Australia’s biggest construction union has been hit with an “unprecedented” $1.25 million fine for illegally blocking workers from Melbourne building sites.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) was fined and ordered to pay costs for ignoring court orders which outlawed the blockades.
Victorian Supreme Court Justice Anthony Cavanough said only the hefty fine would do justice to the blatant defiance of the court.
“I regard the contempts as exceptionally serious, so much so that they warrant explicit classification as criminal contempts, perhaps for the first time in the Australian industrial context,” he said.
The union said it was not seeking to put itself above the law, but to save lives on building sites.
“Building workers need someone on site who genuinely represents their interests, and that doesn’t happen when that person is hand-picked by the boss,” a CFMEU statement said.
The CFMEU has maintained its conflict with Grocon was over safety issues.
The union began a blockade of Grocon’s Emporium site in the Melbourne CBD in August 2012, stopping workers from entering for about two weeks and choking peak-hour traffic.
It was fined $1 million for the four days it defied a court order to cease the blockade, including the day unionists clashed with police as about 1000 people gathered outside the site.
Justice Cavanough also fined the union a further $250,000 for preventing vehicle access at a site in Footscray in September 2012 and another in Collins Street in Melbourne in April 2013.
Grocon called the ruling a defining moment for the construction industry.
“It should be clear to the Victorian CFMEU that old-style bullying and intimidation has no place in a modern workplace or the broader union movement,” a company statement said.
“The construction industry must take a stand to eradicate this sort of lawless behaviour and require all players to simply obey the law.”
Victorian Planning Minister Matthew Guy said the fines sent a strong message to the union.
“It’s the strongest ruling of its kind against a union in Australia,” he said.
Victorian Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews said no one was above the law.
“What went on was appalling behaviour. It should not happen again,” the Labor leader said.
The ruling has prompted renewed calls for the Senate to pass legislation to bring back construction watchdog the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
Describing the fines as unprecedented, federal Employment Minister Eric Abetz accused Labor of running a “protection racket” for unions.
“Bill Shorten and Labor, together with the Australian Greens, are blocking the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the creation of a Registered Organisations Commission.”
The Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI) and the Master Builders also called for the return of the ABCC.
Documents tendered to the court show the CFMEU Victorian/Tasmanian branch had the means to pay the penalty.
The branch had cash at bank and short-term deposits of $12.38 million with net assets of $51.93 million, according to the documents.