The charges are dropped

From Bob Carnegie

Just to let everyone know that I was advised by my lawyer tonight (26 November) that Abi Group have dropped all outstanding charges against me.

This brings to conclusion a 15 month nightmare and an end to the legal assault against myself and my family.

To all the thousands of working-class people everywhere who stood by me during this very difficult time my sincerest thanks.

To Melissa goes my love.

In the words of Joe Hill: “It’s the life of the Rebel I chose to live, and it’s the life of the Rebel that I will die”.

Together we conquered Goliath!

I will see you all wherever workers struggle for a better life. Thanks.

Back in court on 4 February: keep up the fight!

Bob is due back in court on 4 February 2014, with Abigroup taking on CFMEU and ETU as well as Bob in a civil case.

Bob’s supporters around the world will be organising leafleting, protests, and other actions in the run-up to the court date to let Abigroup bosses know we’re still watching, and keep up the pressure on them to stop intimidating working-class activists.

Click here to download the latest leaflet.

Court case postponed to February: watch this space!

Bob’s civil case has been postponed to February 2014. Solidarity between now and then can make a huge difference; watch this space for more information on actions to support Bob, and how you can help.

Solidarity needed for civil case

Bob is likely to be hauled into court again on 21 October, for a 20-day hearing of a civil-law claim for damages over the QCH dispute against the unions on the QCH site – CFMEU, the CEPU, and the BLF.

A mediation hearing between union and company lawyers produced no result. Abigroup is pursuing the case aggressively, claiming many millions of dollars in damages.

It is possible that a legal move by the CEPU may result in the hearing being postponed, and in that case the postponement will be for some months.

As of now, though, we have to reckon on the hearing coming soon. Download, print off, and distribute the new campaign leaflet!

Bob says: “The campaign needs to continue”

The support that I received, particularly from the construction unions in Queensland, was magnificent. Thousands downed tools and marched to the hearing, filling the foyer of the court, where I was able to address the workers and thank them for their support.

We had support too, from the United Voice union, and from socialist groups, Socialist Alternative and Workers’ Liberty in particular.

There was an intense, palpable feeling when it was announced that the case had been dismissed. Such things give confidence to workers that if they support their comrades when they’re under attack, they can achieve victory even when it seems virtually impossible.

I’ve now been invited to talk to four hundred stewards down in the engine room of construction unionism, in Victoria. So we have given workers some degree of confidence that everything isn’t hopeless in a world where workers don’t get many wins.

The acquittal shows the importance of what organisations like Workers’ Liberty have done. The international support I received was astounding, and maybe more solid than the national support. It’s important that people know the dispute came under a lot of high-level surveillance. Some of my emails were hacked, including ones from Workers’ Liberty.

Our campaign needs to continue. Abigroup is claiming damages $300,000 a day. Because of my role in the last 30 days of the dispute, they are trying to get $9 million out of me!

The standard of proof in a civil case is “balance of probabilities” rather than “beyond reasonable doubt”so we’re faced with a difficult situation.

Lend Lease [parent company of Abigroup] is hell bent on bankrupting community activists for supporting workers and demanding massive damages from unions along the way for simply trying to ensure that workers doing the same work are paid the same pay.

The union is also being sued for damages, but my defence is separate from the union’s defence, since I acted as a community activist rather than under the instruction of the union.

If the case against me personally is successful, it will establish a precedent that any member of the public who joins a community protest supporting a group of workers will be financially liable for the losses the employers say they suffered.

There is a community protest down in Port Melbourne where activists have been highlighting the case of six dockworkers who have been sacked because they refused to do a job they weren’t properly trained to do. Already community activists have been hit with injunctions, so you can see the shape of things to come if Abigroup are able to get away with this.

It is really important that unions and community groups work together and that no one is left isolated.

  • From an interview in Solidarity, the newspaper of Workers’ Liberty (UK), 28 August 2013.

5 September — “A victory for workers’ rights”

This article originally appeared in Solidarity, the newspaper of Workers’ Liberty (UK), on 28 August. It can be read on the Workers’ Liberty website here.

On Friday 16 August, contempt of court charges against Bob Carnegie, the Workers’ Liberty Australia member and union activist prosecuted for assisting a construction strike in Brisbane in August-October 2012, were dismissed.

All the big construction sites in the centres of Brisbane had been shut by strikes, as they were on 11-13 February, when the case came to trial.

2,000 construction and other workers came to a solidarity demonstration at the Federal Court in Brisbane. Around 100 crammed into the courtroom and cheered when the judge announced the verdict.

He ruled that the terms of the injunctions obtained by the construction company Abigroup (part of the giant multinational corporation Lend Lease) against Bob had not been sufficiently clear.

If the charges had been upheld, Bob was likely to be sentenced to six months’ jail.

Emerging from court, Bob said: “Fellow workers, comrades, case dismissed. We won.”

Won for now, that is.

Bob added: “An eight-day civil trial is set down in October where Abigroup will attempt to have me found guilty under the tort of nuisance, and held responsible for millions of dollars in damages. I still need your support”.

Abigroup had conceded the justice of the workers’ claims. While the dispute was still on, they had never asked the police, present every day at the community protest outside the site, to remove Bob. Then they tried to penalise Bob, in order to deter working-class activists in future.

The judge must have had his awareness of Abigroup’s spite, and of Abigroup’s lawyers’ unclarities in in wording, sharpened by the protests.

That is how many working-class victories are won. The law does not float in an ether outside the class struggle. The content and the interpretation of the law are shifted by the pressures of class struggle.

The strikes and demonstration to support Bob did not come from the free-flowing goodwill of the union leaders. Ever since the charges were laid against Bob, in October 2012, they had been cautious.

Cautious because they are union officials, steeped in the idea that the most important thing in trade unionism is always protecting the “bricks and mortar” of the official trade union machine. And cautious also because they knew Bob to be an independent-minded man, a political critic, a Trotskyist.

Ever since the charges were brought, there has been a rank-and-file campaign, mostly organised by socialists. It has issued leaflets, in French and Spanish as well as in English; organised demonstrations and meetings; and collected messages of support all over the world.

Without that we might well not have won this round. With a continuation of the campaign, we can win the next round, against the case for damages to be heard in October.

The origins of this case are shaped by particularities of the Australian labour movement, but its lessons are more widely applicable.

The right to strike has always been very limited in Australia, which has a long tradition of binding arbitration. It is even more limited under current legislation, passed by the Rudd-Gillard Labor government to repeal the ultra-vindictive WorkChoices law introduced by the previous conservative administration in 2005.

Industrial action is “protected” from legal reprisals only if it is to gain a new collective-bargaining agreement, and after the expiry of the old agreement. (And it is not always “protected” even then).

Thus most strikes in Australia are “unprotected”. Many are short strikes where the boss sees no gain in attempting legal action — like those staged to support Bob on 11-13 February and 16 August — or where the union pays a fine.

The one which broke out with 650 workers on the Queensland Children’s Hospital construction site in August 2012 was illegal, but much longer than usual — nine weeks.

The workers’ demand was for a union-negotiated agreement for the site, with a “subcontractors’ clause” which would ensure the same rate for the job across the many subcontractors on the site, and make the main contractor, Abigroup, responsible for back-pay and other entitlements of the employees of subcontractors that failed.

The dispute was sparked by a gyproc subcontractor going bust and leaving its employees without jobs and without pay. Unions had condemned cut-throat tendering on the gyproc subcontracts months before.

Abigroup got court orders against all the union officials, including the site delegate, and they stayed away from the site. The bosses must have hoped that would kill the dispute. The workers were still on strike, but without leadership and without organisers.

Bob Carnegie is not a construction worker by trade. But he is a well-known trade unionist in Brisbane. In August 2012, he was at home, unable to work at his trade because of illness.

The workers asked him to come and help them organise. He went. He helped organise daily community protests outside the site, weekly mass meetings with full and democratic discussion, dispute bulletins, the collection and administration of a hardship fund for strikers, and delegations to other workplaces.

Abigroup got court orders trying to instruct Bob to keep away from the site. He stayed there.

By early October Abigroup had to concede the workers’ demand.

The union officials negotiated an agreement. It’s fairly usual in Australia for a deal to end a dispute to include an agreement by the boss not to prosecute workers. In this case the union officials said that Abigroup would undertake not to prosecute some other workers, but would give no promises about Bob.

It is not unknown in Australia for trade unionists to be jailed over industrial disputes, including on “contempt of court” charges. Bob Carnegie himself was jailed in 1985 for activity in support of a power workers’ dispute.

However, Abigroup’s move against Bob was unusual in its vindictiveness, and clearly part of a drive across the construction industry to roll back trade-union activity.

Those details may be particular to Australia. But the lessons from how we won the campaign against the “contempt of court” prosecution have wide relevance.

The unionisation rate in Australia is lower than in Britain. The political climate is as unfavourable. In March 2012 the conservative LNP won a landslide victory in Queensland, the state of which Brisbane is the capital. Federally, a wretched Labor administration is staggering towards almost-certain heavy defeat by a stridently right-wing opposition in elections due on 7 September 2013.

Construction workers on big city-centre sites are better-organised in Australia than in Britain. But in Britain too there are patches and pockets of strong trade-union organisation.

These things won the campaign:

• Rank and file initiative, not waiting for the official union leaders;

• The will to test and query unjust but ostensibly legal impositions;

• Solidarity: strongly-organised groups of workers using their strength, not just to win their own demands, but to support those who would otherwise be isolated and victimised.

20 August — ITF welcomes dismissal of charges against Australian activist

The International Transport Workers’ Federation has published a story on Bob’s victory on its website.

The ITF writes:

“The ITF is welcoming the dismissal of charges against Australian trade union and community activist Bob Carnegie.

Carnegie was facing 18 charges brought against him by construction firm Abigroup relating to his involvement in a nine week strike by 600 workers at the Queensland Children’s Hospital site between July and October 2012.

All these charges have now been dismissed by Brisbane Federal Circuit Court.

ITF president and national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia Paddy Crumlin said: “This is a big relief for Bob and his family in particular and the wider trade union and civil rights movement more generally.

“It goes to show that community and labour activists with courage and determination can protest unjust and unfair actions by powerful political, industrial and corporate elites, even when faced with threats of personal financial ruin and even jail time to shut them up.”

Carnegie still faces a civil suit brought on by the Lend Lease subsidiary.

Crumlin continued: “I want to thank every person who understood that Bob’s struggle was also theirs, along with MUA members in particular who helped out Bob through his legal struggles. I understand there were hundreds of supporters from diverse community areas gathered outside of the court to ensure justice was served.

“It seems the company is not happy with the magistrate’s decision and wants to continue their witch-hunt. We call on them to stop this corporate bullying and hectoring, accept the judicial determination and re-evaluate the failure of their internal governance and corporate policies which will bring them into great disrepute if persevered with.

“The Maritime Union of Australia and the International Transport Workers’ Federation along with other fair-minded people in Australia and internationally will continue to show our solidarity and support Bob and his family in any event.””

Read the article online here.