Contributed by Joe Montero
The Albanese government is moving to scrap the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and it’s about time this happened. The ABCC has been a political police force generated as a major attempt to deny workers in the construction industry to join and be protected by a union.
Staffed by ideologically driven functionaries, the Commission has relentlessly and pedantically pursued, interrogated, and had workers charged for interfering with their employer’s assumed right to be master. Most of the cases involved safety issues in one of the most dangerous industries. Workers routinely die and more are seriously injured every year. Nearly all cases trace back to employers cutting back on safety. The second most important issue was employer wage theft. The ABCC never pursued these matters.
But for workers on a site to even complain has been deemed unlawful by the ABCC.
This is not all. At its peak, individuals were ordered into a hearing, face accusations and denied the right to defend themselves. They had to answer questions and inform on others under threat of imprisonment. No wonder this became known as an appearance before the Star Chamber. The purpose was obviously to intimidate the victim and send out a warning to others.
It went so far that the appearance of union symbols on a site, and even the flying of the Eureka flag was made illegal, after the ABCC took the matter to the Federal Court in 2019.
Raising one’s voice in an industry where the language has always been somewhat colourful and loud is nit-picking and wrong, when a penalty is applied only to one side and the other allowed free reign. It is doubly wrong when a swear word is made far more important than a worker falling to death or being crushed because and employer didn’t want to spend on ensuring some basic safety.
No other group of Australians has been submitted to this sort of treatment.
Major construction employers are upset and claiming that the sky will fall in without this big stick. It won’t. Workers will still be turning up to do their shifts to get the money they needs to pay the bills and put food on the table. Employers will still keep on pocketing profits, even if they do go down slightly.
It began as former Prime Minister John Howard’s open attack on the existence of unions. The construction unions were targeted because they were regarded as the leading force of the movement. It was hoped that their taming would create the conditions for moving on to other unions.
Shamefully, all subsequent governments continued with Howard’s plan and the ABCC remained. The Reason? Applying the pressure was part of the bigger effort to reduce the share of national income going to the worker, which is central to the neoliberal approach to economic policy. Only by taming the unions could this be applied effectively.
The assault has had some effect. There has been some taming and a degree of loss of union presence at some worksites since the defeat of John Howard. But within this there has been push back. The construction unions are still there, and workers continue to join them.
Photo by Peter Braig
What comes next is just as important. The government is playing this low key at present. But its future legacy will be staked on this. time will tell where this leads
Abolishing the ABCC is an essential move towards the improvement of workplaces. It brings up the question of democracy at work. For a start, everyone should have the right to expect to go home and to one’s family at the end of a shift and to not accept anything that might take this away.
It doesn’t stop here. One should have a voice where oner spends most of their conscious life. Without this, it can’t be said we live in a truly democratic society. And it is only through their collective that workers have a voice. Barriers to realising this are inherently undemocratic.
any workplace can only function to its full potential through everyone working within it as a team. Yet most workplaces and the economy function as a dictatorship of the employer and employers as a class. Why? Because they are the owners. But all depend on the workplace for their livelihood. Without the worker nothing would happen. Does not this support the right to have a voice?
Australia would do well to redefine the authority within the workplace as an essential pillar of genuine democracy.