The arrest of senior construction union officials on charges of blackmail opens a new, and potentially very dangerous, phase of legal assault on our unions. These charges are the most serious attack to come out of the Liberals’anti-union trade union royal commission to date.

A successful prosecution would result in the likely jailing of two officials of one of the most militant and effective union branches in the country. It would open the floodgates to similar actions against other unionists: any worker who threatened management with industrial consequences could find themselves in the firing line.

Such a serious attack on the workers movement requires a response to match.

This morning, the Victorian construction unions and their supporters gave a display of what’s required. As CFMEU Victorian secretary John Setka and assistant secretary Shaun Reardon attended the Melbourne Magistrates Court, thousands of construction workers walked off their jobs – shutting down building sites for the day – and rallying outside the court.

They were joined by delegations from many unions including the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Association, the Rail Tram and Bus Union, the National Union of Workers, and the Maritime Union of Australia – all unions which have benefited over many years from the solidarity of construction unions on picket lines and protests.

Cameron, a construction worker from a Southbank site, summed up the mood of the crowd. “It’s all about profits”, he told Red Flag. “We’re on good wages and they want to take that stuff away. That’s more profit for them, but in turn it’s less safe work sites, and that’s going to cause a lot of casualties.

“The people before us fought for our conditions and we want to keep it like that. That’s why we’re out here, because John Setka and Shaun Reardon getting charged for blackmail, all they were trying to do was fight for their workers’ rights. To the government that’s blackmail. So we’re coming to support them, and that’s pretty much all it is. That’s our union motto – one in all in – we all come out and support our union.”

It’s not news to any construction worker that the law smashes unions with multi-million dollar fines for industrial action, while building industry bosses literally get away with murder. In March 2013, three passers-by were crushed to death when a wall collapsed on a building site in Swanston Street, Melbourne, directly opposite the CFMEU offices. Despite the shocking safety record of Daniel Grollo’s Grocon corporation, which controlled the site, Grocon got off with a fine that amounted to loose change to his company.

As John Setka explained in his fiery speech at today’s rally: “Boral have killed 14 workers in the last ten years. They are an anti-union company. They are trying to bring down the trade union movement … This is along with their good mates Grocon, who killed three people – three innocent people – when the wall collapsed. Me and Shaun were some of the ones who helped pull out the poor kids who got killed that day for just walking down the street.

“That was Grocon. They got only a $250,000 fine for killing three people. I didn’t see [the police] pulling Daniel Grollo over on the weekend, but he killed three people! We’re representing our members, and we get pulled over like common criminals.”

A new line of legal attack

The charges against John Setka and Shaun Reardon show that the royal commission is not only an anti-union propaganda exercise (though it certainly is that!) – it is also one of the key forums where Australia’s ruling class works out new ways to attack our unions.

The background to the blackmail charges is the CFMEU’s long running dispute with Grocon. The CFMEU insists on having union-approved health and safety reps placed on major sites in Melbourne. When Grocon refused to allow this, and instead appointed stand-over men as “safety officers”, the dispute escalated to a two week blockade of Grocon jobs in Melbourne in late 2012.

In July last year, Red Flag reported on the first three days of hearings of the royal commission in Melbourne. Back then, Mike Kane, the CEO of building supplies company Boral, was complaining to royal commissioner Dyson Heydon that his company had suffered from the fallout of the CFMEU and Grocon dispute. Boral executives allege that the CFMEU asked Boral to cut concrete supplies to Grocon, and that John Setka declared:

“We’re at war with Grocon, and in a war you cut the supply lines.” This piece of industrial common sense infuriated Mike Kane, who compared the union approach to “the worst excesses of racketeering-like behaviour and shady illegal enterprises.”

Boral kept supplying concrete to Grocon, and claims that it suffered a union-endorsed boycott as a result. At the start of 2013, the company claimed a dominant 40 percent share of the supply of concrete to major jobs in Melbourne. Eighteen months later, Boral said its market share was down to single digits and falling, with Kane complaining that in the Melbourne CBD, the CFMEU “has significant control of all large construction sites except Grocon sites, and no law in Australia seems to be able to stop their racketeering behaviour”.

Kane’s mention of “racketeering” was not just a passing thought bubble. He sounded positively homesick for the vicious anti-union laws of the US when he testified: “In the US, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act is a weapon used by government to not only criminally prosecute corrupt organisations, but to seize the assets used by the corrupt organisations.” Some US companies have certainly experimented with using RICO laws against unions.

Heydon leapt on this idea, telling Kane: “If anyone within Boral does have ideas for the future regulation of institutions so as to avoid this happening in the future, we’d be interested in seeing that”.

Heydon returned to this theme in his interim report last year, where he explored a vast array of possible charges against CFMEU officials, including possible charges of blackmail against John Setka and Shaun Reardon.

According to legal experts this is new ground. It seems that before this year there has never been a charge of blackmail arising from an industrial dispute.

Blackmail is a serious charge, carrying a possible penalty of fifteen years in jail. The overwhelming majority of those convicted of blackmail spend time in prison. The fact that John Setka is alleged to have made an industrial threat, to achieve an industrial outcome, and ends up on a serious criminal charge, is an obvious threat to every unionist in the country.

It’s the drive to shackle unions and boost profits which is driving this offensive. So today’s strike and rally was important: walking off the job, disrupting production and profits, has to be at the heart of an effective response.

In 1969, union leader Clarrie O’Shea was freed from Pentridge Prison by a rolling general strike that smashed the anti-union “penal powers” laws of the day. We can’t snap our fingers and bring back those days, but mass defiance is the orientation we need. As Maritime Union of Australia member Peter Klischat told Red Flag : “The world’s changing and they’re fucking screwing us. Big business and the trade union royal commission are trying to shaft us. We need everyone in the streets. We need to stop the whole country, that’d work”.