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Workers' just war on construction bullies

Dustin Halse |  10 September 2012

CFMEU logo on the back of a jacket worn by a manFinally, the three-week battle between Grocon and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) that brought parts of Melbourne to a standstill has ended. Union members have suspended industrial action and returned to work after Grocon agreed to commence negotiations.

The battle marks a further deterioration in the decade long feud between Grocon and the union. Played out in public the dispute's latest chapter has been exacerbated by an unedifying and bitter personal exchange between the involved parties.

At the centre of the dispute is the CFMEU's claim that Grocon is denying workers the opportunity to elect their own safety stewards and display union regalia. The Fair Work Act explicitly gives workers the right to elect health and safety representatives.

Union elected safety representatives are well versed in occupational health and safety laws and have the ability to flag safety hazards and organise an immediate walk off.

Many argue that the union's blockade of Grocon sites has nothing to do with safety. A number of conservative pundits have condemned what they perceive to be the insidious tactics of the CFMEU. Opposition leader Tony Abbott and industrial relations spokesman Eric Abetz have blamed the dispute on so-called union 'thuggery'. Apparently, the dark days of 'militants' and 'goons' have returned.

However, the safety concerns of construction workers are not trivial, and to suggest otherwise is vacuous. A detailed assessment of data compiled by Safe Work Australia clearly demonstrates that Australian construction sites are unnecessarily dangerous.

Statistically, one construction worker is killed on the job every week in Australia. Vagaries in the collection method often exclude fatalities caused by exposure to silicas, dusts and solvents. Thousands more are left permanently injured or disabled as a result of workplace incidents.

Australia's safety record compared with other developed nations is embarrassing. In Britain the fatality rate in the construction industry is half of Australia's. Moreover, in most developed nations the fatality rate is trending down. In Australia the trend is up.

Some in the industry are calling attention to this grim reality. Stephen Sasse, a former right hand man at construction giant Leighton Holdings, wonders 'Does it have to be this way? Should we just get used to the idea that it's a tough industry? Does the needle of our collective moral compass stay steady if we accept the notion that people who work in construction are more than twice as likely to be killed at work than those in other industry sectors?'

Construction workers and the CFMEU are acutely aware of the tragedies that too frequently befall their colleagues. They will not accommodate arrangements that compromise onsite safety. The status of safety representatives speaks to the fundamental rights of workers.

Indeed, the protection of workers' rights is at the heart of this dispute. The Federal Opposition has signalled its intention to rewrite parts of Australia's industrial relations system. Employer groups and business lobbyists are calling for greater 'flexibility' to be returned to the labour market. Accordingly, few political commentators are convinced by Abbott's pledge that Work Choices is 'dead and buried'.

Compounding the animosity is the matter of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). Daniel Grollo, CEO of Grocon, has twice attempted to impose non-union employment agreements on his workforce. These (failed) attempts served as the political catalyst of the Cole Royal Commission into the construction industry, in the aftermath of which the ABCC was established to police the industry.

Labor scrapped the Howard-era ABCC earlier this year, replacing it with an industry inspectorate within Fair Work Australia. However, during the ABCC's years of operation controversy was never far away. The infamous case of Ark Tribe, a construction worker and unionist prosecuted for refusing to meet with ABCC investigators, was denounced by the CFMEU as a travesty of justice.

The CFMEU was incensed by the investigatory powers afforded to the ABCC. The Australian Council of Trade Unions campaigned to have the ABCC abolished. The ABCC's unilateral ability to impose crippling fines and jail sentences upon construction workers who refused to cooperate was unprecedented. Rarely in Australia's history has there been a more egregious suspension of a group's legal and civil rights.

The Coalition has promised to reintroduce the ABCC if elected. Their enthusiasm to crush the opposition of the CFMEU is near evangelical.

This is the first round in a fierce industrial relations debate to follow. Expect neither side to back down.

Dustin HalseDustin Halse teaches politics and history at Swinburne University and is a member of Swinburne Institute for Social Research. He has worked for the ALP and has written political opinion for the The National Times, The Drum, The Conversation, New Matilda and Australian Policy Online



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Submitted comments

Well said, Dustin Halse. The dangers of Industrial workplaces can be easily forgotten by those of us lucky enough to be 'educated' into less physically dangerous occupations. My father died of work-caused silicosis when I was three, and many of my contemporaries know of parents and others injured - or worse - because of their jobs. I'd certainly back a union rather than the employers (let alone a Coalition Government) to defend workers' safety in any physically dangerous jobs.

CHRIS WATSON 11 September 2012

Once again Eureka Street proves that it more closely follows Marx then the Madonna.

Albert de Sousa 11 September 2012

Good to have a sensible perspective on this dispute. From reading the mainstream media reports one would get the impression this dispute was solely because union 'thugs' just can't control their desire to do bad things and once the firm control of conservative government is loosened they revert to their wicked thuggish ways.

chris g 11 September 2012

"When they jail a man for striking, It's a rich man's country yet" from The Ballad of 1891. Not much will have changed in 120 years if the libs are elected..

Vincenzo Vittorio 11 September 2012

Dustin Halse fails to even mention that the Supreme Court of Victoria declared that the blockading of the site by the CFMEU was illegal. An order was made out for it to be removed. However the CFMEU thumbed their noses at the court's authority. I doubt that Dustin Halse would omit such a detail if Grocon showed similar disdain for a court's decision.

MJ 11 September 2012

Work Choices is, if I remember rightly, "dead, buried, cremated".

If you can get into Eric Abetz' attic you will see the corpse laid on a laboratory bench. It's a bit muddy and scorched around the edges. It has electrodes attached to key points; the electrodes are connected by wires to the power. As soon as the coalition wins an election, Senator Abetz throws the switch and Work Choices stalks the land once more, renamed and not so much resurrected as undead.

Jim Jones 11 September 2012

I am happy to read a pro worker article in a Catholic publication and one on such an important subject as health and safety. We only get very small inputs from the union officials involved and volumes from employer and and politicians, mostly in opposition to the workers action. The right of workers to organize and the right to take strike action are fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching. In my opinion and experience workers will not take strike action unless there is a very good reason to do so. serious health and safety issues are very good reasons, especially when employers are not serious about these questions.

Kevin Vaughan 11 September 2012

Although my sympathies tend to lie on the left in these things, I believe that thisb article is rather imbalanced. As I understand it the union here is trying to impose highly-politicised union reps from outside the workforce...I can understand why the remplyer would find that unacceptable. Perhaps the union itself should be more concerned with occupational safety than power and control?

Eugene 11 September 2012

A good objective report, which will never appear in the popular mainstream media. This type of objective reporting is generally only found on community radio station 3CR. The Grocon company and its CEO Daniel Grollo should learn from the way that Bruno Grollo managed industrial relations and relationships with the union.

Mark Doyle 12 September 2012

The ACT construction industry is the most dangerous of all states with four deaths in the past seven months. I have worked on construction sites in the ACT were Safety Delegates are appointed by the construction companies and if any worker stands for election they are removed from the site before a vote can take place. In fact on one site I challanged the Safety Delagete and threatened to call for another person to be voted in (I had the numbers). The site manager was told by the delagate and I was told to keep my mouth shut or I would be removed from the site. The main stream press never seem to get it right.

Dave Cavill 15 November 2012

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