Analysis: Some Thoughts on the September 20 Attack on CFMEU HQ

I am a rank and file CFMMEU Construction Division member (hereafter CFMEU) and have prepared this report for the Workers Solidarity Bulletin as part of the collective process of CFMEU members -and all unionists and progressives - grappling with the violent attack on CFMEU staff and officials on September 20. My hope is to contribute to an analysis of why the attacks occurred, and how to confront the forces behind the attack. It is not my intention to use this opportunity to attack the CFMEU leadership.

Other writers have analysed the extent to which the protest of September 20 was composed of actual CFMEU members combined with reactionary, far right and neo fascist elements. Regardless of the exact proportions of who was in attendance and regardless of criticisms that one may have of certain actions the union leadership has or has not taken in recent years, physically attacking and seeking to violently intimidate elected officials and union staff, and laying siege to and trashing the CFMEU office, is absolutely unacceptable and abhorrent. At the time of writing it has become evident that in addition to being physically attacked, several CFMEU officials and staff were also infected with Covid-19 by the mostly unmasked crowd on September 20.

Whilst I do not wish to attack the CFMEU, I think it would also be a mistake just to blame outside forces for the events of September 20 and to not analyse how the approach of the Union to the pandemic and to anti vaxx and vaccine hesitant members in its ranks may have contributed to the situation. My thoughts here are written in the spirit of comradely discussion and analysis.

Rise of the Conspiracy Nuts

The first thing to say about the September 20 attack is that it comes in the context of mainstream right wing commentators and a maelstrom of reactionary social media commentary attacking necessary health measures and promoting conspiratorial nonsense about vaccines. This has led to the proliferation of “freedom” protests in Australia and across the globe. Whilst neo nazi groups are active in this reactionary swamp and are seeking to use it as a recruitment vehicle, they could not accurately be described as its ‘vanguard’ or primary leadership. We know that a section of the working class, including unionists - in the context of the economic and social pain caused by marathon and often heavy-handed and authoritarian lockdowns and restrictions - have been lured into the toxic thinking of the conspiracists.

Anti vaxx, anti lockdown protestors had initially organised a protest at the CFMEU office on Saturday September 18 but this was basically shifted to Monday September 20 after police and the Victorian government shut down public transport to try and stop the Saturday rally.

Vic Government’s Top Down Response

Another factor in the events of September 20 was the abrupt announcement by the Victorian government on Thursday September 16 that the construction industry would be subject to tea room closures, and that not only would vaccination be mandatory for the construction industry, but workers had just one week to get their first shot. These policies, a rushed, half-baked and impractical band-aid response to a rash of covid transmission on construction sites, were announced without consultation. The tea room closure policy, which effectively meant there was now no safe designated place for workers to wash their hands and eat a meal at work without risk of injury, triggered wildcat roadblock protests by CFMEU members on Friday September 17, and a flurry of negotiation between the union and employers over the weekend to try and find a workaround, such as working six hours with no breaks, for eight hours pay. No compromise was reached, and so some workers on city jobs walked off, or were sent home, on Monday morning September 20. This context of chaos and disarray triggered by the new rules meant some workers who might not otherwise have attended the rescheduled anti lockdown rally headed for the CFMEU office seeking clarity around what the hell was going on. We can also surmise that a number of CFMEU members more consciously aligned with the anti lockdown protests did mobilise there on that specific basis.

The CFMEU Approach to the Pandemic

At this point it is worth briefly assessing how the CFMEU has approached the pandemic. The union has arguably adopted a “small target” approach to unionism over the last decade or more, whereby it avoids taking too much of an overt public stance on broader social and policy matters and focuses more or less exclusively on winning better pay and improved conditions for members. This approach broadens the appeal of the union to layers of members who might otherwise view it as being too  ‘radical’ and ‘left wing’. Whilst there is a certain logic to this approach, the tradeoff is that the union plays less of a role in providing ideological leadership and direction to its members.

It is in this context that in April 2020 the union announced it was forming a “united front” with the bosses in order to push to keep the construction industry open through the pandemic. The union promised to implement rigorous virus control measures on union sites and pledged to follow the advice of the Chief Health Officer, even though arguably lobbying to keep the industry open is not congruent with passively obeying the advice of the Chief Health Officer.

Whilst by all accounts many members – possibly a majority - supported this approach, others were concerned that it represented an abandonment of the “safety first” principle that has traditionally guided the union. Concerningly, large numbers of members raising concerns along these lines at the CFMEU Facebook page – that pushing to keep the industry open during a pandemic was intrinsically risky – had their comments deleted by CFMEU facebook admins. This had the not so subtle effect of telling those members that their views were not welcome. More recently, in the weeks and months leading up to the September 20 attack, in the context of a vocal chorus of anti vaxxers trolling the CFMEU on facebook, the union emphasised that it does not support mandatory vaccination and would defend workers who chose not to get the jab. To be fair, John Setka got the jab, and appeared in a video encouraging members to speak to a doctor about getting the jab. But there certainly was not a sustained mobilisation of the union’s substantial resources to run TV, radio and newspaper ads actively encouraging members to get the jab.

I would contend that the union’s approach to staying open during the pandemic, and to vaccine mandates, was sufficiently ambiguous that a more backward section of the membership was able to interpret the union’s stance as follows:

(a) fighting the vaccine mandate  -with every weapon at the union’s disposal, up to and including strikes - was an absolute top priority, and that if it failed to do so this would represent some sort of huge historic “sellout” on par with supporting workchoices or the like, and

(b) the union’s other key role was to fight to keep the industry open, and by extension push back against the Andrews government’s lockdowns; regardless of how bad the pandemic gets and regardless of how much transmission was occurring in the construction industry.

My honest view is that by promoting a sort of exceptionalism that said the ordinary lockdown rules that applied to other industries should not apply to construction workers, and by failing to more clearly advocate in support of members getting vaccinated, this emboldened anti-lockdown and anti-vaxx or vaccine hesitant CFMEU members. This was in turn a factor in the confluence of CFMEU members and far right actors on September 20.

Promoting Vaccines and an Independent Approach to Workplace Safety

The question of whether the covid vaccine should be mandatory for various industries such as construction has compelling arguments for and against. It is not in the scope of this article to explore these arguments. Suffice to say, by my reckoning the weight of opinion in the CFMEU and in the trade union movement more broadly is that based on both longstanding principle and also as a tactical response to the conspiracists and far right, the union movement should continue to oppose mandatory vaccination other than in specific workplaces directly involved in caring for people particularly at risk, or quarantine etc.

Let us for the sake of argument assume that going forward, unions as a whole are opposed to mandatory vaccination, and will provide legal support to those who don’t want to get vaccinated. Even so, in my view it is crucially important that all unions should be running newspaper, TV and radio ads right now; putting billboards and posters up; sending texts and letters to members; putting lots of material on social media and articles in union magazines and journals very actively encouraging members to get vaccinated and educating members as to why the vaccine is safe, how it works, and how it will help reduce transmission and hospitalisation. Such ads could also actively encourage union members to be proactive in implementing other covid safety measures onsite and stopping work if those measures aren’t up to scratch; such ads might even call for more funding and resources for hospitals and danger pay for healthcare workers.

By taking this approach the union would more clearly and accurately articulate – both to its own membership and to society more broadly - its actual stance, which is that whilst vaccines should not be mandatory, unions nonetheless very strongly encourage all workers to get vaccinated.

Such an approach would help to politically isolate and push back against actively anti vaxxer agitators both inside and outside of the union movement, and would embolden the majority of rank and file members who are vaccinated to talk to their vaccine hesitant workmates and try and get them to do the sensible thing and get vaccinated.

United Response

Responding to the conspiracists and far right elements running amok during the pandemic and seeking to disrupt their efforts to build a base in trade unions has been difficult as more or less all progressives and trade unionists have wanted to comply with pandemic control measures in order to limit the spread of covid 19. Counter protesting the reactionaries carries the real risk of adding to a potential super spreader event. On top of this, due to the size of the anti-vaxxer mobilisations and the extremely violent and repressive actions of police in response, counter protests would need to be quite large to maximise the safety of participants – but this only increases the risk of creating a major virus spreading event.

In recent years it has mainly fallen upon the far left to counter-protest fascist organisations attempting to build a base in Victoria. Attempts to warn trade unions that fascists were trying to cohere a base in the union movement were largely ignored. Whilst rank and file trade unionists have played an important role in groups like CARF organising and counter protesting the fascists, by and large the trade unions did not mobilise their members to counter protest the fascists.

This meant victories were not as decisive, overwhelming and demoralising for the fascists as they could have been, but perhaps more importantly it has meant that trade unions missed an opportunity to inoculate their membership base against the far right by actively being part of tackling them. An opportunity for unions to engage in anti-fascist praxis was missed. Perhaps this was because union leaders did not want their organisations to be portrayed as violent when scuffles inevitably broke out; perhaps it was because they did not want to antagonise the more conservative elements of their membership base, who aren’t fascists, but who are uncomfortable at the idea of their union being involved in such a ‘radical’ cause.

As a rank and file CFMEU member, I can’t help but think that if my union and other major unions had been part of actively mobilising their members to protest fascist organisations like Reclaim Australia, UPF, True Blue Crew etc in the 2015-2018 period, the ugly events of September 20 would’ve been less likely to have occurred. Whilst the attack on the CFMEU can be attributed to several factors and was a confluence of different forces, and therefore cannot simplistically be described as a fascist mobilisation, it is undoubtably the case that there were fascist elements involved and it’s also the case that a certain number of CFMEU members at that rally were not only familiar with figures like Avi Yemini but were glad to march alongside them.

Anyone with the most cursory education into how fascists seek to infiltrate, disrupt and damage trade unions as part of their broader attempt to seize state power should be extremely concerned by this development and should take it extremely seriously.

I believe that once it is safe to mobilise in large groups again it’s important to organise a very large, united mobilisation of progressives and trade unionists denouncing the attack on the CFMEU on September 20 and making it clear that we will not be intimidated by fascists within or outside of our ranks, nor will we tolerate their presence. I am hopeful that some mainstream voices within the trade union movement who up until now have not been particularly active in confronting the far right in Victoria will clock the urgency of this, and will be open to being part of such a mobilisation. This sort of mobilisation would be a first step toward breaking the confidence of the fascists, and also a first step toward inoculating our unions against infiltration by far right elements.