ABCC and Lendlease in court battle over Eureka flag ban
Written by: Danny O. on 31 December 2020
The federal government’s anti-union ideological and political task force, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) is locked in a court battle with one of the country’s largest construction companies, Lendlease.
The building giant is challenging the ABCC’s interpretation of the Building Code with regard to the banning of union mottos, logos, posters, and other paraphernalia including the Eureka flag on federally funded construction sites.
Blatantly ideologically driven in its motivations, the ABCC holds that the clause in question necessitates a blanket ban on all displays of union material on site. Lendlease argues that the ban only applies to material that gives the impression that union membership is anything but a voluntary individual choice. Displays of popular slogans such as ‘No ticket, no start’ and ‘100% Union’ would be obvious inclusions under that interpretation. Banning the Eureka flag, which has far wider meaning and significance than just that of a symbol used by unions, raises much bigger question marks.
The clause at the centre of the debate reads, “The code-covered entity must ensure that building association logos, mottos or indicia are not applied to clothing, property or equipment supplied by or which provision is made for by the employer or any other conduct which implies that membership of a building association is anything other than individual choice for each employee.” Readers can make their own interpretation of what that might mean.
The case is an interesting test of the anti-union provisions of the Building Code, which all companies engaged in federally funded construction work are required to adhere to. The court’s decision, expected early in the new year, will provide clarity to an issue that to date has been implemented unevenly across the industry. Just what the court’s decision is and what it will actually mean in reality for the industry will depend on several things, not least of them the relative strength of the contending classes on the ground and their willingness to struggle.
Besides being another obvious case of the relentless union busting by the federal government and its ABCC attack dog against the CFMEU which must be opposed, the case raises a number of questions worth considering for class conscious workers.
Scratching the surface
Lendlease, a giant building company, is apparently challenging the federal government’s anti-unionism enforced by the ABCC. Why? Don’t unions stand in the way of companies making profit? Wouldn’t Lendlease be happier if the unions didn’t have a presence on site? Many workers’ first assumption would often be that that is true. Certainly it’s true that Lendlease and the CFMEU are no strangers when it comes to butting heads in the past. And no doubt they will butt heads in the future. So, what’s going on?
Part of the answer lies in the dual nature of trade unions under capitalism. On the one hand they are organisations that advance the interests of the workers against the employers. On the other hand, they are not revolutionary organisations that seek to do away with bosses and emancipate the workers from wage slavery, but rather seek to win the best conditions for wage slavery under capitalism. By its nature that necessitates at times a certain level of peace and compromise between the unions and the bosses.
The big end of the commercial construction industry in Melbourne is one of the most productive in the world. It is also one of the most well unionised. Productivity requires disciplined labour. A happy, safe, and well-paid workforce with little to complain about can be more profitable than an angry, agitated and strike-prone one. For Lendlease, it may just be good for business to have the union on site. For now.
That raises another question. Capitalism is the economic system of the class rule of the capitalists. The state, in the form of the government, the courts, the police, the army etc., support and enforce that rule. So why are the ABCC (an arm of the capitalist state) and Lendlease (a capitalist business) in contradiction? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the ABCC to support the profit making of a capitalist like Lendlease?
The capitalist state doesn’t usually make decisions based on what’s best for one particular capitalist enterprise, but has to manage the capitalist system as a whole. That can lead to contradictions between different sections of capitalists, and even between capitalists and the state. The outlook of the individual capitalist will often be narrow and pragmatic. Lendlease are in the business of making money. If they think they can make more money in the short term by avoiding unnecessary conflict with the union then that’s what they will do. Not a small part of Lendlease’s decision to challenge the ABCC’s interpretation of the Building Code is the practicality of the endless paper work, distraction, and cost of dealing with inspectors and all the trivial supposed code breaches. It gets in the way of making money.
For the federal government and the ABCC, on the other hand, their outlook is much wider and more ideological. It is good for the capitalist economy as a whole if unions are made entirely ineffective and workers’ wages and conditions driven down. In Australia today, unions are at the weakest they have been for generations. Strikes are practically illegal, union density is somewhere around 10%, and the union movement is legally hog-tied and bogged down in factionalism and a narrow reliance on the electoral fortunes of the ALP.
Despite it being a far cry from the militancy of the 1970s, the federal government is determined to put an end to one of the few examples of a union willing to defy the anti-union laws to support its members, the CFMEU.
Strange Bed Fellows of the Class Struggle
A giant construction company teaming up with a militant building union to defend flying the Eureka flag on construction sites against the ABCC – you can add it to the list of things most people probably didn’t expect in 2020.
But class struggle is never a straight line. It’s rarely so simply black and white. It twists and turns. It has ups and downs. It takes place within the incredibly complicated and many contradictions of concrete reality. Conditions are forever changing. Sometimes favourable and sometimes not. Common interests can give way to irreconcilable antagonism. Antagonism can give way to temporary common interests. Allies can become enemies, and former enemies can become allies against other enemies.
It can all sometimes make for strange bedfellows.
But one thing is certain. The class struggle never stops and there can be no permanent reconciliation between the interests of the working class and the parasitic capitalists or their state.
The Eureka flag was born a flag of rebellion. Australian workers will raise it as a flag of revolution yet.
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