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Construction workers organise against casualisation

Louisa L.

A tsunami of casualisation and subcontracting is crashing over our country, submerging workers' wages and conditions, and drowning the hopes of most young people for job security and the chance to ever own a home. Casualisation is no accident. Oversupply of labour power, born from inevitable capitalist boom-bust cycles, is deliberately used to entrench corporate rule.

Yet in NSW the CFMEU held back this tidal wave from the construction industry for a time.

Workers are strongest when demand for labour is high, so in 2013 the NSW CFMEU took advantage of the mining and construction boom's labour shortage to enforce security of employment in the State Code, by requiring subcontractors to pay the same rates to employees as the major contractor. They didn't sit down and chat nicely with the bosses, they fought for what they got!

The corporate ruling class was prepared to put up with it for a time, but waited till conditions suited it better.

Keeping companies in line
According to the Financial Review, the Fair Work Building and Construction Inspectorate (FWBC), established under the Gillard administration to replace the Australian Building and Construction Commission, “has developed a robustness of activity under the Coalition Government”, with over 1000 investigations in the past year, and 62 current legal cases, a large number against the CFMEU or its officials.

But there's more to it than the Coalition's  iron fist tactics against workers.“Tough Jobs, The Rise of an Australian Working Underclass”, a CFMEU published research analysis led Dr Kristy Jones, points out 3,700,000 Australians are now either unemployed, casually employed or working as 'independent' contractors.  

Corporations have a new message to workers, “You're expendable,” and Fair Work Australia (FWA)  has now blocked every NSW construction EBA coming up for renewal. None have been signed in months, halting overdue pay increases.

FWBC is organising this tactic's implementation, conjuring up rules that companies and unions have 'no right to tell another employer what to do '.

Individual companies have sometimes been prepared to back down to union militancy, but FWBC also enforces corporate unity of action. While denying that right to others, it can and does tell companies what to do. It helps organise corporations as a class, instead of separate competitors for profit.

Nothing workers have won is secure
In '07, Labor rode in to parliament on the union-led Your Rights at Work campaign, yet corporations still ran Australia as usual, driven by the capitalist imperative – make greater profits or perish.
Unlike the Coalition, which plans to reinstate the ABCC immediately (despite barely mentioning it during the actual election campaign) Labor, under both Rudd and Gillard, delayed and then watered down Howard's industrial laws instead of junking them. Current ACTU President Ged Kearney declared that not maintaining workers' mobilisation enabled this.

The results speak loudly; under “Fair” Work Australia it's OK for a company to sack half its  workers and replace them with casuals on 65 per cent of wages, or dump Australian seafarers on local routes, and replace them with deeply exploited foreign crews.

But it's illegal for workers to strike at all in some industries and legal only during 'bargaining' periods for the rest. Doing their job is also illegal for the 30 union officials denied right of entry to job sites. 28 of them are CFMEU officials.

While ever multinational corporations hold the commanding heights of  Australia's economy, they will stand above parliaments, and ensure nothing workers have won in the past is secure.

Questions and solutions
Construction is a physically tough industry which results in the death and maiming of workers. Where unions and workers are weakened, safety suffers. Deadly asbestos has already reappeared on Australian construction sites in the race for profits.  

Policy changes, laws passed by parliaments, are not solutions. They arise from the real solution, our ability to organise and fight.

We must ask the question, what do unions and working people have to do to destroy the network of laws and  punishments that trap unions and workers, denying them fundamental rights like the right to strike?

It can only come from the selfless action and sacrifice of  leaders prepared to stand up to threats of fines, jail and sale of personal assets. So much has been lost, and the cost of taking it back will be high.

Beyond that is the much bigger struggle to end capitalism's rule once and for all, to put our country genuinely under the control of the overwhelming majority of the people, making capitalist booms and busts a thing of the past.

Australia's people are crying out for leadership, for fundamental change. That requires a different kind of leadership and different kinds of organisation, that go beyond the union role of winning better conditions under imperialist rule, to overthrowing that rule.

When the tail end of this boom finally busts, there will be hell to pay. The implications of that crash will make the current casualisation tsunami look like a ripple in a toddler's wading pool. We'd better be ready.


Construction workers organise against casualisation
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