The picket of Melbourne’s City West Water construction site, effectively demanding the sacking of 457 visa workers, shows just how dangerous and divisive the unions’ “Aussie jobs” campaign really is.
Not only are the unions demanding that 457 migrant workers be kept out the country—they are now calling for workers already here to be sacked. This appalling campaign is scapegoating foreign workers as to blame for unemployment.
In February, a group of unemployed tradespeople began picketing the state-owned water treatment plant in Werribee. But the picket clearly is backed by the AMWU. Its Victorian assistant secretary Leigh Diehm says he is, “110 per cent behind” the picketers and that the union would “prefer to see locals on the job”.
An AMWU organiser also told a company representative, “give these [local] blokes a job and the picket will end.”
The company responded by flying in workers by helicopter—only for it to emerge there were just four 457 workers at the site.
There are also reports of incidents on the picket line of threats and abuse directed at the migrant workers.
Instead of campaigning against 457 visa workers, the unions could organise a real fight for jobs and campaign to unionise the construction site. Instead of trying to sack the four 457 workers, what about a campaign to unionise the contractor that employees them? That could lay the basis for a united fight for jobs.
Fair Work’s Construction Commission has now taken the AMWU to court, seeking millions of dollars in damages over the action.
In the past the AMWU has tried to organise 457 visa workers to ensure they are not exploited and underpaid by their employers. The union has even tried to find alternative jobs for 457 visa workers sacked for demanding their rights. Shamefully, the “Aussie jobs” campaign has now led them to campaign for the workers to be sacked.
This is a new low. A campaign for the sacking of 457 visa workers will do the union movement serious damage. It will feed the growth of racism and division amongst workers while doing nothing to target the bosses who are responsible for unemployment.
The union campaign encourages the racist idea that foreign workers and immigration are to blame for unemployment and job losses.
This all shows why sections of the left were wrong to support the union rallies against 457 visas and mining industry Enterprise Migration Agreements last year. Those rallies had nothing to with fighting for jobs or concern at the employment conditions of 457 workers.
Last month the CFMEU even called for employers to be able to legally discriminate against 457 visa workers and allow employers to sack 457 migrant workers ahead of “locals”.
Instead of trying to unite the workforce—migrant and local workers—to fight against sackings this helps divide it, encouraging workers to fight each other about who gets the sack first. This is poison for union organisation.
The CFMEU is also continuing its campaign against foreign workers. The CFMEU’s national conference last October launched a new advertising campaign on the mining boom called “Let’s spread it around”, including TV ads which argue that local workers are missing out on jobs because “thousands of temporary overseas workers” are taking them.
But the idea migrants are to blame for unemployment is a myth. The 1370 job cuts announced in a few days in January were all a product of corporate profiteering or economic slump: 500 jobs at Vodafone and 170 at Bluescope Steel in cost cutting drives designed to boost profits and 700 at Boral due to a slump in housing construction.
The idea that immigration is to blame shifts workers’ anger from the fight against the boss onto blaming migrants. It also hides the fact that the unions are doing almost nothing to fight to save jobs.
The “spread it around” campaign has pointed out that “thousands of Queenslanders are losing their jobs, and unemployment has leapt to 6.2 per cent”.
But what did the unions do to fight Campbell Newman’s Queensland government, which has slashed 14,000 jobs? After some promising rallies, the unions ended the industrial campaign, went to court—and lost.
There needs to be a serious debate within the union movement about the dangers of the “Aussie jobs” campaign and the Werribee dispute. Late last year the NTEU national council passed a motion expressing its concern over the campaign against workers. Union members need to pass resolutions in their unions and sign onto statements to oppose this backward union campaign.