'If Provoked, We Will Strike'

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Building unions turned out in force on Wednesday last week in protest against the Victorian Government’s new regulator, the Construction Code Compliance Unit (CCCU). The new Implementation Guidelines for the Code came into effect on 1 July to force "cultural change" in the industry, in the words of its inaugural Director Nigel Hadgkiss.

Under the new measures "intimidating" union paraphernalia that can be characterised as "[implying]that union membership is anything other than a matter for individual choice" is banned; union access to worksites is restricted; enterprise agreements that restrict the hiring of casuals or part-timers are banned; and union stewards are banned from conducting site inductions.

Individual contractors will be made to police future union actions, including strikes. They are now "required to take all reasonable steps to bring any unlawful industrial action to an end, including by pursuing legal action where possible." State government building contracts will be available only to companies that comply with the Code and Guidelines.

Brian Boyd, secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council, estimated that 10,000 attended the Melbourne CBD rally, which stretched from Bourke to Victoria Streets along Russell Street.

Younger members wearing CFMEU hoodies belied the aging and declining membership of the union movement. But the statistics do not capture the many contradictions at work in the movement over the period of decline since the 1980s.

Social democratic unionism thrived on large-scale building sites but these conditions represent a declining part of the overall picture in our economy of outsourcing, enterprise-only agreements and individual contracts; placing workers on different wages and conditions so that their interests diverge.

The union movement needs to undergo massive cultural change if it is to arrest the decline in membership. It’s not just facing the casualisation of the workforce, but other factors such as the stratification of workers’ incomes, and even the racialised segmentation of parts of the most exploited parts of the workforce such as international students and temporary workers on 457 visas.

Still, unionised building workers remain some of the best paid in the country precisely because they retain the organisational advantage of working within massive, centralised methods of production — and they have a workplace culture that is prepared to use that industrial muscle on occasion.

The building unions still embody one version of a self-identifying and oppositional working-class culture. Younger faces might chant, "Olay, Olay, Olay… Union, Union, Union!" alongside, "Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win", the slogan of the old Builders Labourers Federation — but the basic idea is the same.

The unions make no secret about their willingness for confrontation. As one slogan of the CFMEU goes: "If Provoked, We Will Strike", below an image of a coiled, cobra snake.

This was the spirit in which Brian Boyd addressed the crowd on the steps of Parliament: "Baillieu has decided to stick a bread stick in an ant hill looking for trouble, and we are going to give it to him." The sentiment was echoed by representatives from the CFMEU, AMWU, ETU and the Plumbers’ Union.

However they plan to take on Baillieu over the Code, union leaders need to satisfy their members that they are doing something about the issues of the day. While at the abstract level of electoral politics many people condemn so-called "militant unions"; yet when faced with the intimate knowledge of one’s own workplace situation and the prospect of job losses, things change. With the story no longer mediated by a hostile press and political parties, we’re all militants.

The basic logic of unionism and the lived experience of work contradict the wisdom of the age, which the Baillieu government would like to believe — and that is that workers no longer want to join unions because militancy no longer speaks to them.

The Baillieu government has underestimated the oppositional culture it hopes to eradicate if it believes unionism is imposed on workers by the dodgy practices and pushiness of meddling unionists. In reality this culture is reflected, and mediated, by unions and their leaders.

It’s worth asking whether the government has started to believe its own propaganda of a labour market where "freedom of association" reigns. They’re touting a fantasy workplace, free from the tyranny of union bumper stickers, in which workers in the building trades will choose by their own volition to negotiate with large corporate building contractors on an individual rather than collective basis.

If such freedom really existed, free from the power of employers to hire and fire unionists and non-unionists alike, workers would surely choose to combine and then withdraw their labour to demand a higher price. The idea that going on strike is a cultural aberration in the labour market is wishful thinking on Baillieu’s behalf.

The experience of the building industry suggests that the ideals of free market capitalism can only be achieved in reality through ever escalating state intervention and intimidation.

Howard pursued intervention by government in labour markets in order to achieve the pretensions of economic theory. He gave the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) the power to compel witnesses to attend interrogations or face six months jail.

This meant anyone within the building trades could be jailed without even being suspected of having committed a crime. A suspected witness had no right to silence before the ABCC, as a suspected criminal does have before a court of law. That’s how you stop people joining unions.

It was Hadgkiss who as Deputy Commissioner of the ABCC in 2008 ordered the compulsory interrogation of Ark Tribe, a construction worker from South Australia, who refused to attend but was later acquitted by the Adelaide Magistrates Court.

There were five such instances of non-compliance up to April 30 2011, according to the last review of the ABCC’s compliance powers available on the website of Gillard’s new national body, the Fair Work Building Commission (FWBCC). The same document lists the examinations of 138 workers, 10 union officials and 54 managers, all of whom gave evidence under duress. The ABCC finally shut down on 1 June, but Gillard has retained more or less the same draconian powers in the FWBC including prison sentences for exercising the right to silence.

The new measures by the Victorian Government pursue the same sort of cultural change as the ABCC did. This much was made clear when the changes were announced in April. On its own it is a risky, ideologically driven strategy that asks the big construction firms to impose the measures through normal contractual obligations.

The guidelines will be inscribed in contracts between the government and building companies, including allowing the CCCU to "access sites, documents and personnel to monitor and investigate compliance". However, breaches of the law will be referred to the relevant statutory body. The most draconian powers against building workers in this respect remain in the hands of the national body, the FWBC.

Gillard knows a thing or two about the labour movement, and has retained most of Howard’s powers for intervening in unionised labour markets. How effective the Victorian guidelines can be will ultimately depend really on whether federal Labor or a future Abbott government wants to play ball.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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