Big protests mark Ark Tribe trial

The continuing trial of construction union (CFMEU) member Ark Tribe before Adelaide’s Magistrate Court has again led to big rallies across Australia, with about 10,000 unionists marching on July 20 in all capital cities and in a number of regional centres. Tribe, a rigger from South Australia, faces heavy fines and the possibility of six months imprisonment for refusing to cooperate with the Australian Building and Corruption Commission (ABCC) in its inquisitorial witchhunt of members and officials of the construction unions.

What was Tribe’s alleged offence? He refused to rat on his workmates on a construction site when they complained of a range of safety issues and drew up a list of improvements that their employer subsequently acted upon. But the ABCC, set up by the Howard Coalition government and whose regulatory authority continues to be backed by the Labor government, showed no interest in safety issues. Instead, it wanted to penalise those who acted in defence of their own safety.

Construction workers face an appalling safety record, with a death occurring every week in the industry, the latest fatality occurring in Adelaide when soft slings were used instead of chains in lifting steel by crane. Anger at the treatment of Tribe and the ABCC’s threats against many other union activists has led to many official calls for a national construction industry stoppage if Tribe is imprisoned. These calls were enthusiastically endorsed by the thousands present at the rallies, despite the presence of Labor Party politicians and some union officials attempting to turn the rallies into an election vehicle for the ALP.

In Perth, where 3000 marched on parliament on July 20, CFMEU, Maritime Union and Australian Manufacturing Union state secretaries were cheered when they made a commitment that there would be an immediate industrial response if Tribe was imprisoned. Many construction sites around Perth closed for the day.

MUA members shut down the ports of Fremantle and Kwinana for four hours to attend the rally, the first time this had been achieved for decades. MUA members were also angered by the death of Melbourne wharfie Steve Piper the week before and the lack of national safety regulations promised by the federal Labor government.

In Adelaide, the trial of Ark Tribe was adjourned yet again until September — conveniently after the federal elections. Rallies will be called again to coincide with the continuing trial. Unionists are convinced the ABCC, the Gillard government and the Coalition parties are seeking to make an example of Tribe.

But threats to walk off the job if he is imprisoned will not be enough to defeat the ABCC and its anti-union laws. An effective campaign has to involve all unions and their ranks in industrial campaigning that can draw wider support from the community. If Tribe is convicted on any charge, even if the decision is made not to send him to prison, this will set a precedent and embolden the ABCC to pursue the other union members.