Tom McDonald, former National Secretary Building Workers Industrial Union & Founding Trustee of Construction and Building Unions Superannuation (CBUS), wrote to Fairfax national political editor Peter Hartcher, in response to Hartcher’s call for the CFMMEU to be de-registered.
The CFMMEU led large union demonstrations in multiple locations to demand the Right to Strike on Thursday, with over 8000 workers participating in Sydney CBD alone.
I look forward to reading your articles in the Sydney Morning Herald and listening to you being interviewed on important political and social events etc.
Your contributions are underpinned by various values I share with you and the arguments are supported by rational reasoning, facts and history and help people to make informed decisions that are an essential element of our democracy.
Your view that the CFMEU (now CFMMEU) should be deregistered came as a shock to me and prompted me to write this letter to you.
CFMMEU members rally for the right to strike in Newcastle on Thursday 6th September 2018
Photo credit: CFMMEU Construction and General NSW Branch
In my view the CFMEU should be judged on its achievements for working people because that is the purpose of its existence.
Without the CFMEU the MUA would have been crushed. We would not have full workers compensation pay if there had not been an illegal strike by building workers in 1971 that ended the system of half pay to injured workers. We would not have RDOs, a world-best system of industry based universal superannuation, nor jointly lawfully-recognised employer and worker safety committees. But for the BWIU (now part of the CFMEU), we would now have a much lower minimum wage. We would not have universal redundancy pay and but for Green Bans a lot of our heritage would have been lost and we would have had massive over-development. Many more examples could be given.
The CFMEU played a key role in all of the struggles of the ACTU, one being the defeat of Work Choices that would have taken us a long way down the road to Americanisation of our industrial relations system which has impoverished many millions of American families.
Today the Australian workers and our society need stronger unions to address the challenges ahead not the destruction of a union. Unions need to be militant in their tactics when all other ways to achieve justice have failed.
What I am trying to describe as a defence of my union is best told in the publication “The Quiet Revolution” which I am posting to you.
I now want to raise with you a couple of other thoughts but first it is important to recognise that the CFMEU spans several industries in addition to the construction industry – power generation, mining, forestry, furniture, maritime and now clothing.
But the CFMEU is only criticised for its tactics used in the building and construction industry. The reason is that the construction industry is different to all other industries.
Anyone can work in the building industry as a worker or as a sub-contractor (employer) because they don’t need start -up capital. So, we have every type of people in the industry ranging from gangsters, thugs and corrupt elements and across to hard-working and principled workers.
Construction projects are being completed every day and new projects started every day. There is always a dozen or more contractors (employers) on a building construction site – some who complete their contracts before others start. Trying to negotiate enterprise agreements is very difficult particularly when some contractors are shonky operators who break every rule in the book, pay cash in hand, don’t pay taxes, ignore safety regulations, don’t pay entitlements such as superannuation etc. Contractors are on and off the site as is their workforce and others only come on the site in finishing fitting-out stages.
The industry is probably the most culturally diverse in Australia which brings with it communication difficulties and problems and at times a clash in cultures.
A building site is safe one day but not the next as building workers move from completing a section of work to a new section of work and the nature of accidents are more serious than accidents in most other industries.
The union organiser is expected to solve all these problems and deal with all these employers in circumstances where time is the enemy. I personally can understand what leads to what others describe as stand-over tactics and I think those that criticise them would do the same if faced with the same circumstances.
This is the situation the union organiser is likely to face day in and day out, week in and week out. For these and other reasons, aggressive tactics are often needed, and threats are needed, to help achieve what the workers want and need. In other words, the organiser has to break the law to enforce the law and make the site safe or move the employer into negotiation.
I don’t agree with all the tactics and language which may be used by organisers, but they are not the most important issue. Of greater importance is - do they achieve results that benefit building workers?
When it comes to corruption, even petty corruption such as accepting gifts from employers, there should be zero tolerance if an organiser has engaged in any corrupt behaviour. I know they would be immediately sacked from the union.
When I look at findings of the various Royal Commissions, I think criticism of the tactics and behaviour of the CFMEU officials are relatively insignificant compared with what has been disclosed with Royal Commissions into the Banks and Insurance Companies and the Churches- where people have lost life-long savings, made bankrupt, or abused and sexually assaulted.
The question I ask you Peter - why should the union be de-registered? Even its critics must accept that the union’s actions did not have the same disastrous effects on the lives of many as revealed by those other Royal Commissions?
The truth is that the actions of the union helped save lives and benefitted building workers.
I believe that financial institutions and religious organisations are an essential part of our society, so they must be preserved and at the same time held accountable. I also believe that militant unions are an essential part of our system of democracy and they must be preserved.
Note: There is a fundamental difference in what happened in respect of the Gallagher BLF – one being they lost the support of the ACTU whereas the CFMEU has unanimous support of the ACTU.
Former National Secretary BWIU & Founding Trustee of CBUS