At least 5000 Melbourne building workers joined a strike and rally in early December as CFMEU officials John Setka and Shaun Reardon faced court. The two Victorian Construction union officials face charges of blackmail under the Crimes Act.

This is a new—and unprecedented—escalation of the attack on the CFMEU, one of the country’s most militant and effective trade unions. Dave Noonan, national secretary of the CFMEU’s construction division, pointed out, “There is no allegation that they have tried to personally profit from anything here.” Noonan added, “The issue here is…whether industrial relations should be turned into a criminal matter.”

The charges concern an industrial dispute with building supply company Boral and carry a maximum penalty of 15 years’ jail. CFMEU officials allegedly banned Boral from working on building sites in order to pressure another company, Grocon, over a safety dispute. Boral supplies concrete on all Grocon sites. This is an industrial tactic that has been widely used by unions in the past.

The charges are an attack on the rights of all unions. As Ewin Hannan wrote in The Australian, “The decision…has caused alarm across the union movement, including among officials with little time for the CFMEU.”

Bob Nanva, the national secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), says the charges could set “a legal precedent that will have profound and frightening implications for everyone involved in enterprise negotiations”.

Nanva added, “If an industrial demand from a union is blackmail, then surely an industrial demand from an employer must be blackmail as well.”

Even ACTU President Ged Kearney called it, “a very serious precedent.”

The charges result from the appearance of Mike Kane, Boral chief executive, at the Trade Union Royal Commission. Kane “respectfully” suggested Setka be referred to Victoria Police for investigation for blackmail. Heydon praised Kane for his “powerful points”. Five months later, Heydon dutifully recommended in his Royal Commission report that Setka and deputy, Shaun Reardon, be charged by Victoria police for alleged blackmail.

Between July and September, unfortunately the CFMEU has stuck to fighting legal cases against it in the courts only, without mobilising the members to defend the union.

So in September, the union lost a Federal Court case to Boral and agreed to pay $9 million to Boral in fines and legal costs over the same incident. Boral accepted the settlement as the union agreed to further financial penalties if it broke a pledge not to interfere with Boral’s business until 2018!

Boral announced a profit of $257 million last year, up 48 per cent, despite the CFMEU boycott.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is also taking the union to the Federal Court over the dispute with Boral, alleging it engaged in secondary boycott action, with the union facing another $10 million in fines.

So far the union is suggesting that a legal defence will be enough. The CFMEU’s December issue of Worker Express, stated, “The charges against John Setka and Shaun Reardon will be strongly defended.”

But the union’s stopwork rally in December must not be the last. There should be further action when the case resumes on 15 March, to help send the message that a guilty verdict will cost the bosses millions in further disruption. Seeing Setka and Reardon go to jail is a precedent we can’t allow.

By Tom Orsag

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