The Guardian 29 June, 2005

Howard-Andrews anti-union laws
The resistance begins

Anna Pha

Several thousand workers in the Pilbara in Western Australia ignored government threats and kicked off the ACTU’s week of protest against the Howard government’s anti-union laws on Monday this week. They gathered at the Windy Ridge oval in the north-west town of Dampier and were unanimous in their support of a motion from union delegates to stay off the job until the first shift on Tuesday. The majority were mining and construction workers along with teachers and prison guards.

They defied threats of the Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews that the government would take legal action against any worker who opposes his bills. "Employees should be aware of the potential consequences if they choose to take unlawful industrial action", Andrews warned.

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 which is at the top of the list when the new Senate sits, outlaws virtually all forms of industrial action, including meetings and rallies. In fact any form of industrial action by building and construction workers during the life of an agreement will be illegal.

Individual workers taking such "illegal" action face fines of up to $22,000 and their unions can be slugged $110,000. It also gives courts the power to order trade unions to pay unlimited amounts of compensation or to sequestrate their assets.

The legislation is retrospective, so that any industrial action against it before it was enacted, such as last Monday’s, could be deemed illegal; hence the intimidations and threats from the Minister prior to their action in the Pilbara.

Terror laws apply to workers

The legislation provides for a permanent Building Industry Commission, to take over the policing of workers and unions on construction sites from the interim Building Industry Taskforce. This commission will have the power to interrogate individual workers.

The powers of the Commission and its head have strong similarities to those granted to ASIO in the name of fighting terrorism.

As with the ASIO laws, the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill can deny workers the right to silence and rob them of the common law right not to incriminate themselves.

The Commission can order building workers not to reveal the contents of any interrogation to family or friends.

As with the ASIO legislation, failure to comply can result in workers being jailed or fined.

The head of the Commission is the former federal policeman Nigel Hadgiss who has already chalked up considerable anti-worker and union-bashing credentials as head of the taskforce.

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill adds to the long list of lies that have flowed out of the Howard government. The government paved the way for the legislation with claims of rampant illegal activity in the building industry and the holding of a Royal Commission.

The Commission turned into a multi-million dollar witch hunt of unionists and unions. Employers were let off the hook: tax rorts, corruption, occupational health and safety breaches, failure to pay entitlements, etc were overlooked. The whole farce has only resulted in one conviction!

But that did not stop the Commission or the media demonising building and construction workers and their unions as stand-over merchants and thugs.

The scene was set to extend the ASIO/terror laws to a militant, unionised section of the workforce. The Commission in this case plays the role of ASIO and the police.

This new legislation creates a precedent, which the government certainly plans to extend to other areas of the workforce. Essential services such as oil and electricity are being considered as next on the list.

It is Howard’s war on workers on behalf of the major employers.

It is a real, class war. As the offensive on workers’ wages and conditions continues to make inroads and the government’s policies of privatisation of education, health, water, electricity, transport and cuts to social welfare continue, the resistance will grow.

The Howard government is preparing the way now to crush all dissent and struggle against his policies as they bite deeper.

Alongside this campaign, the plight of asylum seekers and the camps that the government has been building in remote areas of Australia must also be highlighted.

It is imperative that the trade union campaign against these laws is built as quickly as possible involving the community. In particular the government must not be allowed to use any of this new legislation against any worker or trade union.

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