Ark Tribe, a building worker in South Australia, faces six months' jail for refusing to meet a special police force set up for the construction industry and give investigators names of other union members involved in getting up a petition on his site about health and safety concerns.
Hundreds of trade unionists demonstrated when Tribe was last brought to court on 9 June. The hearing was then adjourned to 11 August, and there are likely to be further legal stages after that.
Under a special industrial relations law passed by the conservative coalition government of John Howard (1996-2007), unionists can be jailed or fined for as little as insisting on right to silence in face of the special police force set up for the industry by the law, the ABCC.
In November 2008, charges were dropped in a similar case against a construction union official in Victoria, Noel Washington. In early 2008, 107 individual workers who struck on the Perth to Mandurah railway construction site in 2005 after a workmate was sacked for raising health and safety issues were fined $3250 each (plus a “suspended” fine of a further $6000 if they took more industrial action before June 2008).
According to Bob Carnegie of Workers' Liberty Australia: “There's stronger support on the Ark Tribe case than with Noel Washington, and it could come to national strike action on this”.
Alongside Ark Tribe's individual case is running a political battle over the laws. Kevin Rudd's Labor administration took office in December 2007 with a promise to repeal Howard's laws. The Fair Work Act, a replacement for Howard's general legislation, WorkChoices, takes effect from 1 July, but unions are dissatisfied. Legislation to replace the specific construction-industry law was introduced into Parliament on 18 June, but is even less adequate.
Jeff Lawrence, secretary of the ACTU (Australian TUC), said: “The new Building Industry Inspectorate and accompanying legislation will retain much of the coercive powers... Workers who are not accused of any wrongdoing [would] still face a jial sentence of up to six months if they fail to attend an interview of answer the questions of the inspectorate”.
Greg Combet, who was ACTU secretary before Lawrence (until the end of 2007), and was notionally a union left-winger, is now a Labor government minister, and backed Rudd, though former ACTU president Jennie George, now a backbencher, backed the union line.
At the ACTU three-yearly congress on 2-6 June, Labor deputy leader Julia Gillard was heckled so much that she had to stop speaking, and the unions have promised to pursue the issue at the Australian Labor Party's two-yearly congress opening on 30 July.
Speech by Ark Tribe to the ACTU [Australian TUC] Congress 2009, 2 June 2009
“I’ve worked in the building and construction industry for most of the last 23 years. I’m a rigger in South Australia for a structural steel company. I’m not a union official, organiser, delegate, shop steward whatever. I’m just a rank and file union member as I have been for most of my working life.
“I’d like to ask a question or two.Why? Why am I here? Why am I up here in front of all of you people in this alien environment for me.
“Why is it that in seven days time I could be imprisoned for six months? “Why can’t I, like any other Australian taxpayer, be able to protest against working in an unsafe environment without fear of retribution. Why is it that I, unlike any other Australian taxpayer, can be ordered to attend a secret interrogation during which no legal counsel can be consulted?
“Why do I face the threat of imprisonment because I refuse to dob in my workmates? Why can’t I, like any other Australian, have the right to remain silent? Why, after inquiries into the corruption and standover tactics of the Australian building and construction industry, is it that the federal government can set up its own crew of intimidating standover men?
“Why has the present government promised to change these unfair laws against Australian construction workers, and yet they still exist? So once again, I ask why? Why am I here?
“I’ll tell you why I’m here. I’m here because like any other proud Australian, I believe that when injustice becomes law, then resistance becomes duty. I’d just like to say thanks to all my brothers and sisters in the Australian union movement, especially the CFMEU [the main construction and mining union]”.
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