A bitter construction dispute at the massive redevelopment site of Myers Emporium in central Melbourne marks the re-emergence of the industrial thuggery which was associated with the Maoist Builders Laborers Federation (BLF) in Australia from the 1960s to the 1980s.
During the Hawke era, the Builders Laborers Federation was deregistered as a union, and later forcibly amalgamated into the main building union, now called the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).
One of the former BLF officials, John Setka, is now a leader of the Construction Division of the CFMEU, and is expected to succeed the current secretary of the union, Bill Oliver. Setka has been leading the union fight against Grocon, demanding the right to appoint shop stewards and health and safety representatives, effectively giving the union control over construction at the site.
Grocon management, led by Daniel Grollo, has refused to meet this demand.
The Australian (August 29, 2012) revealed that Setka has a long record of convictions for violence on building sites, going back 30 years.
His 40 convictions include theft, assault by kicking, assaulting police, wilful trespass and indecent language.
In interviews in Melbourne recently, he was accompanied by a figure from the Melbourne underworld, Mick Gatto, who successfully beat a rap for murder of an underworld hitman.
Setka was a protégé of John Cummins, a former Maoist student activist at La Trobe University in the 1970s, who was later taken on by the Builders Laborers Federation.
Cummins was a BLF official involved in many violent disputes on Melbourne building sites during the BLF’s reign of terror in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a tribute to his organising skills that he emerged as an official of the CFMEU, and spent 10 years (1996-2006) as president of the Victorian branch of the CFMEU, before dying of a brain tumour at the age of 48.
Cummins’s ideological leanings are clear from the CFMEU’s website, which contains a tribute to him, including a downloadable 24-page booklet with the title, Quotations from Chairman Cummo, on a Chinese flag. Its file name, Little-Red-Book.pdf, is an obvious tribute to former Chinese dictator Mao Zedong.
The immediate cause of the outbreak of disputes in the building industry was the federal Labor government’s dismantling the Howard Coalition government’s building industry watchdog early this year.
In 2005, following years of turmoil in the industry, the Coalition government established the Australian Building and Construction Commission, to oversee the industry.
Two years later, after Labor gained power, it reduced the power of the commission, and announced it would be totally overhauled. Labor’s new Fair Work Building and Construction Commission commenced operation on June 1 this year, with reduced powers to order union members back to work, and giving unions far greater scope for industrial action.
Since then, industrial action in the building industry has soared, with much of the focus on Grocon sites in Melbourne, and the Abigroup site at Brisbane’s Children’s Hospital.
The Grocon dispute has been particularly nasty. Grocon is a family-owned business, which has long had a good relationship with its workers. When Grocon refused the union demand to appoint shop stewards and health and safety representatives (at the company’s expense), it was supported by its own workers on the site.
The CFMEU responded by bringing about 1,000 union members from other sites around the city, to blockade the site and other Grocon sites around Melbourne.
Police were on hand to try to permit Grocon workers to get through picket lines, and violent clashes resulted.
Grocon obtained a Supreme Court injunction, banning union officials from being on the Myer Emporium site or at the company’s other Melbourne building sites. Subsequently, union organisers ignored that court order, and blockaded and invaded Grocon sites.
The Grocon employees at the Emporium site issued a statement which said, “Grocon Employees are fed up and disappointed with the union representing their own needs and agendas against, over and beyond Grocon employees’ wishes.
“We have no argument with our employer, and do not support the blockades against our workplaces. All we want is to be able to go to work and be allowed to provide for our families and loved ones.
“We have been unfairly singled out for abuse, threats and intimidation by the very organisation we pay our union fees to, in an argument which is not of our doing.
“We only ask that we be allowed the same basic rights our union leadership enjoy, to be free to access our places of work without the lies, threats and abuse, and without fear of reprisals….
“This letter has not been written at the request of Grocon management. We, the employees, have asked the company to publish it and put it on our website.”
Despite all this, the federal government did little if anything to end the strike, and the Victorian Government belatedly announced an inquiry, which will report back next March.