In early July, around 8000 construction workers joined a strike and rally against Victorian Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu’s new anti-union building code, which came in force three days earlier. The strike showed the unions’ willingness to defy the law in defence of basic union rights, with the strike deemed illegal under both Baillieu’s Code and Gillard’s Fair Work laws.
United as one voice—carpenters, electricians, labourers, plumbers and everyone else in between—we told Baillieu that a state-based replica of John Howard’s anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was not on.
Baillieu’s Construction Code seeks to criminalise routine union activities on building sites—banning union site inductions for new workers, restricting union reps access to sites to ensure safety and even a ban on union stickers and logos in site sheds and on hard hats. It also promotes more labour hire, in an industry riddled with job insecurity, by banning restrictions on use of casual and part-time workers from agreements. Companies that refuse to abide by the code will be blacklisted from state government projects. A new Construction Code Compliance Unit (CCCU) will monitor adherence with the code.
Hatred of the building unions is in millionaire Ted Baillieu’s political DNA. Today’s CCCU is all about building companies continuing to make big profits. John Ferguson, in The Australian, admitted that that the CCCU, “will police workers on state-run major projects in a bid to drive down costs.”
Baillieu did not go to the election of November 2010 campaigning for a CCCU, nor would he have dared to. Now, he is following all the usual union-bashing traditions of the Liberals. The Age reported in March that his code is, “modelled on one introduced by the Howard government”. He even appointed former ABCC deputy, Nigel Hadgkiss, as the head of his new body.
Hadgkiss had the gall to tell the media that building unions were engaged in unlawful industrial activity, without naming one example. He even claimed, “Melbourne is the worst capital in Australia for those kinds of malpractices.”
The building unions are amongst the best organised and most powerful unions in the country. Building workers are powerful for a number of reasons, none of which have anything to do with criminal activity. Firstly, the fines for lateness in completion and bonuses for early handovers on building contracts are weapons for unions to use to our advantage.
Secondly, the unions play a vital role in enforcing safety. In a sector with a high accident and death rate, second only to mining and farming, safety is easily compromised in the employers’ push to boost profits and meet schedules for completion.
What Baillieu and the building bosses hate the most is that building workers have built strong unions, and those unions are always looking for ways, in a very mobile industry, to ensure union membership and increase it.
At the heart of the CCCU is the Liberal Party’s desire for “freedom of association”, i.e. allowing people to dodge union membership. They see this as a way of weakening the unions. But union members call this “freeloading”—getting all the benefits of the pay and conditions the unions fight for without paying the union dues of $11.50 a week.
The first site where Baillieu’s CCCU will be tested is likely to be the Regional Rail Link job in Melbourne’s West. Building unions have sent the Liberals a warning if they try to come after us.
By Jack Hammervic, CFMEU member