Australian union in court over alleged crane interference

Two union officials face Federal Court proceedings in Australia over allegations that they entered the cabin of an operating crane to press the driver on pay rates and union membership.

One of them used profane language and an insulting gesture to site staff, and interrupted the crane’s operation for 20 minutes, it is alleged.

The Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner (ABCC), a statutory agency that monitors labour relations, has commenced proceedings against the activist Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) and two of its officials for the alleged breach of laws, which ABCC says took place last June at the Living City waterfront redevelopment project in Devonport, Tasmania.

ABCC claims Richard Hassett and Kevin Harkins "hindered, obstructed and acted in an improper manner" at the site on 5 and 6 June 2017, and failed to comply with occupational health and safety requirements.

The maximum penalty for a breach of the Fair Work Act (FWA) in this case is $54,000 for organisations and $10,800 for individuals.

Relations between CFMMEU and construction employers are often hostile. In March the union and a number of its officials were fined, in total, more than A$800,000 for breaches to the FWA during work stoppages at two major construction sites in Brisbane in 2013.

In its statement of claim filed in the Federal Court in Tasmania, the ABCC alleged that Harkins and Hassett came to the Living City site first at about 12pm on 5 June 2017, citing safety as a reason for their site entry.

In the ABCC’s account, when a site manager asked Hassett for his entry notice, Hassett showed the site manager the middle finger and said words to the effect of "Get f–ked, that will never happen."

Hassett then climbed into the cabin of a crane that was in operation, says the ABCC, and stopped it from performing its work for about 20 minutes while he spoke to the operator about pay rates and joining the union.

This happened despite a sign on the crane stating "No unauthorised interruption of operator during crane operation", the ABCC says.

According to the ABCC, while speaking to the crane operator, Hassett called the construction manager who told Hassett, in effect, "Get off the crane it’s unsafe."

On the following day, Hassett entered the site and stopped the crane again while it was in operation, the ABCC alleges.

Hassett then told the crane operator that "we are chasing [the subcontractor] to sign an EBA" to which the crane operator replied "You are speaking to the wrong person, get off my crane", the ABCC says.

Separately, the union is now using legal tactics to hit back at employers who want to keep it off their jobs.

Last week it succeeded in having the Fair Work Commission quash a deal between CPB Contractors, formerly Leighton, and another union, the Australian Workers Union, considered more moderate, that covered all civil projects in Victoria up to A$1bn in contract value.

Image: CFMMEU members on the march (CFMMEU)

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