Grocon has met strong opposition as it tries to rid its building sites of effective union organisation. Since August 22, large daily demonstrations of hundreds or thousands of workers have been closing Grocon’s Myer Emporium site in Melbourne’s CBD.
From 28 August onwards, huge numbers of police – over 500 at times – wielding batons and capsicum spray and mounting horse charges, tried to break the protest and bring in scab labour.
The Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) suspended its protest and blockade on September 6 to allow talks to resume. The deal has been brokered by the nationally legislated arbitrator, Fair Work Australia.
This is an uneasy and contested pause, however, rather than necessarily an end to the dispute. The company is still planning to sue the union for up to $5 million in damages; the union reserves its right to reimpose blockades.
At the heart of the dispute is Grocon’s attempt to determine who will be the shop stewards and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) representatives on site. The tradition the CFMEU and other unions have developed is that they nominate experienced stewards and OHS reps at the start of a big job. After the company has recognised these reps, the union holds an election where the union nominees are almost universally elected.
While socialists have some reason for concern that this approach can entrench the hold of the union leaders over the rank and file structures, these procedures have been very important for organising in this transient, sub-contracted and very dangerous industry. Often the reps are the only workers who will actually be on the site for the whole length of the project. This approach stops the bosses from blacklisting the known militants and ensuring that they have compliant reps on site.
Grocon has tried to turn the process on its head – with the company nominating the reps and getting the workforce to select them. They have also taken to employing thugs on site to try and intimidate workers to leave the union.
The support that the protest has received from across the CFMEU membership and that of other construction unions is an inspiration for solidarity and militant organisation. This comes after a long period where these very well organised unions have been kept on the back foot by repressive legislation.
For more information, there are some reasonable articles at the Green Left site http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/52191 and at the CFMEU http://vic.cfmeu.asn.au/campaigns/grocon-why-we-must-fight.