Australasian Spartacist No. 228
Heydon's Union-Busting Royal Commission
Hands Off the CFMEU! Drop All Charges!
The following is a reprint of a Spartacist League leaflet reissued on 18 February.
On Sunday, 6 December, Victorian state secretary of the CFMEU construction union, John Setka, and his deputy, Shaun Reardon, were arrested and charged with “blackmail” in relation to an industrial dispute with the union-busting Grocon building empire in 2012 (see “For Class Struggle to Defeat Grocon/Baillieu Union Busting!” Australasian Spartacist No. 217, Spring 2012). The state witch-hunters allege that the union officials threatened to escalate a black ban against Boral Concrete, unless the company blocked supplies to Grocon. When Setka and Reardon fronted the Melbourne magistrates court two days after their arrests, thousands of construction workers downed tools and converged on the court in a defiant show of protest. Now on bail until the next court hearing in March, both men face a possible 15-year jail sentence. These outrageous charges are the product of a year-long fishing expedition by the police taskforce Heracles, attached to the witch-hunting royal commission into union “corruption” led by Dyson Heydon and established by the conservative Liberal/National coalition government.
Since the arrests, the royal commission has released its findings. After two years trawling through union affairs this star chamber predictably delivered on its brief. Declaring “widespread” corruption in the union movement it recommended a slew of new repressive measures to further shackle the unions, particularly targeting the CFMEU. These measures prepare the ground for reconstituting the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), which had been rebranded the Fair Work Building Commission by the Rudd/Gillard ALP government.
This state vendetta against construction unionists has seen cop raids on CFMEU headquarters in Canberra and Brisbane last year. As of November, over 60 CFMEU officials were facing charges. In December, there were 251 construction workers facing up to $10,000 fines for “illegal” industrial action in Western Australia. Last year alone the CFMEU paid $12.55 million in legal settlements to Grocon and Boral coming off the 2012 dispute. These measures are an attempt to bankrupt the union and criminalise militant unionism in order to more easily destroy the conditions of all workers in the interests of the profit-hungry bosses. Today the CFMEU tops complain that the cops are being misused to arrest officials and search union offices. Crap! This is exactly what they are paid to do. They form part of the same repressive state machinery as the military, prisons and courts whose purpose is to defend bourgeois rule and profits against the struggles of the working class and oppressed.
We say: Enough is enough! Drop the charges against all union officials! Hands off the CFMEU! To hell with the findings of the witch-hunting royal commission! Down with the anti-union laws! Cops, courts, commissions out of union affairs! Whatever underhanded acts may have been committed by some union officials, such as the bosses’ stooge Kathy Jackson, the working class must clean its own house!
Make the Unions Weapons of Struggle
For almost a decade workers around the world have been forced to pay for the latest economic crisis wrought by the capitalists’ irrational profit system. In Australia, union membership has plummeted to an all-time low as union leaders have stood idle in the face of the privatisation and closures of previously highly-unionised workplaces and industries.
For the CFMEU, the decision to call off the picket of Grocon’s huge Emporium site in 2012 was a watershed. The union was on the brink of spiking an attempt by Grocon to enforce non-union sites in the heart of heavily-unionised Melbourne. Mass pickets had shut the site tight, pushed back cop attacks and inspired solidarity from workers elsewhere. But in response to violence-baiting by the bosses’ media and their Labor “mates” the CFMEU officials directed the pickets come down so that the dispute could “run its course” in the bosses’ courts. Since then Grocon has been able to expand their anti-union operation, while millions of dollars of members’ hard-earned union dues have been handed over in fines. Now union leaders face massive jail time.
A similar thing happened to the maritime union in 1998 in the face of a nation-wide union-busting attempt by Patrick Stevedores. While there was a serious show of union power, including mass pickets that shut down the scab Melbourne dock and faced off a planned massive cop attack, union officials snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by demobilising the struggle and preaching reliance on the capitalist courts. The result? Almost half the workforce sacked and heavy casualisation. Last year the same strategy of appealing to the bosses’ courts instead of organising a class-struggle fight resulted in some 60 jobs going at Hutchison Ports Australia in Sydney and Brisbane through “voluntary redundancies” (for analysis on the union tops’ strategy see “Hutchison Ports Struggle Buried in Bosses’ Courts,” ASp No. 227, Spring 2015).
Unionists need to face the facts: play by the bosses’ rules and you lose. In order to defend themselves unions are going to have to start playing hardball, just as they did in the battles that forged the unions in the first place. This means no more bowing to the bosses’ courts. Union struggles that end up in Fair Work Commission (FWC) arbitration die there. FWC is no “independent umpire.” It is another bosses’ court that upholds rules written by the bosses’ parliament and enforced by the bosses’ boys in blue.
Capitalist governments everywhere enact laws to stop the working class doing what is necessary to defend itself. But what they can get away with is determined by the balance of class forces and the level of social and working-class struggle. In 1969 when Victorian tramways union leader Clarrie O’Shea was jailed for refusing to pay fines imposed for defying anti-strike laws, mass strike action not only won his release but turned the anti-union penal powers into a dead letter for more than a decade. To beat back these attacks and defend and extend union power it is desperately necessary to fight! What’s needed are strikes backed by mass pickets, black bans and occupations in defiance of the bosses’ anti-union laws, court injunctions, charges and penalties.
Break With Laborism! For a Class-Struggle Workers Party!
A consistent class-struggle fight requires breaking from the politics of the nationalist, union-busting Labor Party. Much of the CFMEU is a constituent component of the ALP, regularly getting out the vote in elections and paying big dollars in donations. This did not stop the last federal Labor government overseeing fines of more than $2.5 million against Victorian building unions in one year alone. In 2012 current federal ALP Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, accused CFMEU picketers at Grocon of “intimidation, violence and thuggery.” The very day after Setka and Reardon’s arrest, Shorten announced a policy for more fines to penalise union officials. As part of a state vendetta against construction workers, in the mid 1980s the Hawke/Keating federal Labor government, in cahoots with the Victorian state ALP government, smashed the militant Builders Labourers Federation. Whichever party sits on the government benches in Canberra, they do the bidding of the capitalist rulers who own the banks, industries and mines. The ALP is a bourgeois workers party, based on the unions but with a thoroughly pro-capitalist program and leadership. We need a struggle within the unions to replace the Laborite misleaders with a class-struggle leadership committed to fighting for complete independence from the capitalist state.
The union bureaucracy is fundamentally loyal to the “national” interest. But the national interest is in fact the bosses’ interest and the bosses’ interest is to maximise profit and defend their class rule. There can be no common cause between the working class, who survive by selling their labour power, and the capitalists, whose wealth and power is derived from the exploitation of this labour. The union tops’ commitment to the “national” interest is sharply expressed through their poisonous campaign against foreign products and workers. While the union tops find energy and purpose decrying guest workers and “cheap labour” abroad, they have simultaneously allowed the proliferation of parasitic, non-union labour hire companies, resulting in a growing pool of cheap labour right here at home! Scapegoating overseas workers also dovetails with the government campaign to scapegoat Muslims and refugees and is an insult to the heavily-immigrant CFMEU membership.
Workers have no interests separate and apart from their international class brothers and sisters who in every capitalist country face similar attacks. Class struggle must be international. In pushing a chauvinist, protectionist campaign the union tops are spitting on the prouder actions of building workers. In 1996 building workers came to the defence of Aboriginal protesters against a cop assault in Canberra that led to the storming of federal parliament. In 2013 the CFMEU defended a group of highly exploited Korean 457 Visa guest workers in Canberra. A class-struggle leadership would wage an implacable struggle to organise all the unorganised including guest workers with full union wages, conditions and responsibilities. This requires a stand against deportations and for full citizenship rights for all who have made it here.
For years capitalist governments worldwide have decreed a “war on terror,” an all-purpose rationale to justify imperialist war abroad while shredding the democratic rights of all at home. The Muslim minority may be the immediate target of the “anti-terror” measures but the ultimate target is the unionised working class as a whole. The ABCC’s extraordinary powers were modelled on the “anti-terror” laws. The scapegoating of minorities has fuelled the growth of fascist bands that, left untouched, pose a deadly danger to the organised working class. To defend itself, the working class must reject the bosses’ racist divide-and-rule measures and defend all victims of capitalist tyranny, from Aborigines to single mothers to Muslims and refugees. The CFMEU catchcry “Touch One, Touch All” is more than a slogan. It should be the cornerstone of a class-struggle fight that recognises that ultimately the only way that workers can put an end to the miseries of capitalism is through workers revolution. For this to become a reality the multiracial proletariat need the leadership of an internationalist, Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party committed to smashing this system of wage slavery and establishing the rule of workers councils on the road to a socialist future.