Down militant memory lane ...

The CFMEU is at it again. Its recent blockades of several prominent construction sites signal a deep-seated contempt for civil society.

In the CFMEU’s parallel universe, a deal on enterprise arrangements is not a deal and the rule of law is a multiple choice exercise.

Although the union has lifted its blockades, it boasts that it will re-boot its Tourette’s like militancy on a whim.

David Chandler, the legendary builder who saw construction unions at their worst in the 70s and 80s, recently condemned these unions for “asserting a moral righteousness”.

As the quotes below illustrate, many unionists agree.

As did the Gyles and Cole royal commissions, which concluded that a prior generation of union leaders actively inspired a culture of disdain for civic norms that led to criminal behaviour and abysmal productivity – behaviour that hurt union members and the community.

Many hoped a new generation of union leaders would reject such ideologies and tactics.

It now seems the contempt gene is in the union’s DNA.

The recent blockades spotlight an urgent need to revive the Australian Building Construction Commission with the powers and resources to apply the rule of law to all construction sites.

The blockades also set back the cause of the union movement.

Despite their plummeting membership, unions can play a critical role in democratic society. Ironically, the CFMEU’s blockades represented a single-minded effort to override the democratic rights of workers to select their own safety representatives – rights mandated by law.

The CFMEU’s recent campaign clobbered workplace productivity, chewed up taxpayer dollars and diverted hundreds of police from community duties.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) knows that construction industry productivity needs boosting. It recently established a wide-ranging review of industry competitiveness which will report mid next year.

A quick look at the cost of constructing buildings over the past decade reveals disturbing trends. Between 2000 and the GFC, general community costs (measured by the consumer price index) rose 32 percent.

In striking contrast, construction cost inflation ballooned by 55 percent. In Western Australia, costs shot up 85 percent.

This trend has since moderated, but only because commercial and residential construction activity has plummeted. The commercial construction sector is in recession, with peak to trough spending down by $7 billion per annum.

Looking at commercial construction spending as a percentage of GDP, factoring a 25-year cruising speed of 100 km per hour, our industry’s velocity plunged from 120 kph in 2010 to 65 kph today.

Across the board, construction industry employment has fallen by 15,000 workers in the past year alone. Apprenticeships dropped by 5000 places.

The COAG review will address:

  • Market structure – concentration, barriers to entry, public sector crowding out
  • Regulation and compliance – red tape cutting opportunities that don’t compromise safety or quality, joined-up regulation and building energy efficiency
  • Taxation – impacts on industry inflation and efficiency
  • Labour costs, skills and workplace relations – skills improvement opportunities, labour mobility, migration, management practices, innovation and new technology
  • Other issues – risk allocation, regional drivers, insolvency and access to finance.

This is a huge review and nobody is saying that union militancy is the sole cause of declining activity or competiveness.

However, misdirected militancy crimps innovation. It also scares away capital, particularly the patient, international, job-creating capital so desperately needed by an industry that remains in the post-GFC shadow.

In their own words ...

Televised quote of a CFMEU leader describing his own colleagues:

“… they’re used to threatening politicians. They’re used to threatening other union leaders. They’re into intimidatory tactics. They’re into using all kinds of unethical methods.”

More televised advice from one unionist to another:

“All they needed to do was dig in, pull the stadium out and say ‘we’re not building the stadium until we get a shorter hours deal’. And they would have won it. You know they had the employers, they had the government by the testicles.”

And this:

“Firstly, I share the union’s view that the Royal Commission was a political witch hunt. Don’t get me wrong – there is plenty of union thuggery, extortion, intimidation and bad practices in WA that need stopping. But you don’t need a Royal Commission to discover that.”

Quotes drawn from testimony to the Cole Royal Commission in 2005