Don't Step On My Blue-Collar, John


While the nation’s opinion pages are crowded with the well-intentioned musings of those supporting the rights of refugees, environmentalists, working women and just about any other minority you can think of, one group of Australians has been subjected to a set of repressive laws, with little comment. I speak of the humble building worker.

Is it that they drink Nescafé rather than latté? Is it that they read the tabloids and not the broadsheets? Or just that there is nothing particularly ‘cutting edge’ about working 12-hour days, on often dangerous sites, building our cities? Whatever building workers are copping it and the so-called ‘chattering classes’ seem to have nothing to say.

In the past 12 months the Howard Government, under the cloak of a $66 million taxpayer-funded inquiry that yielded just one prosecution of a Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) official and that was for perjury has put in place a set of laws that take from building workers their most basic rights.

Forget about building workers for a moment and ask yourself this: Would you accept a government body with the power to force you (and anyone you associate with) to tell it everything you had said in private? Would you accept a government that legislated for six-months imprisonment if you refuse to co-operate?

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

John Howard has carefully constructed a mask as the champion of the mainstream a hero of the ordinary, and a humble champion of the battlers. Over the years, in pursuit of his enemies especially the ‘politically correct’ he has cleverly characterised progressives as self-obsessed elitists, with no interest in the values or concerns of ordinary working people. I hate to say it, but perhaps he’s right.

Howard is manipulating a caricature the Left once used to vilify 19th century aristocrats as effete, feeble and ignorant of the concerns of blue-collar workers and in this way, distancing those workers from progressives who are usually thoughtful advocates of social change.

If you don’t believe me, think back to the smile Howard wore when timber workers in Tasmania greeted him with applause days before the last Federal election. (The Republican Party have won over the working class in the United States in the same manner, all of which is well outlined in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?).

Inner-urban progressives and outer-suburban construction workers enjoy little time together exchanging views on the erosion of civil rights. But perhaps they should, given that Howard’s decade of power has seen the Left divided and conquered.

In Western Australia, recently, hundreds of building workers received letters at their homes from the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). Each worker was told: ‘it appears that you have engaged in unlawful industrial action. The maximum penalty for an individual who engages in unlawful industrial action is a fine of $22,000.’

This referred to their absence from the Metro City Rail Project on the 24th of February and subsequent days after their CFMEU delegate was sacked.

The ABCC, employing dozens of lawyers and former Australian Federal Police officers, has coercive powers. It can order a building worker to attend an interview session and, according to a fact sheet available on the ABCC’s website, building workers:

may incur a penalty of imprisonment for 6 months if [they]do not:

¢ attend to answer questions, or give answers while attending;

¢ provide the required information or documents as set out by the notice; or

¢ take a required oath or affirmation.’

At these interviews building workers, by legislation, are denied the right to silence, the right not to incriminate themselves, and the right to choose their own legal representatives all fundamental protections extended to any Australian charged with criminal offences.

This is the aim of the legislation, to financially cripple active unions that seek to protect members and their families. The method is to stand over individual members with threats of imprisonment, massive fines and removal of fundamental human rights.

If you find this hard to believe, read links to the legislation for yourself at the ABCC’s website.

Would our society allow this to happen to any other group? Would any other occupational group be treated in this way?

Inasmuch as John Howard has used racism to dog whistle his way into capturing the redneck vote, he has manipulated class and snobbery to persecute construction workers. After all, his Government spent $66 million on the first Cole Royal Commission to vilify building workers and then set up the office of the ABCC that now attacks them.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently polled its readers on John Howard’s 10th anniversary and found that many thought the country had become meaner and less fair since he took power. It wasn’t news to me to find out that many were also prepared to assume his management of the economy was the ‘best thing’ he had done for Australia over the same decade.

One interpretation of this poll is that Australians are prepared to accept that market forces and the pursuit of economic growth should subsume the rights and liberties of fellow citizens.

But I don’t believe that most Australians, if they stopped to think about these issues, would accept that the rights of a section of society should be explicitly denied.

The point of this article is to remind readers that blue-collar workers still exist they are real people, with real families. Their rights matter too. It’s time the small-l liberal brigade, that champions many legitimate causes, got passionate about the crude attacks on the unfashionable blue-collar worker.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.