The ALP (aka the anti-labour party) agrees with the Coalition that the construction industry still needs its very own ‘Stasi’ to stamp out intimidation on building sites.

Viewed historically, such intimidation takes three forms: 1) employers bully workers into violating safety regulations and into working for less than the award; 2) workers pressure employers to stop breaking the law; 3) employers intimidate each other through price-fixing and collusive tendering.

The unions claim that what their enemies call intimidation is no more than an effort to enforce laws about safety and to stop contractors shooting through without paying their workers. Indeed, the officials argue, if the ‘Stasi’ prevented those crimes, then the union intimidation would disappear.

If history is any guide, the chance of achieving those outcomes is zero. The employers fought safety regulations every step of the way. For instance, builders and contractors in South Australia initiated their trade association to oppose an Employer’s Liability Bill in 1884. Their Victorian counterparts blocked laws to appoint State inspectors of scaffolding into the 1930s.

Labourers who refused to work on scaffolds that violated the regulations got the sack until activism on sites improved matters. Today, refusing to start until conditions comply with the law risks a criminal charge.

The construction unions embarrassed Commissioner Cole into excusing his neglect of safety violations. He claimed that that aspect had been widely investigated elsewhere. On that basis, intimidation by unions needed no inquiry at all, given the run of royal commissions into their behaviour across the previous 30 years.

On top of the perennial intimidation by dismissal for sticking up for one’s right not to be manslaughtered, the ‘Stasi’ are now there to intimidate workers who cooperate to avoid putting their lives and limbs at risk. In the past, the employers did a larger share of their own intimidation. Just before Christmas 1972, a Sydney contractor wrote the following to the then NSW BLF secretary, Jack Mundey:

Dear Sir,

I wish to apologise to Mr Vince Ashton, organiser of the Builders’ Laborers’ Union, for an incident which occurred on Lipman’s job at Sutherland St., Cremorne.

Mr Ashton had checked on a labourer’s financial position.

I asked Mr Ashton if he was married and did he have any children? He replied, yes. I then told him that he had better watch out for his wife and children.

I wish to sincerely apologise to Mr Ashton for these threatening remarks.

Yours sincerely, etc

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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