CFMEU construction protests
Clashes outside CFMMEU headquarters in Melbourne (Image: AAP/James Ross)

After an anti-vaccine mandate protest that turned violent outside the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union offices in Melbourne yesterday, leaders were quick to blame extreme fringes for the violence and agitation.

“This crowd was heavily infiltrated by neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremist groups and it is clear that a minority of those who participated were actual union members,” the CFMMEU said in a statement.  

This statement serves the union’s interests — after all, it’s not a great look if your own union members are violently protesting against you — but is it true?

Here’s what we know:

Organising for a Victorian construction workers protest against mandatory vaccines began in late August on social media, but gathered little notice initially. A flyer circulating on Telegram advertising yesterday’s protest claimed that workers from defunct unions were attending. Even in the small online communities set up specifically for CFMMEU members against mandates, members identified themselves as not being unionists but in the industry.

This movement was boosted and co-opted by much bigger general anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown and fringe groups. Advertising for yesterday’s protest was shared among a larger group of general anti-vax, anti-lockdown online groups, encouraging others to “blend in” and wear high visibility gear. Even still, the protest didn’t seem to get much attention compared with the “freedom” protests that have happened semi-regularly.

By the start of the protest at midday on Monday, there were a few hundred protesters dressed in high vis gear. Nine’s Ben Schneiders reported that CFMMEU sources told him that more than 80% of Monday’s protesters were building workers.

But researchers and watchers of the anti-lockdown movements in Australia noticed some regular faces who were not just disgruntled construction workers, people such as Lizzy Rose and known members of far-right groups were there. 

“News about the protests went out on a few of the big Telegram channels about an hour after the protests had already started, encouraging people to go join in, and a lot of those conspiracy and fringe right figures showed up later in the day,” Institute for Strategic Dialogue researcher and journalist Elise Thomas said.

Much like how generalist anti-lockdown online groups and figures amplified organising before the protest, figures with enormous online following like Avi Yemini and Real Rukshan broadcast the events live — serving as advertisements in the protest. As a result, the composition of the protests appeared to change throughout the day. By the time riot police had been called in, the protest had been going for hours and become increasingly aggressive. 

It’s impossible to know how many of the protesters were construction workers angry at industry conditions and how many were not — but it’s clear it was at least some of both. 

Data from the University of Melbourne suggests that employees in the “construction & utilities” industry listed as industry with the most vaccine hesitant, at 37% of workers. The Victorian government said checks on 200 worksites last week found that 73% of construction sites were not compliant with health directions, according to Nine. Now the industry has been temporarily shut down.

Last week’s “smoko” protests also demonstrated that the industry was willing to mobilise to push back against COVID-19 restrictions. To paint those worried about vaccines as extremists plays into the hands of extremists who hope to exploit this anxiety and fear of people during uncertain times. And doing so also misses that some can be persuaded or convinced to get vaccinated and follow public health measures. 

If institutions hope to maintain their relevancy and keep us all safe, they must figure out how to bring them along with them.

Editors note: This article has been updated to include new reporting on the composition of the protest turnout and data about vaccine hesitancy among the construction industry.