“Our critics on both sides of politics claim the use of the phrase ‘class war’ is anachronistic, but in the face of growing inequality and the push for corporate dominance, the reality is a class war is being waged on ordinary people. One that it is our responsibility to respond to.”

With this clarion call, Darren Greenfield, NSW State Secretary of the CFMEU’s Construction and General Division, demonstrated understanding of a social dimension to his union’s famous militancy in his article, “The Legacy of Jack Mundey and the Green Bans: A CFMEU Perspective”, in the current issue of Workplace Review, Vol 10 No 1.

The identification of base causes and larger purposes for its militancy, allows for a more nuanced analysis of the CFMEU’s actions than that suggested by the simple assertions of “lawlessness, intimidation, and thuggery”[1] so often directed at the union.

Jack Mundey, who died earlier this year, led the then Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), forerunner of the CFMEU, in the 1970s. In collaboration with concerned citizens, the BLF succeeded via its imposition of Green Bans in protecting much of Sydney’s built heritage and natural environment against the rapid development taking place in the city at the time. In the broad community alliances it forged and causes it took up beyond just improving wages and working conditions, including (in addition to the Green Bans), campaigns for women’s, Aboriginal, and gay rights, the BLF under the progressive leadership of Mundey and others, exemplified a particular tradition of militant unionism in Australia founded on the recognition of common social interests.

The CFMEU sees itself in this tradition, Greenfield writing of the union’s advocacy and activism around issues such as Aboriginal rights and social justice, homelessness and the need for greater public housing, access to decent health care and education, and responding to climate change.

For the CFMEU, its militancy is also demanded by the dangerous nature of the construction industry.

“With one worker dying on average a week and many more being maimed. Despite the operation of Work Health and Safety legislation companies continue to cut corners on safety,” said Greenfield. “Workers with the support of their union should be able to remove themselves from unsafe work situations without the spectre of fines and penalties for doing so,” he added, saying the CFMEU would not “resile from its obligation to its members to ensure their safety”.

This stand is taken against a background of criticism, laws, and penalties targeting the CFMEU. In a newspaper report earlier this year[2] discussing the fines imposed on the union and its officials over an unlawful blockade of the Barangaroo construction site in Sydney, head of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), Stephen McBurney, said that since the ABCC’s re-establishment in 2016, it had brought cases against the union and its officials resulting in the imposition of penalties totalling over $9 million.

McBurney was also quoted as having said that the union and its officials “had repeatedly breached industrial laws without remorse”.

But is a lawless/law abiding framing – itself necessarily contingent – sufficient for a rounded assessment of the CFMEU’s industrial action?

Greenfield discussed measures taken by the Federal Government, including the Trade Union Royal Commission and introduction of the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Act 2016 (Cth), with special mention of the ABCC, “a body that mostly spends its time prosecuting the CFMEU, its officials and delegates”. Greenfield said civil laws “are easily breached if we are doing our job”, including on safety issues.

The criticisms directed at, and penalties imposed on, the CFMEU, are attacks on “the men and women who toil 60 to 80 hours a week to build this nation and deliver projects in record time”, said Greenfield, adding: “With tighter and tighter work schedules and longer hours, far too many workers do not return home. Only direct action on the job to address safety issues saves lives.”

Lawlessness? On the CFMEU’s view, its militancy would seem to be about achieving justice.

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[1] Azadeh Williams, “Smashing the Glass Ceiling: Senator Michaelia Cash’s Journey from Lawyer to Workplace Reformer”, (2016) 7 WR 32, 35.

[2] Nick Bonyhady, “CFMMEU Fined Almost Half a Million Over Barangaroo Blockade”, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 March 2020.