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Why the building industry needs a history lesson

It was a burning hot day and I thought the occasion a good one, so I called upon the men to follow me, to which they immediately consented.

That’s James Stephens’ account of a strike on April 21, 1856. That walkout of construction workers at the University of Melbourne secured the eight hour day in Australia, one of the first places it came into effect. Stephens’ words have been celebrated by the union movement ever since.

A similar memoir by a building worker would be treated not as a victory but as a confession. Stephens was, after all, leading an unauthorised strike, a serious offence under current legislation.

Here’s the Murdoch press today: “Criminal and thuggish behaviour on building sites has soared to record levels as militant unions engage in a campaign of fear and intimidation.”

Scary, innit? But then further down the same article we read that “the record 69 cases of unlawful activity” being investigated by the Australian Building and Construction Commission mostly “relate to illegal industrial action  — including the calling of unlawful strikes.”

It continues:

Among the most common forms of illegal activity are union delegates calling illegal wildcat strikes on building sites  — in some cases defying orders for workers to return to work.

The industry watchdog is also recording a growing number of cases of union delegates illegally entering building sites — breaching so-called “right of entry” provisions.

In other words, while there are some allegations of ABCC staff threatened or abused, for the most part, the “building site standover tactics” about which we’re supposed be in conniptions involve traditional trade unionism.

How would poor old James Stephens have fared? Here’s some more from his testimony as to how the eight hour day was secured:

I called a meeting during the “Smoko” time, viz., between ten and eleven o’clock in the forenoon, and reported our interviews with the employers, but that Mr Cornish [the employer], contractor for the Parliament Houses, would not give in. I then insisted that the resolution of the society should be carried by physical force if necessary.

The majority of masons employed are society men [i.e. unionists], and we can easily coerce the minority. […] I called upon the men to follow me, to which they immediately consented, when I marched them to a new building then being erected in Madeline Street, thence to Temple Court and on to the Parliament House, the men at all these works immediately dropping their tools and joining the procession.

Physical force! The coercion of the minority! Unionists illegally entering workplaces! Clap that man in irons!

In fact, it’s hard to think of a major figure from Australian trade union history who wouldn’t fall foul of the current building industry code. The campaign against conscription (both the First World War variety and during Vietnam), the struggles for equal pay for women and for Aborigines, the Green Bans against environmentally destructive construction, the union actions against sporting ties against South Africa: all of these involved officials coming onto sites where they weren’t wanted or workers ignoring orders to return to work.

But perhaps the building industry has been reformed so much that there’s no longer need for anything so old-fashioned as unions. Well, no, not so much. In the last year, 40 people were killed in construction sites. It’s more dangerous to be a building worker than a police officer — or, for that matter, an Australian soldier serving in Afghanistan.

What’s more, according to a report in 2008, the average fine imposed on an employer in the NSW construction industry after a fatal accident in which they were at fault was just under $88,000. The workers in those cases were electrocuted, killed in falls, hit with heavy equipment, burned or crushed  — and yet the punishments were utterly trivial.

Imagine if the computers in the News Ltd office electrocuted 40 columnists every year. Or that Parliament House was regularly burning and crushing 40 politicians a year. Would folk in those occupations not be, well, a little Bolshie?

But what about genuine gangsterism in the building industry? Shouldn’t that be stamped out?

The current laws hold building workers guilty of a crime unless they submit to interrogations without any laws present — even if they haven’t actually been accused of anything themselves. At the moment, an Adelaide worker called Ark Tribe faces jail for not answering questions about occupational health and safety on a Flinders University worksite. As Martin O’Malley from the CFMEU said: “You can kill people on building sites, bosses kill people left, right and centre, yet the best that can happen to them is they get fined. A worker doesn’t turn up to a hearing and they get jailed for six months.”

How do you justify an industrial code that gives workers less rights than a criminal investigation?

Of course, it’s all about politics. During the election campaign how the spinmeisters decided Kevin Rudd could win votes by picking a fight with some rough-looking construction worker and staring him down. If the PM takes some heat from his Left, well, so be it. It’s not as if the unions have any other party to support  — and the stoush will play well on The Insiders.

That’s the mess of pottage for which the most basic traditions of the labour movement are traded away. The sound you hear? Oh, that’s James Stephens, spinning in his grave.

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