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Jail for holding a union BBQ?

By John Passant - posted Wednesday, 30 July 2008

We'll soon be hearing a lot about Noel Washington.

Washington is charged with refusing to attend a hearing of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). His trial is coming up soon. If found guilty he could go to jail for six months.

The ABCC is the body Howard set up to destroy building unions. The Conservatives used the usual arguments about lawlessness and thuggery on building sites as justification for establishing it.


The Cole Royal Commission into the building industry cost $66 million. For all the bluster about illegal union activity there was only ever one successful prosecution coming out of the Royal Commission and that was of a building company.

The building industry is a tough place. Construction companies are not filled with the milk of human kindness, and unions respond in kind to protect their members' lives and livelihoods. Because of Howard's restrictions on unions, and building unions in particular, it is now much harder for unions to enforce safety standards or impose penalities, like lost production time, on lax employers. The result? The number of injuries and deaths have begun to increase again.

So what did Washington, senior vice president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Engineering Union in Victoria, do that sees him face six months jail?

He held a lunch time BBQ in a park opposite a Bovis Lend Lease worksite and invited the workers there along. Howard's restrictive laws meant Washington couldn't have an onsite meeting during work time: 500 workers turned up.

The ABCC wants to know what they discussed. So they told Washington to attend an interview. One of the alleged contraventions of industrial law that occurred at the meeting is that someone supposedly urged workers to call a manager "Lassie" because he was a lap dog of the ABCC. Some crime!

Washington refused to attend. "The ABCC wants me to give evidence against a colleague about what was said at a union meeting ..." he said. He described this as un-Australian and undemocratic.


Bill Oliver, the CFMEU's Victorian Assistant State Secretary told a rally that "the ABCC has the power to compel people to attend interrogations under threat of six months jail. These men have no right to silence. Afterwards, they cannot speak to anyone about what is discussed in the interrogation - not even to their wives or families."

Washington asks "Where are we are living, Stalinist Russia?"

"This is about the defenceless people that the ABCC have picked on and will continue to pick on if these laws are kept in place," he said.

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About the Author

John Passant is a Canberra writer ( and member of Socialist Alternative.

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