No-one is more despised by Melbourne’s property tycoons than Bill Oliver. In Victoria’s $25 billion construction game, the stubbled Scotsman can shut down rogue building sites in a flash and, builders say, hold their projects to ransom.
Each working day in bleak city, Oliver guides his 30,000-strong army of Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union workers towards the industrial promised land — a world of bolstered wages, expanded rights and far-reaching political influence. While his mainstream union rivals seem content to take the low road, Oliver and crew are always on hand to extract cash and conditions from tight-fisted employers who’d really prefer a new Lexus.
Just look at the enterprise agreement Oliver negotiated in 2007 for those working on the controversial, and still unfinished, $24 billion Wonthaggi desalination plant. It, more than any other wage deal in the last 20 years, signalled the return of militant union power to Victoria.
“Industrially, there’s no one that can match Bill,” one senior Victorian Labor MP tells The Power Index. “He’s the master of his domain and all the big decisions go through him.”
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Already dominant on the thousands of construction sites scattered across Melbourne’s sprawl, the desal deal showed how the union’s aggressive tactics could still prevail on projects of state importance, even while the broader labour movement suffered massive membership declines.
The mere mention of Bill Oliver’s name sends right-wing critics into fits of apoplexy. They contrast the “20%” lower cost of building a project like the EastLink toll road (using labour provided by Cesar Melhem’s more moderate Australian Workers Union) with the CFMEU’s strong-arm tactics on sites like the Westgate Bridge, Royal Children’s Hospital and Epping Market.
But as Oliver explains to The Power Index, he regularly cops criticism “for getting good deals for our members … but that’s our job. I am not paid by the business lobby or [Ted] Baillieu. I am paid by members of this union and it’s my job to represent their interests and get the best deal I can.”
And he denies he is personally powerful: “No! The only power I have is because of the strength of the members, the dedication of the delegates and the union as a whole. Any power I have is not about me … but about the collective strength. These may seem old fashioned concepts, but they are still true, nevertheless. That’s the whole idea of a union: strength in numbers.”
Regular sparring partner Brian Welch of the Master Builders Association begs to differ. He says under Oliver’s reign building costs in Victoria are once again 30% higher than other states, with multimillion dollar fines levelled by the ABCC failing to make an impact.
Welch — who reluctantly signed off on wage increases worth 20% over four years last June — says simply: “Ignore Oliver at your peril”.
“Does that mean that he’s powerful? Well, any building site can be affected significantly and as a consequence that makes them an influence that you would not wish to ignore,” Welch says. “Bill’s the head of that union. If he says that he’s upset with a particular builder or specialist contractor then they’re very upset because he holds their business in his hands.”
ALP affiliation has also delivered the CFMEU leverage, with Oliver throwing his weight around and often threatening to vote with the party’s rebel Right to exert preselection pressure on the dominant Socialist Left and forces pledged to Stephen Conroy and Bill Shorten.
(In 2009, in the wake of deal cut between those two outfits, Oliver was allegedly a player in a side agreement that delivered to his members, rather than his rivals, thousands of coveted jobs on the desal plant in exchange for his preselection heft. The MPs and unions involved strenuously denied any such agreement was ever reached.)
The bearded enforcer says spats with less aggressive unions like Melhem’s AWU are unavoidable, especially when they try to undercut his wages and conditions. “Unlike some other unions in the industry, it’s no secret that we get better deals,” he says. “Despite rumours that it’s our charm and good looks that win people over, the truth is that we fight hard for our members.”