Big unions put Rudd on notice over building law
Ben Schneiders and Kirsty Needham
June 16, 2010 - 3:00AM
THE Rudd government faces a worsening election-year rift with large blue-collar unions over its handling of the building industry watchdog and the possible jailing of a building worker.
A senior union official has warned of a concerted campaign of industrial action around Australia, with certain companies likely to be singled out, if a South Australian worker now facing charges under the building laws is sent to jail.
Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union acting state secretary John Setka blasted Labor over its handling of the issue. ''The government have a lot to answer for; they've obviously bowed to big business pressure,'' he told The Age.
The Senate has thwarted the government in its attempts to abolish the former Howard government's Australian Building and Construction Commission. But unions say Labor has broken an election promise by trying to replace the watchdog with a body that would keep a version of the commission's coercive interrogative powers.
Mr Setka warned of one-day strikes, work bans and ''ongoing activities'' in the construction industry if a crucial case now before the Adelaide Magistrates Court led to the jailing of a building worker.
The worker, Ark Tribe, faces up to six months in prison after he was charged with failing to attend an interview with the watchdog over an unauthorised safety meeting in 2008. He could become the first person to be jailed under the laws.
Hundreds of supporters rallied and formed a guard of honour for Mr Tribe outside the court yesterday after an initial hearing. There were also rallies in other cities including Melbourne, where a camp was set up outside the commission's headquarters in St Kilda Road.
Mr Setka said Mr Tribe had been standing up for his rights and legitimate safety issues. He condemned the laws for making it ''virtually impossible to take industrial action'' in the building industry.
Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard said yesterday she understood community concern about Mr Tribe, but insisted the government had honoured its 2007 election commitment to abolish the ABCC by bringing a bill to Parliament.
In an interview with The Age, Ms Gillard said the commission continued to exist because of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, ''who believes in extreme industrial relations policies like WorkChoices … We are in a political position where it is impossible for us to pass the legislation.''
She said many people in the union movement understood the government's position, and those who wanted change could get it by instead putting pressure on the Liberal and National parties to change their votes in the Senate, or by voting for Labor at the next election.
But CFMEU construction division national secretary Dave Noonan said his union opposed Labor's bill because it did not go far enough and was not aimed at removing the coercive powers of a new building regulator.
''It's a position of principle and we will not change because of any election,'' he said.
Ms Gillard said the ABCC bill before Parliament had been worked through by the Labor caucus and would not be renegotiated after the election.
She said the proposed new body ''would be a tough cop on the beat and focused on those areas of the industry beset with unlawful activity.
''There are compliance problems on all sides. There are employers that engage in sham contracting, there are employers who don't pay workers properly, there are times where employers and unions don't abide by the workplace relations laws.''
Victorian branches of the CFMEU and Electrical Trades Union have threatened to direct members to vote for the Greens over the issue. And Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes said it would be ''a massive miscarriage of justice'' if Mr Tribe were jailed. ''But frankly you can't blame Labor for this,'' he said.
Opposition workplace spokesman Eric Abetz said Ms Gillard had a duty to condemn the threatened strike. He said the Cole royal commission had exposed thuggery, corruption and lawlessness, and the CFMEU was at the centre of the findings.
Commissioner John Lloyd said any strike would hurt the industry and it would investigate any action that appeared to be unlawful. ''The threats of nationwide strikes, if carried out, are of concern. Such action would adversely affect the industry's reputation and performance,'' he said.
This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/national/big-unions-put-rudd-on-notice-over-building-law-20100615-yd90.html