented.

The union needs to turn its slogan “Touch one, touch all” into a reality and mobilise the rank and file in defence of Setka and Reardon at every possible turn.

This is the only way to send a message to the courts and to the bosses that there will be consequences for jailing union officials and taking on the union. We can’t leave the decision up to the courts.

By Tom Orsag

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