Construction workers strike in Queensland

Many Kiwis see Australia as a land of high wages and great opportunities. But as the Australian economy has slowed down, workers there have had to struggle to maintain their relatively good terms and conditions, even in well-unionised industries. Employers have put up increased resistance over the renewal of Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs), the main form of collective agreements in Australia.

To get a result, workers took a 21-day strike at Laing O’Rourke, 18 days at Thiess, and two weeks at Lend Lease. In response to the strong resistance from employers there has been a lot of worker determination to secure agreements, particularly ones which include a subcontractor clause and job security benefits.

In early October, construction workers won an eight-week strike at Queensland Children’s Hospital in Brisbane. Early in the dispute, union officials had been served with injunctions by Abigroup (part of Lend Lease), and prevented from accessing the site, so they called in Bob Carnegie, a community organiser and a former Builders Labourers Federation stalwart. The strikers had to work around the anti-union laws and build new forms of organisational support for their struggle.

Bob observed that: “The more we increased the democracy of the organisation, the more determined the workers became. It was an interesting study in the importance of democracy in a dispute. We had full site meetings at least once a week in the Serbian Hall in South Brisbane. We ran those meetings as democratically as possible and made sure everyone was given a say. It created the feeling that people were actually part of something, instead of being hectored, which is what can happen at certain union meetings.”

Socialist groups rallied to support the workers. Socialist Alternative and others helped raise money for the strikers as hardship set in after several weeks on the picket line. Workers’ Liberty produced leaflets to keep people informed of the dispute, and their British comrades organised a picket of Lend Lease’s plush London office.

Bob recalls: “we made sure the dispute didn’t become static by keeping everyone informed about what was going on. We’d have at least one meeting every day on the protest line at Graham Street where we’d give a run-down of what was going on, and we’d have guest speakers in, like Brian Boyd from the Trades and Labour Council in Victoria. We had guys in from the Transport Workers Union and the Maritime Union, and other working-class organisations. It helped the guys feel like they weren’t completely alone.

“We also found the international messages very helpful. A lot of the men and women were gobsmacked and really impressed that workers in Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere had heard about and were supporting their struggle.

“We worked to make links with workers on other construction sites. We protested against attacks on Grocon workers [in Melbourne], and marched to the big Grocon site at Elizabeth Street in Brisbane, and helped organise a community protest there which shut down the site twice. Since the return to work, the workers are feeling strong and they’re determined that things will work better than they did before.”

The result of this campaign was that Abigroup conceded the workers’ two central demands. The existing non-union EBA will be cancelled and replaced by a union EBA. And the new EBA will contain a subcontractors’ clause ensuring the rate for the job for every worker on the site whatever subcontractor employs them.

However, the battle is not over yet, because Bob Carnegie is now being sued on 54 separate counts by Abigroup. The company is seeking damages on the grounds that Bob defied a court order which they got, instructing him to stay away from the community protest. The right wing Queensland government is supporting Abigroup in their witch hunt.This is an attempt to intimidate not only an individual, but every organiser in every workers’ struggle in future. A defence campaign, the Trade Union Defence Committee, has been set up in Brisbane, and messages of support can be made at: http://bobcarnegiedefence.wordpress.com

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