Construction workers in Western Australia are in the front line of a vicious attack under the Coalition government's anti-union laws. This Tuesday, one hundred and seven workers will be in court where they face ruinous fines of up to AU$28,600. The fines are for a strike which was called to protect safety at work and to defend a sacked union representative.
The workers, members of the CFMEU, have been employed on the construction of the Perth-Mandurah rail link. This AU$1.6 billion project is being undertaken by the Leighton Kumagai company and has been dogged by mismanagement, poor planning and delays. For the workers, this has meant extremely long hours, difficult working conditions and worsening safety standards.
With safety going backwards the union site representative, Peter Ballard, complained to the Leighton management. Their response was to sack him. With no other choice 403 workers went on strike last February to defend the agreed safety standards and get Ballard reinstated. The return to work was followed by a confidential settlement between the company and Ballard for his unfair dismissal. On their return to work the strikers faced a new series of legal attacks against them and the union.
Since taking control of both Parliament and the Senate in last year's election the Howard government has been quick to push through anti-union laws. These laws allow employers to impose "agreements" (AWAs) that strip away previously protected working conditions such working hours, penalty rates, shift allowances and rest breaks.
Construction industry unions have been singled out for particular attention because they are amongst the most well-organised and militant. Howard created the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) as a means of breaking the power of the construction unions. The ABCC is the government's attack dog and is charged with enforcing the anti-union laws.
In the aftermath of the strike two separate legal attacks were launched. The first was brought in the courts by Leighton against the CFMEU and is seeking AU$13 million in damages. The second was the ABCC's investigation and prosecution of the individual strikers - the largest prosecution conducted so far.
For months following the strike the workers were harassed and interrogated by the ABCC investigators and in July one hundred and seven received writs. If the ABCC succeeds in its prosecutions of the 107 then it will mean the ruinous fines and possibly the jailing of workers simply for striking.
The union movement is built on the principle of "touch one, touch all". The attack on the 107 will, if successful, mean attacks on the remaining strikers and open the door to crippling individual damages claims from Leighton. Workers across the industry will find their conditions attacked in the same way. This is why the case of the 107 is so important.
The CFMEU has initiated a national "community and union defence fund" for the 107 but has not called for "action" to defend them. Paying the fines is not an option for most of the workers and a union defence fund that pays the fines will leave the next victims of the ABCC undefended. The anti-union laws and IR "reforms" are detested by millions of workers. The ACTU should build a massive national campaign in defence of the 107 and against the IR reforms.
Support the 107 website http://www.cfmeuwa.com/cfmeuwa/supportthe107
Send a message of support to the workers at the Rights at Work website now: www.rightsatwork.com.au/campaigns/supportthe107
Planned rallies in support of the 107:
Tuesday August 29:
- Sydney: 10am, Trades Hall, 377 Sussex Street
- Melbourne: 12 noon Federal Court, corner of Latrobe and William Streets,Melbourne CBD
- Adelaide: 12 noon Rally in Victoria Square
- Wollongong: 12 noon, Corner of Kembla and Crown Streets
- Newcastle: 1pm, Civic Park, King Street
- Perth: 8.30am. Assemble at the Esplanade (cnr Barrack St), walking to the Perth Concert Hall on St Georges Terrace