On 16 October, Australian trade union and community activist Bob Carnegie is due to appear in court again.
Construction company Abigroup, part of the Lend Lease empire, is suing him and two unions, the CFMEU and the ETU, for a total of $15 million damages over the strike in August-October 2012 at the Queensland Children’s Hospital (QCH) construction site.
Bob Carnegie, a member of Workers’ Liberty Australia, got involved in the QCH dispute, despite not working on the site, because court orders had been served on, and obeyed by, all the union officials, including the site delegate, to stay away from the site.
The QCH workers, still in dispute but deprived of leaders or organisers, asked Bob to come and help. He came and helped them organise a regular community protest at the site, regular dispute meetings with democratic discussion, dispute bulletins, delegations to other workplaces, and a hardship fund.
The workers won their demand for a union-negotiated site agreement including a clause with guarantees for workers employed by subcontractors rather than the main contractor. Days later, Abigroup initiated charges against Bob Carnegie of contempt of court. They said he had disobeyed court orders which instructed him, too, to stay away from the site.
There was a campaign by trade unionists and socialists to defend Bob Carnegie, which included strikes at all the big construction sites in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney on 11-13 February (when the case came to court) and strikes and a demonstration in Brisbane on 18 August (when the verdict was announced). Finally Bob was acquitted on the grounds that the terms of the court orders had been unclear.
But the civil case for damages remains.
Suppose you see striking workers on a picket line. You ask about the issues; they convince you of their case; and so you stay, and come back again on other days, to support them.
You have signed no contract with the boss against whom the dispute is conducted. You have no obligation to him. And yet he can sue you for the losses he suffers through the dispute?
Could he also sue you if you just gave money to the hardship fund for the dispute? Or sent a message of support?
If you joined a demonstration against the invasion of Iraq, should the police be able to sue you for the cost of the measures they took? Or shopkeepers in the area of the demonstration, if they lost business? Or the government, if it had been forced not to join the invasion and thus suffered the cost of cancelled military preparations?
To defend Bob Carnegie on this issue is to defend the basic right to protest. Of course Abigroup does not think it can get millions of dollars in damages from Bob Carnegie, a seafarer by trade who has also worked in construction and has no more economic resources than the average worker. It is bringing the case in order to intimidate others.
There will be a mediation meeting between the unions’ lawyers and Abigroup’s on 8 October, and it is conceivable that a deal will be struck there so that the case does not go to court. For now, however, we must assume that the case will go to court and Abigroup’s lawyers will do all they can to bankrupt Bob Carnegie and intimidate all future supporters of protest.