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What triggered Melbourne’s union protests – from on the ground

27 September 2021

4:00 AM

27 September 2021

4:00 AM

What actually triggered the mass civil disobedience by construction workers last week in Melbourne? The following is a record of the version of events relayed to me from construction workers who were on the ground, massed outside the CFMEU union headquarters in Elizabeth Street just north of Melbourne’s iconic Queen Victoria Market. 

The ‘trigger’, of course, starts with the 230-plus days of lockdown. Construction workers have families. They may have been a privileged group who’ve been allowed to keep working but each day they’d go home to stressed-out, locked-up families.   

What pre-empted the rally on Monday 20 September outside the CFMEU fortress was a series of government emails during the previous weekend.   

The construction sector is organised through cascading contracts. The big contractors employ very few workers. Actual work is done overwhelmingly by small business subcontractors. They are frequently family businesses of, say, 10 to 20 workers, where the ‘bosses’ work on the tools with their workers.  

The government emails went to the subcontractors/owners telling them that all their workers had to be vaccinated by Thursday 23 September (three days notice) or they would be banned from working. The owners rang their workers. For all sorts of reasons, the timeline for the forced jabs was hard to meet. 

In addition, although large numbers of workers were vaccinated, many had held back with concerns. Whether rational or not, the swirl of conflicting medical information creates confusion even heightened fear. For example, the Queensland Chief Health Officer has slammed AstraZeneca, saying don’t have it if you’re under 40. Workers ask: “Can I get a blood clot”? “Is my fertility at risk?” And more.  

The weekend diktat to be injected, issued through email by faceless Victorian government bureaucrats, was a masterclass in how not to communicate. The Monday morning mass rally outside CFMEU fortress occurred organically because the workers wanted the CFMEU bosses, headed by John Setka, to talk with the government. Several hundred had gathered.  

According to construction workers, the story goes that Setka initially came out to talk with them. He then promised that he would talk with the government and asked the workers to give him an hour to make phone calls. The workers waited.  

But then the workers were alerted that Setka was on Melbourne 3AW talk back radio bagging the workers. He condemned the workers as drunken morons, not true construction workers and more. Next, word quickly spread that a mass of police had formed at the rear of CFMEU fortress, allegedly ‘ordered’ in by Setka. The workers became incensed at the perceived betrayal of them by the CFMEU boss.  

Then rumours, as relayed to me, spread that the CFMEU bosses were on the ‘take’ to the tune of millions of dollars from either the Victorian government or pharmaceutical companies. By this point what was true or false had ceased to be relevant. Betrayal was the issue. Setka then appeared, seemingly unaware that the workers knew of his radio interview and the rumoured police presence. He asked them to be calm. They turned on him with a barrage of abuse and water and soft drink cans, which forced Setka and his bodyguards to retreat into the fortress. 

The rest of Monday was a distanced stand-off between police protecting the CFMEU fortress and the workers whose numbers had grown substantially. 

The following day, Tuesday 21 September, was remarkable. Melbourne CBD was ‘occupied’ but thousands of predominantly construction workers. Yes, non-construction rabble-rousers also joined, but were comparatively small in number and scattered. The police and government media units pumped out propaganda about violence that was swallowed by some in the media. But the extensive live feed footage from within the crowd showed a remarkably peaceful walk through the CBD that then moved to the Westgate Bridge and freeway.    

There was one central theme on display on Tuesday. It was simple. No forced vaccinations. In ‘workers’ language it can perhaps be expressed as follows. “Even if I’m vaccinated, if my (worker) mate is worried and doesn’t want to be vaccinated, I stand by my mate.”   

From Wednesday 22 September onwards, the protestors are clearly only of the hardcore anti-vaccination crowd, numbering in the few hundred, playing cat and mouse with the police. This hardcore group is principally an oddly formed alliance between some hard right-wingers and sections of the Greens movement. But they keep coming out each day and have injected such apparent fear into Victoria Police that the anti-terrorist squad have been brought into play.  

That the police have lost the plot on ‘community policing is witnessed by the sight of anti-terrorist police with machine gun-type armoury chasing unarmed protestors through the central shopping malls of Melbourne CBD. That they are backed by armoured vehicles with some sort of gun turret on the roof is chilling.  

What has occurred since Tuesday is that the construction workers have melted back into the suburbs. They made their point on Tuesday and that was enough. 

But the most immediate observation from Monday and Tuesday is as follows.  

The state government botched its communication on a grand scale. Operating as a dictatorship to force people into undertaking a medical procedure strikes at the heart of liberty. To think that this would not cause a reaction reflects gross dumbness by the government. 

The CFMEU leadership then, according to construction workers, stabbed them in the back in an act of high ‘comrade treason’.  

The outcome was that on Tuesday the CBD walk-through by thousands could effectively prove to be a virus super-spreader event of enormous proportions. If it proves to be so it’s entirely a result of the Victorian government’s gross community mismanagement.  

For a state government that has proven incompetent at managing Covid-19, this has been a grand example of its incompetence, surpassed only by its botched handling of the hotel quarantine program in 2020. And it did it in partnership with the construction union bosses and the Victoria Police.  

Ken Phillips is Executive Director of Self Employed Australia. 

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