Thursday, December 20, 2007

Mandurah workers fined for strike

On November 24, 2007, the Australian people threw out the rotten anti-worker Howard Government.

A major factor in Howard’s loss was the Your Rights at Work Campaign which became deeply embedded in working class communities and marginal electorates.

But despite Howard replacement Brendan Nelson declaring, as the new Leader of the Opposition, that the anti-union “Work Choices” legislation was now dead, it still lives and breathes as legislation.

And so does its soul mate in the construction industry, the fascist-like Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and its so-called building industry Code of Conduct.

The construction industry historically, has been one of the toughest and most dangerous industries in the country. On average, one worker a week is killed in this industry somewhere in Australia.

Construction workers rely on their own elected shop stewards and Occupational Health and Safety reps to ensure that worksite safety standards are met. The bosses, on the other hand, are always looking to cut corners, to take risks with workers’ safety in order to meet job deadlines and ensure maximum profits.

On February 24, 2006, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) shop steward on the Western Australian Mandurah rail project, Peter Ballard, was sacked.

Leighton Kumagai, the company building the rail line, alleged that it was falling behind schedule because of industrial activity, and thought it could intimidate the workers into copping poor conditions by sacking their shop steward.

But Leighton’s actions had the opposite effect. Despite the CFMEU advising against further strike action, given the punitive powers of the new laws introduced by Howard, the Mandurah workers stood by their mate and voted to strike.

In March, Ballard won a case against Leighton’s for unlawful dismissal, donating all of the proceeds from the case to the Make a Wish Foundation which supports children with cancer (see here).

The workers were entitled to think that that was the end of the matter, but they had not reckoned on the vindictiveness of Howard’s ABCC.

Howard set up the ABCC after first demonizing the unions with allegations of corruption and violence, which were subsequently investigated by the Cole Inquiry throughout 2001. Cole was unable to find any evidence to warrant the laying of charges against any union official. But the mud stuck, and like some cinematic monster emerging from the slime came the ABCC.

The ABCC’s unwritten mandate has been to bust the building unions. It was a change of direction for Howard, who had unsuccessfully tried using scabs protected by masked goons and Dobermann dogs to bust the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).

So, on July 5, 2006, long after the dust had settled on the Mandurah dispute, the ABCC waded in with writs against 107 workers on the site.

Each worker individually was faced with fines of up to $28,600 for taking “illegal” industrial action.

Support for the 107 blossomed around the nation with rallies and demonstrations, and later, public showings of the film “Constructing Fear”, in which the 107 - and other similarly victimized workers – told of the ABCC’s standover tactics and threats.

Leightons continued to make things hard for workers on the site. Mal Peters, (with wife Bernadette, below left) the OHS rep was sacked on August 8 after returning from a national speakers tour undertaken during two weeks of annual leave. He spoke of workers who had been “severely shafted, sent to other areas and victimized because they opened their mouths” on health and safety issues.

Finally, on December 20, 2007, 91 of the original 107 workers were fined up to $10,000 each for their “illegal” strike.

Fully one month after Howard was trashed by the people in the election, his laws and his legacy have resulted in working people being fined massive amounts of money for standing by a mate and for defending their entitlement to a safe working environment.

The new Rudd labor Government has signaled the end of “Work Choices”, but is in no great hurry to act on the clear mandate to do so given by the people through the ballot box.

Shamefully, it has pledged to allow the ABCC to continue Howard’s dirty work until 2010.

There is now clearly a case for making the ABCC a target of a revitalized YR@W.

The post below shows, with great clarity, why this is not just a matter for workers in the building and construction industry.

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