Victorian construction union boss John Setka has become a poster boy for his enemies and his allies. He’s a poster boy for a strong union standing up for its members in a tough, unsafe industry – that’s his allies’ standpoint. For the federal government and the construction industry, he is an uncompromising, law-breaking thug and bully.
This argument has been going on for years. Setka became the state secretary of the militant construction division of the Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Electrical Union in 2012. The maritime division is a Johnny-come-lately – adding another M to the CFMMEU.
The militancy of the construction union is nothing new. Its predecessor, the BLF or Builders Labourers Federation, was deregistered by the Hawke Labor Government for its unsavory practices. Bob Hawke before he died expressed the opinion that the Setka led union should face a similar fate – a suggestion the Morrison Coalition Government has leaped on with relish.
New Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has not gone quite that far yet – he is, after all, in opposition but the Prime Minister is about to set a big test for him. Scott Morrison has flagged he will reintroduce the Ensuring Integrity Bill to parliament. The Bill’s purpose is to make it easier to deregister unions and recalcitrant union bosses. It was withdrawn in the last term after it was obvious it lacked the numbers in the Senate. Its failure was because the crossbench, or enough of it, agreed with Labor and the Greens that it was lopsidedly targeted at rogue unions and turning a blind eye to businesses who were often complicit in questionable behaviour.
There is no doubt that partisan politics is a real factor here. The unions, particularly big wealthy ones like the CFMMEU, help bankroll Labor and, by their affiliation, are integral to the processes of the Labor Party. From a political point of view, you can understand the Liberals wanting to nobble them. And that’s why so many in the union movement and the Labor Party are furious with John Setka. His union’s history of law-breaking and paying millions of dollars in fines as a cost to their business as usual has not been confronted in any meaningful way by the Labor Party or the broader union movement.
This was always a bad look for the Labor Party but what has made it worse is Setka being caught in a mire of violence towards a woman – there’s a court case in Melbourne and the union boss has pleaded guilty in a plea bargain with police.
It was the background to this case that tipped the balance against Setka leading to Albanese’s move to expel him from the Labor Party and ACTU secretary Sally McManus urging him to quit his post.
The Setka blow-up is no sideshow for either leader. But for Albanese, it is his moment to show he is not beholden to powerful sectional interests with appalling, out-of-date attitudes to violence against women.