VICTORIAN BUILDING unions are set to hold a mass stopwork rally in defence of Noel Washington, the construction union official facing six months jail for defying Howard’s industrial laws.

Two thousand union delegates attended a mass meeting in Melbourne on July 30 to discuss a campaign of action against the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), a WorkChoices-era taskforce which harasses unionists in the construction industry.

The campaign against the ABCC is the first significant step by unions to demand that the new federal Labor government scrap the majority of the WorkChoices laws which remain in place. Unions have decided to draw a line in the sand around the ABCC, which has been described by ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence as “the most anti-worker” of all Howard’s industrial relations laws.

Noel Washington addressed the meeting and received a standing ovation. He spoke of his determination to stand up to the ABCC, and the personal impact he had seen it have on other workers in the industry—people like Brodene Wardley, a single mother who was interrogated and threatened with jail, because as a health and safety rep she had called a halt to work at building site after a near accident.

The meeting agreed to organise a mass rally on the day Noel faces court, which is likely to be in September.

Significantly, the meeting drew support from much wider than just unions in the construction industry. The official motion was moved by Mary Bluett, president of the Victorian teachers union and Victorian nurses union secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick.

Other speakers included Paul Howes of the Australian Workers Union and Jeff Lawrence, secretary of the ACTU.

Members of the Greens turned up and handed out a leaflet calling for the abolition of ABCC and promoting the Greens’ charter of workplace rights, which includes the right to strike.

Despite the Rudd government’s promise to tear up WorkChoices, little has improved for workers in the construction industry. Labor says it will maintain “a tough cop on the beat” in the industry. In other words, the restrictions contained in Howard’s Building Industry Code of Practice aimed at rendering union activity in construction ineffective will remain—as will the ABCC’s extraordinary powers.

According to the CFMEU’s Dave Noonan “The head of the ABCC, John Lloyd, has been going around bragging that the ABCC’s activities have increased by 60 per cent since the election of the Rudd Government.”

This is underscored by the fact that Noel Washington is the first worker to face jail for defying the commission.

When Noel faces court we can expect at least 10,000 workers from unions in the construction industry to strike and protest. But the action could be even more effective if it involved workers from all unions, like the early mass rallies against WorkChoices in Victoria, which was called as all union state-wide strikes.

Solidarity members tried to move a motion at the meeting for a 24-hour state-wide strike, but the motion was not accepted by the chair of the meeting. A further motion calling for a 24-hour strike if Noel Washington is sent to jail was also ruled out of order.

Strikes also have an impact beyond numbers at a rally, and this battle can’t be left to the CFMEU alone. Workers in unions outside the construction industry have shown before with the rallies against Workchoices, that if Trades Hall calls official stoppages, so workers feel protected and all in it together, they will come out in massive numbers.

Interstate unions need to follow Victoria’s lead and call delegates meetings and mass protests to defend Noel Washington. We are going to need to continue to build support for the campaign against the ABCC in every workplace, and if Noel is jailed, we will need mass strikes nationally like those that succeeded in freeing Tramways union official Clarrie O’Shea 40 years ago in similar circumstances.

Further information and campaign materials about the ABCC can be found at www.constructingrights.com

By Chris Breen and James Supple

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