The Abbott government has the CFMEU construction union in its sights. It is promising a new version of Howard’s Building Construction Code, vowing to break union power and a “closed shop” on building sites.

The attacks have already begun, with the existing building watchdog Fair Work Building & Construction launching legal action against 76 construction workers in Perth for “unlawful industrial action”. Workers face $10,200 individual fines for stopping work to attend a local jobs rally on 28 February 2013. While “local workers first” rallies are no way to fight for jobs, the legal action against individual CFMEU members is aimed at intimidating workers and weakening their union.

“This is an outrageous attack on workers’ rights and civil liberties…Workers in Australia should be able to participate in a peaceful, political protest without the threat of being dragged before the courts by the government” said Dave Noonan, CFMEU secretary.

Threats of court proceedings and massive fines are all too familiar. In 2006, 107 workers in WA were prosecuted for taking industrial action and paid thousands of dollars in fines.

In 2009-10 the ABCC successfully forced the CFMEU to pay close to $2.1 million—a significant part of its assets—in penalties and damages for two days of strike action taken around workers’ accommodation conditions at the Pluto LNG project.

Again, in September 2013, the Federal Court in conjunction with the ABCC imposed fines totalling more than $1 million on 117 construction workers for an eight day strike declared “unlawful” in October 2008 at Woodside’s LNG expansion project on the Burrup Peninsula. The union was fined another $675,000 in March.

While the ABCC was formally abolished in 2012 its draconian special powers remain. Just as the unions paid their fines in the years of the ABCC they pay them today. As Abbott goes on the attack a campaign of mass defiance against these laws, including industrial action, will be needed to beat them for good. The CFMEU and the union movement must defy the courts and defend the right to strike.

By Matt Meagher

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