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Construction giants caught in their own web

Contributed

Resurrecting the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) has long been a dream of construction corporations and the corporate ruling class, even though Labor’s replacement, the Fair Work Building and Construction, already had its own anti-worker, anti-CFMEU teeth. Now the ABCC and its surrounding laws are back.

Many Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) have expired or are about to, leaving some workers without a pay rise for over 12 months. The ABCC’s National Building Code lists things like site allowances and over award payments as non-compliant. It is backdated to cover agreements registered already, as well as new agreements. 

Government and the ABCC are pressuring companies, saying they can tender for government jobs – an expensive process - but if they aren’t code compliant, no tender will be awarded. Every one of a company’s sites, and all their sub-contractors, have to be compliant, not just the project being tendered for. Even non-compliant EBAs already registered, around 2,300 nationwide, will have to be varied or terminated.  

ABCC chief, Nigel Hadgkiss will decide if they are code compliant. He released guidelines, said he didn’t want to read long documents, and it was up to companies to submit compliant agreements. 

Boom causing problems for big corporations
Agreements can’t be varied without union agreement. Some construction workers want their union to tell the government that they won’t vary, and that every tier one corporation will be locked out of government contracts. The very biggest of these, CIMIC, Lendlease, Mirvac and Fletcher Building are Business Council of Australia members. This would only leave small companies able to tender. 

In boom areas, especially Sydney and Melbourne, time frames for completion of buildings haven’t changed, and developers are unlikely to give extensions if workers strike.

Corporations are complaining to the CFMEU, which in turn says the Master Builders Association (MBA), dominated by the biggest construction companies, created the problem by demanding a crackdown on unions. The CFMEU says the MBA needs to fix it. An important split in the MBA has widened.

Big construction firm Probuild told the Senate Estimates Committee the situation is unworkable, and will cause trouble in a currently harmonious industry. No wonder. It has twelve major constructions in four states, including Australia’s tallest residential towers under construction in Sydney for Chinese developer Greenland, due for completion in 2019, and the Aurora Melbourne Central. Most of the projects are in Sydney or Melbourne where industrial action is most likely. Lendlease is in a similar situation, and also complained to the federal government. 

Michaelia Cash was scathing. She represents the view of the whole corporate ruling class, that worker’s powers to make gains or resist attacks have to be crushed. She’d turned herself inside out serving corporations by re-establishing the ABCC, only to have a section of them whinge. Cash labelled them ‘part of a cartel we have to smash’. 

Mirvac is in a different situation, as a developer and construction company combined, owning huge swathes of the Sydney residential market.

Educating workers about cutthroat history
The union has won some concessions. Agreements must meet the Australian Standards, delayed payments which often keep workers or subbies waiting must be paid every month, and corporations must advertise locally for workers, but there are no penalties if companies don’t comply. The CFMEU can now challenge ABCC rulings in court, but many workers reckon only the solicitors win from this. 

In a sign that builders still have underlying unity, despite the MBA ructions, none are sending agreement lodgements to the CFMEU for ratification. It’s likely corporations plan to go directly to workers, cut the union out and offer the same wages and conditions. This may appeal to those younger workers, and even some union organisers, who don’t understand the bosses’ cutthroat industrial history, and think current high pay and conditions dropped from the sky.

The chance of a working class victory in court depends on the strength of united worker action. In 1983, Norm Gallagher, Builders Labourers Federation General Secretary and one of our party’s Vice Chairpersons, was gaoled for telling the truth, by an ancient contempt law, ‘Scandalising the Court’. Back then, unions were stronger, but the principal remains. Unity in action is still workers’ greatest power.

On being released from gaol after a previous contempt charge, Gallagher told one television channel: ‘the rank and file of the union ... has shown such fine support of the officials of the union and I believe that by their actions in demonstrating in walking off jobs ... I believe that has been the main reason for the court changing its mind.’ He’d nailed it, and frightened the construction bosses and the court that too much education of workers was happening under his leadership.

But it was another statement, a pointless boast, that if he had been fined the union would pay it for him, that the court used to justify the jail sentence. 

The danger of overestimating strength
There are still new and mid generation building workers who are prepared to go to gaol rather than answer an ABCC summons, but they’ve lost some of the illusions of the past. 

They recognise there is no revolutionary situation, and that even if there were, trade unions at their best simply serve workers’ interests by uniting them and teaching them to fight effectively, but don’t challenge capitalism itself. 

A veteran BLF activist told Vanguard, a failing of that inspirational fighting union was that its leaders overestimated the BLF’s power, behaving as if the union had the ability to take on the ruling class as a whole. He said the BLF also failed to take evasive action when ‘the tsunami was coming towards it’. 

Too much was decided at the centre, and too little by the rank and file. Arrogance sometimes affected decision-making, and changed circumstances weren’t taken into account. Close allies, including the much loved and admired John Cummins from Victoria, were abused and cast aside if they warned of this or dared to disagree with decisions from above. 

Cummins’ tactics were to be proven right, helping resurrect the best ideals and actions of the BLF within the CFMEU.

Very different dangers face workers and their trade unions today. Too much energy has been co-opted into parliamentary campaigning, copied holus bolus from Obama’s first successful election campaign. In the USA, it fostered illusions that Obama’s election would improve the lives of the people, change foreign policy from aggression to peace making, and close torture camps like Guantanamo Bay.

Little changed except tactics. The ruling class still ruled, and crushed people’s hopes.

Given the contempt with which politicians are held in Australia, this is the worst of all possible times to head down this path. Now’s the time to unite the working class and its allies to organise to fight for an independent working class agenda going far beyond targeted-seats’ campaigns. Parliament isn’t the answer. Nor is the ALP. They’re part of the problem, but their ability to deceive people that Australia is truly democratic is wearing dangerously thin. 

The national CFMEU strike and rally in March signalled the way forward. United struggle, not isolated campaigning encouraging individuals to vote out the Coalition, will see concrete results. It’s not if you don’t campaign you lose. The key words are unite and fight.

 

Construction giants caught in their own web
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