Noel Washington, Senior Vice-President in Victoria of Australia’s big Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union (CFMEU) faces six months prison for refusing to talk to industrial police about what happened at a union meeting outside work hours.
His court date will be announced in a preliminary hearing on 12 September 2008. Under legislation passed by the conservative coalition government of John Howard which was in office in Australia until last year, the ABCC, a special police force for the construction industry, has powers in industrial matters exceeding what the ordinary police have over the most horrible crimes. Workers or union officials summoned to answer questions by the ABCC have no right to silence, no right to talk to anyone else about what questions they have been asked or what answers they have given, no right to be assisted by the lawyer of their choice.
Kevin Rudd’s new Labor government has promised to abolish the ABCC — but only after 2010, and only while replacing it with a new ABCC-lite.
On 30 July, the Victoria Trades Hall Council (VTHC) — the peak trade union body in the state — called a conference of two thousand shop stewards to discuss the threats to Noel Washington.
“Here in Victoria, we are at the pointy end of the struggle against the ABCC” said VTHC secretary Bryan Boyd. Promises of support came from ACTU (Australian TUC) secretary Jeff Lawrence and leaders of other unions such as teachers and nurses. Paul Howes, national secretary of the AWU, said that construction unions had never before been as united as they are now in their opposition to the ABCC and the threats to jail Noel Washington. This is significant given the long history of hostile relations between the (very right-wing) AWU and the (leftish) CFMEU.
Noel spoke with some passion about seeing the effects on union members and their families being dragged before the commission for simply “standing up for their mates”. In one case a 19 year old apprentice was subjected to ABCC interrogation for daring to report an electrical safety hazard to Work Safe and the union. Noel himself was called in by the ABCC for speaking to a meeting of CFMEU members in their own time and off the employers’ premises. For refusing to testify, he faces six months in jail.
Many speakers pointed out that Labor was elected on the back of hostility to Howard’s WorkChoices laws, yet little has changed. The ABCC boasts that it has increased their activity by 60% since Labor was elected.
The meeting had a militant feeling, but was kept under tight control by the union leaderships. Two motions were passed, almost unanimously. The first called for the immediate abolition of the ABCC, cancellation of the National Code and Implementation Guidelines (which the government can do without legislation), supporting Noel Washington, and calling for mass rallies on the day of his court case. The second authorised a general campaign including industrial action against the remains of all Howard’s IR laws.
A number of amendments were accepted for the first motion – one about international solidarity, others to tighten up the wording. However, two amendments moved by supporters of Solidarity (a new regroupment in Australia of some of the groups linked to the SWP-UK) — for 24 hour strikes when the court case happens and if Washington is jailed — were ruled out by VTHC President Anne Taylor as opposed to the main thrust of the motion.
The officials probably judged that the motions were likely to be passed if allowed to be put forward, given the militant feeling and large number of experienced activists from the construction industry present. This sort of bureaucratic manoeuvring does the union movement no credit at all — it reminds me of going to such VTHC delegates’ meetings 30 years ago, when they were dominated by the right wing under the iron fist of Secretary Ken Stone.
Tim Gooden, Geelong TLC secretary and a member of the DSP (Castroites), made a reasoned case against the amendments, arguing that a 24 hour strike will mean construction (and other) workers staying home for the day, and it is better to call a mass rally in work time which workers will attend by walking off the sites and out of the factories.
However, the final resolutions contained no promise of specific actions if Noel Washington is jailed. And when the very first court session on Noel Washington’s case took place on 8 August, the only public protests in Australia were apparently those organised by the Worklife campaign group in Brisbane.
Worklife, with some support from local CFMEU officials, organised an early-morning street protest outside Kevin Rudd’s electorate office (which stands on a busy commuter route), and a protest stall with petition-signing at the West End Markets the next day. It has also organised a showing of the film “Constructing Fear”, made with CFMEU sponsorship to set out the facts about the ABCC.
But, as one of the protesters outside Rudd’s office commented, we need a great deal more public agitation to make Noel Washington’s case an issue which arouses the whole working class. WorkChoices, Howard’s main anti-union legislation, is well-known because of a big ACTU campaign against it. But the ACTU campaign made little mention of the special threat to construction workers through the ABCC. Probably many commuters seeing protesters with “Abolish the ABCC” placards were simply puzzled, or thought we were for some strange reason demanding abolition of the ABC (Australian equivalent of the BBC).