Read About It
Published in

Read About It

CFMEU health and safety officer Peter Clark.

Heroes or villains?

Inside the CFMEU

Dare to struggle

THEO Theodorou’s week has started off badly and is only going to get worse. The previous Friday, Theodorou woke to find his name in print in Melbourne’s two daily newspapers as the latest CFMEU official to be charged by Fair Work Building and Construction.

The CFMEU organiser is alleged to have acted unlawfully by attempting to force a demolition sub-contractor to sign an enterprise agreement with the union.

The media stories put a dampener on Theodorou’s weekend, which should have been a celebration of his involvement in coaching a young team of footballers to a premiership flag, and the dark cloud still hasn’t lifted by Monday morning.

“In this job, when the phone rings, you know it’s not going to be someone calling to say ‘how are you going?’,” he explains during a visit to a large residential construction project in Richmond.

“It’s going to be a worker injured, or a guy who has had a fall, or someone who hasn’t been paid, a builder who has gone broke and you have to go and chase the builder.”

Theodorou has no way of knowing that 24 hours later, his 71-year-old father will be seriously injured when he is struck on the head by an overloaded bin lifter on a Brookfield Multiplex building site just a few hundred metres from the CFMEU’s offices in Swanston Street.

Andrew Theodorou’s skull is cracked and an eye socket shattered by the accident. For several days, while he recuperates in a trauma unit in hospital, it is touch and go whether he will lose sight in one of his eyes.

CFMEU organiser Theo Theodorou: “In this job, when the phone rings, you know it’s not going to be someone calling to say ‘how are you going’.”

Even in an industry with one of the highest death and serious injury rates in Australia, Theodorou senior’s accident is a sharp reminder that the ever-present dangers of construction work are close to home.

“It shook everyone up,” says Gerry Ayers, the manager of the CFMEU’s environmental and occupational health and safety unit.

“It really brings it home to you. It’s like the road toll — the statistics don’t mean anything until you are personally affected by knowing someone in a car accident.”

At the exact same moment as Theodorou senior’s accident, the CFMEU was preparing for another day in the Heydon royal commission into trade unions, to be grilled over — of all things — the revenue it makes from soft drink vending machines on building sites.

It has been noted elsewhere that the royal commission has been far more concerned about petty financial issues than the dangerous reality of everyday working life on CBD building sites. It says volumes about the misguided priorities of this most political of royal commissions.

His father’s injury is not the first time the taciturn Theo Theodorou has had a brush with the serious injury — or even death — on building sites since he joined the industry as an apprentice carpenter two decades ago.

It fell upon Theodorou to help identify the body of CFMEU member Bill Ramsay and arrange for his body to be taken away when he fell 10 storeys to his death from a crane at a Grocon building site on 18 February last year.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing one of your colleagues being taken out in a body bag, and I’ve had to do that,” Theodorou says. “You never forget that.”

A tabloid staple

THEY are either working class heroes standing up for building and construction workers everywhere against greedy employers and conservative governments. Or they are criminal thugs and standover men, exercising their muscle on building sites to benefit their own interests.

No union comes close to dividing public opinion like the construction division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

They are loved by their members and loathed by the big building contractors and Coalition politicians.

Are they heroes or villains?

Whichever side you are on, there can be no doubt that the portrayal of the CFMEU has all the hallmarks of that old tabloid staple: the bogeyman onto which we project all our anxieties, a convenient whipping boy for hysteria about bikie gangs, organised crime and law and order.

Public enemy number one. A menace to society. And so on.

For more than a decade now, the union has been probed, it has been investigated, it has been prosecuted and persecuted, through two royal commissions, the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the courts.

And none more so than the 27,000-strong Victorian branch, routinely described as the most militant in Australia.

And now the union is once again within the sights of its enemies, this time through the Heydon royal commission.

Yet despite the best efforts of its enemies to destroy it, the union still stands tall.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing one of your colleagues being taken out in a body bag.”

A key to understanding the spirit of the CFMEU is to pick up a copy of the union’s glossy journal, CFMEU Worker, and read the words of its larger than life Victorian Secretary John Setka:

“I don’t care what they think of us,” he writes in the Spring 2014 edition. “It’s you I care about. Because you are the ones who build this city, you are the ones who stand up with us to fight for our rights. And you are the ones that will continue the legacy of this strong, militant union.”

It is a theme of defiance that is repeated again and again.

“Some of the conditions we get, the bosses might not like them, but they’re not there for the bosses,” says Scott McDonald, an employee of prominent building demolition contractor Delta Group. “It’s not like we’re overpaid, but someone’s got to do the work we do.”

When it comes to the CFMEU, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish fact from fiction — and like most things, the truth is much more complex than the media clichés.

What if you could peek behind the curtain to understand better what makes the CFMEU tick? What is it about the union that inspires such loyalty among its 27,000 Victorian members, hardworking men and women doing tough physical labour erecting the gleaming apartment towers and office skyscrapers that are crowding out the city’s skyline?

Working Life has been granted unique access to the Victorian branch of the CFMEU — deliberately not the union’s high-profile political leaders, but the foot soldiers: the organisers, shop stewards, health and safety officials and education officers — as well as its rank-and-file members with their boots on the ground — to get behind the tabloid headlines and explore the reality of the CFMEU.

The people we spoke to don’t claim to be saints, but they equally won’t take a backward step when it comes to the health and safety and welfare of their members.

Away from the hothouse of politics and the royal commission, life goes on at the union. The offices are quiet, with a soft buzz of people working and apart from a few posters on the walls, you would not be aware that this was a union under siege.

What we found is a union living up to its motto: Dare to struggle, dare to win.

Safety comes first

ACROSS the road from the CFMEU state office in Swanston Street is another constant reminder of the hazards of the construction industry.

A modest memorial has been erected in honour of young brother and sister Alexander and Bridget Jones and French engineer Marie Faith-Fiawoo — three innocent pedestrians who were killed when an old brick wall collapsed and fell on them the day before Good Friday on 28 March last year.

Anne Duggan was in the CFMEU building at the moment the wall gave way.

“I heard the noise — at first I thought it was a plane going down,” says the head of the CFMEU’s education and training unit, looking down on the shrine from the union building’s second floor tea room. “It was awful. There was dust everywhere.”

Among the first on the scene were John Setka and Assistant Secretary Shaun Reardon, who were soon joined by others in a scramble to remove the bricks and revive the victims.

The fact that the builder was once again Grocon — with whom the CFMEU was in the midst of a bitter dispute over workplace safety — was not lost on anyone.

The dispute with Grocon has become symbolic of a wider struggle in the construction sector to preserve the independence of worker-elected health and safety representatives, rather than ones appointed by employers.

The memorial for the three victims of the Melbourne CUB wall collapse, across the road from the CFMEU offices.

Site visitors

IT’S shortly before midday on Wednesday and the Melbourne CBD is pulsing with workers and students grabbing a bite to eat or doing some lunch hour shopping.

The dozens of building sites scattered through the Hoddle Grid are momentarily quiet as workers take their meal break.

Peter Clark and Alex Tadic push through the teeming crowds on their way to a site visit in Latrobe Street. Both men are similar in build but different in personality: the talkative, chain-smoking Tadic, a gold ring in each ear, is a bundle of pent-up nervous energy, while the older, wizened Clark has a laconic, been there/done that manner.

They are already wearing their bright orange visibility vests with ‘CFMEU OFFICIAL’ in bold black capital letters on the back and over their front breast; in their hands are their shiny black helmets, plastered with colourful stickers bearing messages like “CFMEU — too tough to die” and “Well, f–k me, I’ve been banned by Baillieu”.

On the way to the site, they both discuss how they ended up doing what they do: Tadic came to the role from operating cranes and as a dogman, while Clark worked as a labourer.

“The way I’ve always looked at it is the workers are entitled to have a safe workplace,” explains Tadic.

“We will never be unemployed, put it that way. There’s so many risks out there.”

Their destination is an old Coptic Orthodox church building which is being converted into up-scale apartments and a multi-level car park.

CFMEU health and safety officer Alex Tadic meeting with a demolition crew in Melbourne’s CBD.

Demolition has just begun. It is a delicate job, preserving the façade of the church while building a 43-storey tower behind it, and the small crew of workers have been removing brick walls and timber floors by hand.

Both the demolition company, Delta, and the builder, Probuild, are tier one operators who have a reasonably good relationship with the union — and this site is not one of the “dirty, grubby jobs” so loathed by the union — but Tadic and Clark still want to pop in to make sure everything is going well.

Health and safety rep Steve Balta and the two union officers each other well — Balta has been a shop steward/HSR for 13 years and runs a tight ship.

They exchange greetings with a couple of Probuild managers before putting on their helmets so Balta can take Tadic and Clark through the building.

The main church hall is currently still intact, but other levels are in advanced states of demolition. An adjacent block is a pile of rubble.

Tadic and Clark make a few observations, but everything seems to be shipshape until Tadic points out a darkened stairwell that needs lighting or somebody could have a bad fall.

“Yep, onto it,” says Balta.

Demolition is an especially hazardous part of the construction industry because it is so dusty, the environment is constantly changing, and the ever-present risk that a building could contain asbestos that no-one was aware of.

“Why am I going to be nice to a boss who exposes workers to unsafe practices. I’m going to swear if I have to. I’m not going to be shy about it.”

Back in the lunch room down the laneway, the crew of six currently employed on the demolition are listening to a “toolbox” safety briefing from a Probuild representative before finishing their break and returning to work.

Today, the men are being told about a nasty incident where a worker in another part of the city had his faced scorched by acid.

“I have been doing this for so long, but every day you learn something new, because every day on a building site, the job changes,” says Balta. “I’ve seen a lot of close calls, but luckily no deaths yet.”

Clark chips in: “We live with a lot of luck. It’s just amazing there aren’t more incidents. We see it so many times when there’s been an incident and you wonder how come someone wasn’t killed.”

Balta says it is frustrating that the Australian construction industry is one of the safest and most productive in the world — thanks to the CFMEU — yet the union still gets attacked.

“I can guarantee you now, not one of those apartments would be sold a dollar cheaper if they got rid of our conditions,” he says. “They would be the same price.”

After a short group pep-talk, Tadic and Clark are on the move again. Their next destination is another site just a hundred metres further up the hill in Latrobe Street.

This project — a 36-storey student apartment building — is more advanced than down the road with the lift core now several storeys out of the ground, and about 20 men are working on the site, which will quickly grow to more than 100.

The site is a hive of activity, with men constantly up and down the narrow ladders and metal formwork being passed between levels.

Again, Clark and Tadic do a full walk through with the shop steward Milan “Mills” Kutlesa. A few minor hazards are identified, but nothing major.

On the way out, they stop to talk to Charlie Parascandalo, a dogman and rigger who has been in the industry for 31 years.

“Safety has improved a long way since I started,” he says. “Things have gotten easier. It’s thanks to the union.”

By now it is early afternoon. Tadic and Clark stop off for a coffee — two long blacks, no sugar — at a café in Latrobe Street before heading back to their office.

They discuss the two sites they’ve visited — both builders are fairly reputable, and in Balta and Kutlesa, the sites are in good hands with seasoned shop stewards.

One of the criticisms levelled at the CFMEU by employers and governments is that the union uses health and safety as a “Trojan horse” to get industrial leverage — an accusation that Tadic furiously rejects.

“I’m known to swear a bit,” he says, recalling evidence to the Heydon royal commission about the aggressive language used by CFMEU organisers.

“But you know what? You might have an immediate risk when something is unsafe and if someone is standing in my way, waving a piece of paper in my face, saying I need to fill out the paperwork or I can’t go on the site, there is no time to be nice.

“Why am I going to be nice to a boss who exposes workers to unsafe practices. I’m going to swear if I have to. I’m not going to be shy about it.”

George Koussoulas at a building site in Richmond.

Dare to win

ANNE Duggan is a small woman, slight even. But looks can be deceptive, and should the need arise she can be as tough and determined as they come.

In May 2002, Duggan, who is the co-ordinator of the Victorian CFMEU’s education and training unit, was threatened with up to six months jail after she refused to co-operate with a demand from the Cole Royal Commission to hand over pages of documents with the names and personal details of every shop steward who had been trained by the union.

Duggan declined to hand over the names of union activists for two reasons: she feared they would be targeted and harassed by the royal commission’s investigators to give false or misleading statements that would damage the union; and an even more basic concern that once their names were publicly known as those of union activists, they would be discriminated against by employers.

The stand off lasted several weeks before, perhaps aware that jailing a woman would be a bad look for his royal commission, Terence Cole blinked. The union’s then state secretary, Martin Kingham, was later charged but was acquitted by a Magistrate in 2003.

“It was pretty full on,” Duggan says now. “With those sorts of things, you don’t want to let anyone down.”

Now the union is again in the spotlight from another royal commission, this time headed by former High Court judge Dyson Heydon.

It is a stressful time for everyone, even though this time around Duggan has not been called as a witness.

“Some days, people get disheartened by the headlines,” she says. “But most of us have the attitude of what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. You would be pretty hard pushed to think it’s anything other than a political exercise.”

‘Knowledge is power’

DUGGAN, 58, is the driving force behind the CFMEU’s phenomenally successful education and training unit.

It began in 1993 with just Duggan, an ex-secondary school teacher as its only employee, and in the intervening 21 years more than 55,000 workers have completed training courses run by the unit.

Today, it has 22 directly employed staff plus many more part-time trainers, and offers courses to more than 10,000 workers a year on subjects as diverse as asbestos removal, computers, first aid, operating a crane, and reading construction drawings.

Courses are free to union members — something the Heydon Royal Commission no doubt frowns upon.

The unit receives a small amount of money from governments, but the vast bulk of its funding comes from the building industry redundancy trust,Incolink, and from a training levy of $4.90 a week negotiated with major builders in enterprise agreements.

“One of the fundamental reasons for our training is a recognition that knowledge is power, and the empowerment of workers,” says Duggan.

“These are the skills that you bargain with — the power of your labour is very much contingent on the skills you’ve got.

“It’s a very itinerant workforce, a cyclical industry without a fixed workplace, and job security is tenuous so the more skills you’ve got, the more chance you have of continuing employment.”

Intrinsic in much of the training are basic literacy and numeracy skills — an acknowledgement that many people who work in the construction industry have left secondary school early and have little in the way of formal education.

“It’s about their wellbeing and giving them skills they can carry through their lives,” says Duggan.

The unit also links up with adult migrant English centres — one of Duggan’s proudest achievements has been to provide construction industry training to Afghan refugees to help them find meaningful employment in Australia.

Anne Duggan, head of the CFMEU’s education and training unit.

A 20-minute drive from the offices in Carlton is the CFMEU’s busy high-risk training centre, a $12 million state-of-the art facility on prime land in Port Melbourne, within sight of the West Gate Bridge, scene of Australia’s worst construction disaster on 15 October 1970, which killed 35 workers.

The CFMEU owns several blocks of land in Port Melbourne, which were acquired over a number of years. The general construction/trades centre is in Sabre Drive. In a downstairs training room, half a dozen men are taking part in a working in confined spaces course with trainer Dan Phelan; upstairs, about 10 men are learning how to apply a sling to a broken collar bone under the watchful eye of trainer Mark Devereaux.

But the real action is across in Wharf Road, at the high-risk training centre. The centre includes a simulated building site, a 38-metre tower crane, which cost the union $1 million, and a range of mobile cranes, forklifts, hoists and other heavy equipment.

This day, there are about a dozen men on the site, most of them learning basic scaffolding under the watchful eye of Paul Allwood.

Duggan says part of the education unit’s role is to identify potential trainers — men with vast experience in the industry who may not physically be able to exert themselves — often as the result of a permanent injury — but still have much to offer by passing on their skills to other workers.

“Their backs do break and they can’t do manual labour for their entire working lives, but they have all these skills we don’t want to lose,” she says.

“By building up their OHS knowledge and train the trainer knowledge, there’s roles for them beyond physical work.”

People like Barry Kearney, the head crane instructor at the high-risk centre, who has a vast repository of experience to draw on from 35 years in the industry, but chose to take his career in a different direction after seeing a couple of deaths on the job.

With his genial personality, Kearney is something of a father figure to younger construction workers.

“It’s very pleasing when you get blokes come up to you at the end of the day and say thanks, I really learnt something,” he says.

Kearney enjoys a chat, and before long is talking to 27-year-old Lex Kimber, a labourer of five years experience who is keen to earn his scaffolding ticket to go along with his forklift licence.

“One of the best things about the CFMEU is the actual training,” Kimber says.

“They go above and beyond what other guys [training organisations] do. Some of the other guys, you pay thousands of dollars and they give you a ticket in one day, and the guys will say they haven’t learnt anything. But I would say any ticket from the CFMEU is really worth it.”

Anne Duggan’s vision for the CFMEU’s education and training unit is far from complete.

Her next step is to introduce apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship courses in basic trades like carpentry to fill gaps in skills that employers are not addressing. Space has been set aside in unoccupied warehouse buildings in Port Melbourne.

But with the Heydon Royal Commission probing the finances of the union, and showing a particular interest in industry training levies, uncertainty creeps into her voice.

“We’ve spent so long building this up, and they want to rip it away. It just makes you so angry.”

Con Koussoulas and Louie Rufato.
Lex Kimber.

‘It’s a never-ending battle’

ON a cloudy Monday morning in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond, things like royal commissions, slush funds or bikie gangs are far from Con Koussoulas’ mind.

Instead, he is preoccupied with errant power leads.

On Friday, Koussoulas and his fellow shop steward Louie Rufato, gave the blokes a dressing down about their sloppiness in leaving cables dangling over metal ladders or in the path where workers could easily trip over them.

And yet, here on Monday morning, they are doing the same thing again.

Koussoulas sighs in exasperation.

“See this?” he says, indicating a cable hanging over a ledge near a ladder. “One of the biggest hazards is the mentality of the construction worker, because as much as we try to educate them, sometimes the men are their own worst enemy.

“And we drum into them ‘Don’t have leads on the ground, don’t block access ways’ — but the same things happen day in and day out.

“You have to be on top of them all the time, and if you disappear for a couple of hours you’ve got to bring them down here and re-induct them and tool box them again.

“We get the message across, but if there’s an absence of OHS reps on the site, there’s a clear and definite regression back to their old habits.”

This is a big job, the third and final stage of a massive residential development on old industrial land across the road from the Victoria Gardens shopping centre, and overlooking a bend of the Yarra River where Richmond becomes Kew.

Hundreds of luxury apartments have been built here over the past couple of years, and the final stage, a multi-storey storey project called Sanctuary, is well underway with more than a hundred labourers, scaffolders, brickies, concreters, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, crane operators and dogmen, and others crawling all over the site like ants. Soon those numbers will treble.

The project has not been without its problems: the previous week, thunderous rains caused major flooding which took several days to clear, and the lack of loading space now the other two stages have been completed has created a host of health and safety issues.

Lighting — or rather the lack of it — is another constant bugbear that causes arguments between the delegates and the site managers.

“We get the message across, but if there’s an absence of OHS reps on the site, there’s a clear and definite regression back to their old habits.”

Back in the windowless office he shares with Ruffato in the basement of one of the completed buildings, Koussoulas — widely known in the building industry as ‘The Professor’ — and take away his helmet and high-vis vest and he resembles nothing more than a distinguished middle aged academic with his grey beard — says that without the union representatives on the job, it would quickly go back to “the stone age”.

Both the head contractor, L.U. Simon, and main sub-contractor, Eltrax, are easier to work with than most, yet even on jobs like this, there are regular issues with wages being late, or not forthcoming at all, and superannuation and other entitlements not being paid by smaller sub-contractors.

“That’s when we get into a shitfight with the builder, [we say] ‘why did you give him a contract, you knew he was no good?’

“It happens all the time. It’s a never ending battle.”

That’s when organisers like Theo Theodorou get called in to find a solution.

Theodorou, who trained as a carpenter, is one of 26 field organisers employed by the Victorian CFMEU. The union is phenomenally successful in winning high standards of pay and conditions for its members, but that success is what has irked builders and regulators.

It was a dispute with a sub-contractor over signing an enterprise agreement which has now got Theodorou into hot water with the Fair Work Building Commission.

Theodorou is facing six charges of breaches of the Fair Work Act, each with a maximum penalty of $10,200, for allegedly trying to coerce a demolition subcontractor into signing an enterprise agreement in October last year. The same six charges have also been laid against the CFMEU, with a maximum fine for each of $51,000.

The apparent unfairness of it all is what rankles with Theodorou the most.

“No one looks at a builder paying workers a lesser rate, not paying super, the men not being covered, and says that’s wrong,” he says, during a flying visit to the Richmond site.

“All they say is the union stood over them to get an agreement, the union are bad people, standover men and all this.

“We’re a union that actually fights for their workers to get them better agreements, with wages and conditions.

“So bad laws are meant to be broken; we don’t strike for good laws. This is the worst thing I have had to deal with, but if I have to be locked up, then I will do it.”

“It’s a thankless task,” agrees Koussoulas. “It’s very difficult.”

The work of the union carries on

BACK at the CFMEU offices, a group of freshly-arrived Chinese workers are sitting in a training room listening intently as an interpreter translates educator Kimberley Stewart from English into Mandarin.

Like many generations before them, they have come to Australia in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

They all have hopes of working in the booming Victorian building industry, but first they have to learn about occupational health and safety.

“Who has worked in the building industry?” Stewart asks, and a couple of the class timidly put up their hands.

“Who knows what a union does?” Fewer hands are raised this time.

Soon, these men will be labouring on building sites around Melbourne, secure in the knowledge that whoever you are, whatever your background, the union has got your back.

Because as long as there are unsafe workplaces, exploitative bosses or anti-worker governments, there will always be a need for the union.

This article was originally published as a two-part series by Working Life in October 2014.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store