CFMEU Victorian official John Setka (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

John Setka is never far from controversy. For years, the Secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union’s Victoria branch has been in and out of the courts, and the headlines. He has a history of assault charges and intimidatory behaviour. He is reportedly close to alleged Melbourne gangland personalities straight out of Underbelly. And to conservatives, his brash, plain-spoken manner and seniority in a notoriously “militant” union make him a figure of revulsion.

But this time, Setka seems to have set the hatchet on himself. Last week, The Age reported that Setka had told a meeting of the union’s national executive that anti-family violence campaigner Rosie Batty’s activist worker was leading to men having fewer rights. Meanwhile, Setka has plead guilty to harassment charges, over messages he sent to a woman. Despite facing court, the union continues to pay Setka’s salary.

The latest attacks were a bridge too far for many who might otherwise support him. ACTU secretary Sally McManus has called on Setka to apologise, while Labor leader Anthony Albanese has called for his resignation

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Violence and intimidation

The John Setka story is an angry one. He’s long had a reputation in the Australian union movement as someone who isn’t above resorting to violence and intimidation when fighting for fairer workplaces. In 2012, The Australian reported that Setka had 60 criminal charges to his name.

In 2012, Setka was found guilty of intimidation against Grocon workers at a construction site in Melbourne’s CBD. Federal Court Justice Tracey found a group of protestors, led by Setka and other union officials, hurled abuse and threats against the workers, including “scabs”, “dogs”, “rats”, “you will die”, and “I’m going to kill your family”.

Even as CFMMEU Assistant State Secretary in 2010, he was fined $6000 by the Federal Magistrates Court after engaging in “highly reprehensible behaviour” at an ANZ Docklands construction site in response to managers’ reluctance to take workplace safety seriously. He allegedly screamed at the Bovis Lendlease construction manager and general foreman, threatening that “this job’s a f–king deathtrap and a disgrace. If you kill anyone on this job, I’m going to quit my f–king job and get you”. Back in 2009, Setka faced five charges — including two of assault and two of obstructing and intimidating a Commonwealth public official from the Australian Building and Construction Commission. According to reports, Setka headbutted a building commission inspector.

This year alone, Setka has faced a significant number of criminal charges for alleged violent offences completely unrelated to his industrial activism, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. They included charges of recklessly causing injury to a woman back in July 2017. He also appeared in court in January, with Westgate Family Violence Investigations Unit listed as the prosecuting agency. A few weeks prior, The Age reported police were called to a property in Melbourne’s western suburbs on Boxing Day following reports of an argument allegedly involving Setka.

The stereotype of a “union thug”

Setka has also launched court proceedings of his own accord. In 2012, he sued then opposition leader Tony Abbott, over allegations he labelled him a “thug”. Abbott eventually won that case, and his defence hinged on proving Setka’s previous criminal history. But the stoush with Abbott points to the broader divide between Setka and the right. To conservatives, Setka is the very caricature of a “union thug”. And irrespective of whether they’re right, Setka has at time been provoked. 

In late 2015, he was pulled over by armed police in front of his family, and arrested. The charges of blackmail which arose from the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, related to allegations that he threatened to not supply concrete to construction sites run by Grocon, a company his union was in dispute with. Two years later, those charges were dropped. Setka’s children are reportedly still traumatised by the dramatic arrest to this day.

But despite his vindication, Setka continued to court controversy. In September, still raw over his treatment by the justice system, Setka tweeted a photo of his children holding up a sign telling the Australian Building and Construction Commission to “get fucked”. Setka deleted the tweet, and put it down to the emotional year he’d been through. But it still drew outrage from the right, with Scott Morrison calling it “one of the ugliest things I’ve seen”. In the same interview, Morrison made the extraordinary step of threatening to de-register the CFMMEU. In this context, it’s easy to understand some of Setka’s sense of victimhood. Morrison’s response speaks to the general hostility the Liberal Party has to the union movement.

While Setka may have a point about the conduct of the ABCC, the Royal Commission, and the fierce scrutiny placed on CFMMEU officials, his conduct makes him a poor spokesperson for the union movement.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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