Thousands of construction workers defied the law to join stopwork rallies around the country on 9 March. This is the kind of action needed across the union movement to fight Turnbull’s war on workers.
“This was the biggest national stopwork in construction since WorkChoices,” CFMEU delegate Dennis McNamara told Solidarity.
“In Sydney there were lots of young workers on strike for the first time. The big union sites in the city were all completely shut down.”
Over 10,000 took to the streets in Melbourne and around 3000 in both Sydney and Brisbane.
In Sydney, workers marched off sites through the CBD, taking over the streets as they made their way to the demonstration. Construction union delegate Dennis McNamara took the stage and announced a spontaneous march back to Town Hall square. On the way, the crowd spotted John Howard walking out of a building and followed him, chanting loudly.
The stopwork was called to resist the re-introduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). But many workers were just as angry about Turnbull’s refusal to protect penalty rates and eager to show solidarity with workers’ affected by the decision in retail, hospitality, fast food and pharmacies.
Construction worker Mark Toohey told Solidarity, “I’m so offended about the cuts to penalty rates. It’s the poorest part of our society they’re attacking. I still get weekend penalty rates, but we know they’re coming after us next.”
Nigel Hadgkiss, the head of the ABCC, warned that union members faced fines for striking to attend. Individual workers can now be fined up to $34,000 for taking unauthorised strike action. In Sydney one big concreting company sent letters to their workers warning them of fines if they went out on strike. The threat was ignored.
“We’re all breaking the law here at the moment”, Victorian construction union secretary John Setka told the crowd in Melbourne. “Bad laws through history have been changed through people defying them.”
The whole union movement needs to respond to Turnbull’s attack with the same spirit. The Your Rights at Work campaign, which brought down John Howard, began with a series of weekday stopwork rallies. But this time around, the unions are simply focused on an electoral campaign in marginal seats—even though the next federal election is over two years away.
John Setka said in Melbourne, “There are unions that are not here today that have told their members not to come because it’s illegal industrial action. Let me give a message to those unions: you’d better come out and fight”.
That kind of defiance is going to be necessary to defend penalty rates and resist the ABCC. Under the special laws for the construction industry, workers can be sent to jail for refusing to hand over information or give evidence against their workmates. Last time around it was defiance by workers and union officials like Ark Tribe and Noel Washington, who refused to co-operate and were willing to risk jail, which forced its repeal.
The Commission is designed to cripple construction unions and keep them out of worksites. As John Setka said, “We go onto a site and try and represent workers, and make sure they go home safe. That now is a criminal act according to this government.”
New guidelines for the Building Industry Code released in March confirm that it will ban clauses in enterprise agreements which impose requirements to employ apprentices, common wages for workers on the same site, and guaranteed rostered days off.
Many workers were enthusiastic for further action. CFMEU member Warren Speechley told Solidarity, “I’ve been part of the union for 28 years now and I’m 100 per cent behind them. I really think we’ve got to put our cards down and show them we’re serious and stay on strike.”
Mark Toohey said, “I’m all for the national strikes I think they should be expanded, we’re at the point now where we have to have rolling strikes and get it through the government’s head that this is unacceptable.” The next step is to push for combined unions delegates’ meetings in each state to discuss union-wide stopwork action. It’s time to step up the fight.