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Tag Archives: unions

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In April 2001 the Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott, asked the Employment Advocate to provide a report “regarding behaviour in the building industry”. This led to the Cole Royal Commission into the building and construction industry, costing taxpayers $60 million, making it one of the most expensive in Australia’s history.

The Commission was criticised as ‘politically biased and fanatically anti-union’. The Victorian Council for Civil Liberties noted that the ‘perception of a political agenda was reinforced by the method in which the commission gathered evidence and conducted its investigations’. Of particular concern was the curtailment of the rights to legal representation and cross-examination.

Victorian Secretary of the Construction Division of the CFMEU, Martin Kingham, was charged with contempt after failing to produce requested documents detailing the names and personal details of trade unionists who participated in a union training school.

Mr Kingham maintained that he did not have any such documents and did not know if they even existed. He successfully defended the charge and costs were awarded against the Federal Director of Public Prosecutions. Outside the court, Mr Kingham said the political witch-hunt masterminded by Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott had been exposed.

“Abbott and Howard cashed up the Cole Royal Commission with $60 million of your money and mine so it could hunt down legitimate unions and workers,” Mr Kingham said.

“Abbott is so obsessed with his anti-union agenda he’ll go to any lengths to stir up trouble. His agenda is to drag people through the courts, to spend taxpayers’ money to tie up the unions in costly legal actions.”

“This bloke is a joke. He ought to be sacked or at least put on a short leash so he can do as little damage as possible to Australian workers and industry until the whole anti-union mob can be tossed out at the next election,” Mr Kingham said.

Although hundreds of allegations of criminal behaviour were referred to the Cole Royal Commission, they resulted in only one conviction — and that involved an employer.

Recommendations from the Royal Commission led to the setting up of the Australian Building and Construction Commission in 2005 to be, using Tony Abbott’s oft-repeated phrase, the “tough cop on the beat”, and it was given powers that greatly exceeded those given to any police officer in the nation.

“The ABCC can force people to answer questions in secret and to reveal documents that relate to any of its investigations. This negates a person’s right to silence. It also removes their privilege against self-incrimination, a protection that has been described by the High Court as a ”cardinal principle of our system of justice” and a ”bulwark of liberty”.

There are no limits on the type of information that can be sought by the ABCC. A person can be compelled to hand over personal phone and email records, reveal memberships of a union or political party, and report on private meetings.

This can be applied to anyone. Workers can be brought in, not because they are suspected of wrongdoing, but to report on the activities of their co-workers. Family members, including young children, can be told to reveal information about a parent in the building industry.

In case there was any doubt about the scope of these powers, the law says that the ABCC can override the protections that innocent people have under privacy law. The law may well be unique in also allowing the commission to ignore the confidentiality of cabinet documents and to demand secret national security information held by agencies such as ASIO.

The problem is not just one of extraordinary power, but also that the expected safeguards have been stripped away. Unlike other bodies that question people, the ABCC does not need a warrant from a judicial officer or other independent person. The normal grounds of reviewing its decisions have also been excluded, meaning federal law cannot be used to argue that the ABCC has breached the rules of natural justice or made a decision in bad faith.”

“The ABCC constitutes a frontal attack on basic legal and democratic rights. It can demand that a worker submit to interrogation on pain of prosecution. Its inspectors can enter building sites, interview anyone without a lawyer present, demand documents and force people to provide information relating to industrial action or internal union business. The watchdog also has the power to initiate prosecutions with fines of up to $110,000 against unions or $22,000 against individuals for taking unlawful industrial action. Disclosing the contents of an ABCC interrogation can lead to six months’ imprisonment, as can refusing to attend a hearing or answer questions.”

In August 2008, Noel Washington, a CFMEU official, was summonsed to appear before Geelong Magistrates Court for refusing to comply with summons issued by the ABCC which alleged that Washington had distributed a flyer that made “derogatory” remarks about a Bovis Lend Lease site manager. (Where was Tim Wilson when we needed him.). Six days before his trial, the DPP dropped the charges.

In December, the Fairfax press reported on the case of a Melbourne academic — which it was prevented under the ABCC’s legislation from even naming — who witnessed a scuffle while walking past a building site and found himself under interrogation by the ABCC and under threat of imprisonment if he revealed his interrogation to anyone.

In its 2008 submission to the Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations, a consortium of four unions, estimated that since 2003 more than a quarter of a billion dollars had been spent on the Cole Royal Commission and the establishment and operations of the ABCC. This is claimed to be about 10 times more than the sum received during the same period by Cancer Australia and the Australian Law Reform Commission.

The unions pointed out certain facts.

  • The number of deaths have gone up since 2005: from 3.14 per 100,000 workers in 2004 – before the ABCC started – to 4.8 per 100,000 workers in 2007 and 4.27 in 2008.
  • Threats of fines, interrogations by the ABCC and imprisonment make it harder for construction workers to take a stand over poor safety.
  • Construction workers have to be able to prove that ‘there was an imminent risk to their health and safety’ to avoid fines for stopping work over safety matters.
  • The ABCC has a track record of pursuing workers and Occupational Health and Safety Authorities for court investigations where workers take action to defend their safety.
  • The ABCC has never taken an employer to court over breaches of Occupational Health and Safety laws.
  • Research has shown that where there is a strong union presence at construction workplaces, there are fewer serious injuries and deaths.
  • Construction remains one of Australia’s top four most dangerous industries, accounting for 24% – the highest number – of work-related fatalities in 2008, according to the latest available Australian Safety & Compensation Commission report.
  • Australia’s Construction Industry Laws have been condemned six times by the International Labour Organisation.
  • The ABCC will cost Australian taxpayers $165.4 million for the period 2007-08 to 2011-12, under budget forward estimates.

Adelaide worker Ark Tribe was the first union member to be charged with failing to attend a hearing of the ABCC in 2008. Mr Tribe had been summonsed to appear at the ABCC after he walked off a construction site at Flinders University over safety concerns and if convicted, faced a maximum penalty of six months in prison.

Mr Tribe was found not guilty of the charge in November 2010 and, in 2012, the legal saga finally concluded when Commonwealth prosecutors agreed to pay $105,000 for his legal fees.

In 2010, Julia Gillard removed John Lloyd from his position as head of the ABCC. He moved on to become the director of the Work Reform and Productivity Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs, and then, in January 2013, was appointed as Victoria’s new “red tape commissioner” charged with waging a war on red tape to boost productivity and reduce costs for Victorian businesses.

The ABCC was replaced by Fair Work Building Construction in 2012. The Fair Work Act has delivered significant labour productivity growth and low wage growth, with industrial disputation far below the average level of the Howard years, but Tony Abbott has said “To let the militant unions of this city and state know that the rule of law must always prevail we will re-establish the ABCC and finish the job . . . The law must be supreme, no one is above the law.”

In the leaders’ debate in August 2013, Tony Abbott, when promoting his role in creating the Australian Building and Construction Commission, said:

“That led to the achievement of some $6 billion a year in productivity savings and in cost reductions to consumers in the commercial construction sector,” he told the Brisbane people’s forum.

This claim has been labelled mostly false by Politifact.

Abbott sourced the $6 billion figure from a 2010 report prepared by the Canberra consultancy Econtech for the Master Builders Association. Justice Murray Wilcox in 2009 described an Econtech report on construction industry productivity as “deeply flawed” and that it “ought to be totally disregarded.”

Now Econtech has produced a new report that, according to Bernard Keane, “makes that effort look like the gold standard of intellectual rigour”. He goes on to say “OK, so rubbish reports like this are common as muck, true. But this is more significant because it’s on the basis of stuff like this that the Coalition has committed to reinstitute a major attack on basic rights. And that attack will not just be on the rights of construction industry unionists, but all of us.”

Why Rupert hates unions and Gina loves 457 visas

Image from theconversation.com

Image from theconversation.com

While attempting to clean up my computer, I came across an essay that my daughter wrote earlier this year. I would like to share an excerpt from it.

Marxists see the conflict between the bourgeoisie (those that own the means of production) and the proletariat (those who sell their labour) as crucial to the maintenance of capitalism. Its function is to create an obedient, docile, uncritical workforce who will work to support the upper-class’s lifestyle and the economy. Keeping wages low, or debt pressure high, means workers will be less likely to complain or make demands. As workers struggle to provide their families with all the temptations that a capitalist society offers, they become far less likely to risk their employment, and less able to improve their situation. Even in the unlikely event that an opportunity for advancement should arise, it would often mean abandoning family and friends in order to pursue it. These factors, along with a tendency to marry within one’s own circle, combine to make movement between social classes difficult.

The current political debate surrounding the power of unions, work choices, and the importation of workers on 457 visas, could be regarded as an attempt to disempower employees thus maintaining a compliant workforce. It is difficult for an individual to risk complaining about wages or working conditions, so removing the collective voice and protection of unions means people are unlikely to make waves if, by so doing, they risk unemployment or deportation.

The process of industrialisation in the 19th century led to major changes in family life. Many things that had formerly been produced at home were now produced more cheaply in factories and families eventually became units of shared income and consumption rather than production, private and separate from the public world of business and politics. Men’s place of work was removed from the home and women’s and children’s unpaid domestic labour kept wages low allowing companies to increase profits. Women were increasingly isolated from society and children learned to obey.

Max Horkheimer regarded the family as an essential part of the social order in that it adapted every individual to conformity to authority. He argued that if men are the sole breadwinners, this ‘makes wife, sons and daughters “his”, puts their lives in large measure into his hands, and forces them to submit to his order and guidance’. Marx felt the same way stating that “Marriage is…incontestably a form of private property”. The economic dependence of the family on the father made men more conservative about radical social change which might undermine their ability to provide for their families, while the development of obedience to the authority of one’s own father was a preparation for obedience to the authority of the state and one’s employer.

During the 1960s and 70s the Western world saw a rapid period of social change in which the traditional understanding of the family began to be questioned. Feminist writers such as Christine Delphy, argued that in a capitalist society there are two modes of production: an industrial mode which is the site of capitalist exploitation; and the domestic mode which is the site of patriarchal exploitation. Marxist writers such as Juliet Mitchell examined the exploitation of workers under capitalism, pointing out that women, as they slowly entered the workforce, were doubly exploited through lower wages and unpaid labour at home. Contemporary Marxist writing argues that the family structure socialises children ‘into capitalist ideology’, which ‘prepares them to accept their place in the class structure, provides an emotionally supportive retreat for the alienated worker and so dissipates the frustration of the workplace, and impedes working class solidarity by privatising the household and generating financial commitments which discourage militant activity’ .

The role of the nuclear family in providing, perpetuating and indoctrinating a docile workforce is summarised by the following quotes. Meighan suggests that “For men, the denial of opportunities for excellence under capitalism leads…to a search for power and self-esteem in the sexual arena” Ainsley goes on to explain that “When wives play their traditional roles as takers of shit they often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration in a way which poses no challenge to the system”, and Cooper states that “The child is, in fact, primarily taught not how to survive in society, but how to submit to it”.

Changes in society have blurred these stereotypical roles. Many more women now are entering the workforce and are far less likely to marry for economic security. The availability of quality education and the explosion of information provided by the internet have made people more informed and less willing to blindly accept what they are told, and for some, it has also provided the opportunity to move from the social class into which they were born. The traditional structure of the nuclear family is also changing with much more diversity in family groups due to such factors as divorce, same sex couples, extended families, and many women choosing not to have children.

There have been other criticisms of the materialist perspective in that its focus was too limited to economic aspects, neglecting the value of and support provided in a loving intimate union, instead concentrating on the oppressive and controlling aspects of families and relationships. It tends to portray people as capitalist dupes without freedom of thought assessing them purely from a labour perspective.

While many of the bourgeoisie would still prefer, and in fact depend on, a malleable, uncomplaining workforce, family power structures are becoming less a factor in achieving this. However, our seemingly endless desire to consume and update means that economic pressures still play a large role. Even with, in many cases, both parents working, employment security usually takes precedence over job satisfaction or working conditions. Children are better informed and largely better educated and therefore have more opportunity to achieve economic independence and possibly change their social class but the rising cost of tertiary education, possible reductions in funding, and competition from overseas students limits the number who can attempt this. The burden is perhaps better shared but the outcome is in most cases the same – be happy with your lot.

Engel’s spoke of the evolution of the family as being both a catalyst for and result of the growth of capitalism. As mankind’s standard of living has improved, our desire to accumulate possessions and wealth to pass on to our families has only increased, as has our willingness to go into debt to satisfy it. Power and control is still exerted by those that own the means of production and they readily use this power to manipulate public opinion. Concentration of the media in the hands of a few like-minded individuals has led to misinformation campaigns that have amazingly ignited the workers to fight for the rights of the rich to get richer at their own expense. Family dynamics may have changed but the willingness of the proletariat to support the bourgeoisie seems alive and well.