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.