CFMEU Victoria fails its COVID test

This article first appeared in The Anvil, Vol 10 No 5, published 31 October 2021.

CFMEU Office Demonstration 21 Sept 2021

Source: (original source unattibuted)

The anti-vaxxer attack on the offices of the CFMEU in Melbourne last month is a stark reminder that class collaboration doesn’t come free. What looked like an opportunity to protect union members’ interests through co-operation with the bosses and the State instead created even greater dangers than the hard road of class struggle would have done.

When the COVID19 pandemic hit last year, the Federal Government was compelled to introduce wage support payments, known as Jobkeeper, for workers whose workplaces were shut down by public health measures. Thanks to over a century of militant class struggle, wages in the construction industry are amongst the highest in Australia. Jobkeeper approximated to the minimum full-time wage. Shutting down construction would have thrown building workers into massive economic distress. That was a situation to be avoided.

There were two possible responses. One was for the CFMEU to fight the bosses on health and safety at every step and to insist workers mustn’t lose income from any health-related closures. The other was to collaborate with the bosses to keep the industry running, despite any risks to health that this might entail. The CFMEU leadership took the second option.

Collaboration to keep the industry running imposed its price. Members who raised health and safety concerns were silenced. This validated the emerging movement of COVID denial and posed health orders as contrary to the interests of building workers. Last year, COVID19 didn’t spread particularly well on building sites. The emergence of the Delta strain, though, changed all this. Outbreaks at building sites were mentioned in passing at the daily government press conferences. Health and safety suddenly became a serious problem for the CFMEU. It either had to come out fighting or, by continuing to run dead, capitulate to the Right wing forces of denial.

The CFMEU leadership’s out-of-character collaboration with the bosses has allowed anti-vaxxer and COVID denier forces free play amongst CFMEU members. When the State Government announced a vaccine mandate for construction workers, there was a backlash that the CFMEU officials weren’t equipped to deal with.

On 21 September, a demonstration grew outside the CFMEU office to demand action from the officials about the impending vaccine mandate. A large majority were CFMEU members, their work gear identifying them as coming from strong union sites. There were also ring-ins, attempting unsuccessfully to provide political leadership for the crowd. Much has been written of the way the crowd shouted down the CFMEU Secretary and proceeded to attack the building. This was bad enough, but worse was the fact that several known Fascist identities attempted to lead the demonstration. This is an ominous development. Fascists should be drummed out of the union movement – physically – whenever they dare to show their face.

The demonstration next day was much bigger, but the composition of the crowd was very different. A whole pile of bosses, scabs and workers from other industries jumped on the bandwagon, while every Right wing nut job in Melbourne put on a brand new hi-vis vest and pretended to be a building worker. Any actual CFMEU members present (there were probably a few) were dissolved in a general Right wing rabble.

Because of the September events, the CFMEU Vic Branch has a significant number of members alienated in a Right wing direction, not because of the union being too militant in defending workers’ rights, but because it wasn’t militant enough.

It should go without saying that Anarchist Communists defend the CFMEU against bosses and the State, even when its officials haven’t done the right thing. It’s up to the labour movement to clean its own house, so neither the CFMEU’s failure over COVID19 nor the personal misbehaviour of the Victorian Secretary justify State intervention against the union. Instead, the Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group calls on construction workers to learn the correct lessons from the COVID19 debacle, clean out the ranks of the officials and bring the union under the direct control of the members. The CFMEU is in danger. Only class struggle will save it.