CUB dispute: Police finally drop charge against ETU organiser

Eighteen months, one Herald Sun cover, half a dozen national news articles and multiple court appearances after he was charged with assault, Victoria Police have dropped their case against Steven Diston, Electrical Trades Union organiser. Admitting they had no prospects of winning in court, Victoria Police withdrew charges against Diston just weeks before his case was due to be heard.

The bogus assault charge stemmed from an incident at the high profile union protest outside the Carlton and United Brewery in Abbotsford in 2016. Around four months into the dispute, with pressure mounting on the company, a manager ventured through the picket one early morning and tried to attack Diston.

Speaking to Red Flag, Diston said the manager “snapped” before grabbing, and trying to headbutt, him. A video recording of the brief interaction clearly shows the union organiser attempting to calm the aggressor, who eventually backs down and walks into the brewery. “It wasn’t a big deal”, said Diston, who expected the matter of the manager’s incursion to end there.

Instead, within a few hours, two police cars were on site and numerous officers were inside the brewery taking statements from CUB management. “We could see them conducting interviews through the windows from our scaffold”, Diston said. Then, after three hours inside, the police bundled back into their cars and drove off without so much as a word with Diston or the 14 other witnesses to the event – unionists on early morning picket duty. “I was completely gobsmacked”, he said.

By the next day, a manager’s puffed chest attempt to intimidate a union organiser had turned into a Herald Sun front page about “union thugs” bashing a sickly CUB worker on the picket line. “It’s things like that that bring it home”, Diston said about the impact the bizarre media coverage had on picketers. “You can talk about the lies they’ll print, but until you see it, you don’t believe it”, he said. “It just made the boys stronger.”

With the backing of the ETU, Diston vigorously fought the charge from the start. He reflects on his experience as an insight into how the police and the criminal justice system can be used to intervene on the bosses’ side in an industrial dispute. “The police have the power to lay charges on completely innocent people and disrupt their lives immensely for whatever purpose they choose … [and] drop the charges before it hits court and it costs them nothing”, he said.

Despite pleading not guilty at the earliest opportunity, at his pre-trial hearing Victoria Police’s colourful account of the incident had Diston “sounding like a cross between Pol Pot and Ghengis Khan”, he said. “I would have locked me up given [the police] description.” The mountain of evidence in his favour meant little to a system happy to accept the company and police narrative.

Throughout the saga, Diston and his lawyers pushed for police to interview the 14-odd witnesses to the event in question. They were astounded when police finally conceded they had no intention of speaking to the only witnesses to the whole incident. Why? All 14 were union members, and investigators had deemed their evidence to be worthless.

If you Google Steven Diston today, the internet will tell you he’s the union organiser charged with assault at the CUB picket. It won’t tell you that the police’s flimsy case against him was doomed from the beginning or that it collapsed before making it to trial. The Herald Sun hasn’t issued an apology for its front page splash or even reported that the charges were dropped. Diston could probably sue the paper for defamation, but he won’t bother. “It’s a system designed by the ruling class, for the ruling class”, he said. He’ll just keep fighting it instead.