First published in Vanguard
by louisa L
Spirits were high on Wednesday 5 April when thousands of workers around Australia walked out over deadly silica dust. In Sydney, the CFMEU, ETU, Plumbers, MUA and AMWU members gathering were full laughter and energy, seeing old mates.
But one group was quieter. Concreters still chatted and smiled, but they weren’t celebrating. Along with workers making and cutting engineered stone, they know they are on the front line for deadly silica dust diseases.
“I don’t go to the doctor. I don’t want to know the answer,” a long-time concreter told me.
Governments won’t act unless people do first
Workers don’t need to be told things they already know. At the strike rally they said they knew ‘all about dust’, while generously taking leaflets with “Dust kills” screaming in giant font. One spoke of the microscopic hooks on silica, that make it so devastating.
The Spirit of Eureka leaflet asked, “Companies and governments have known dust kills for over 100 years. So why do you have to strike because workers are dying from silicosis again?”
Its brief answer was true, but a bit too blunt, “Profit rules. It’s capitalism’s driving force. It’s private profit from your collective work. Anything that gets in its way, like health, is sidelined unless workers unite and act.”
Like silica, companies had known the danger of asbestos since 1929 and done nothing. Forty years after this corporate mass murder was finally exposed, with not a single person charged, what’s changed? It still takes strikes and protests to get something done.
If we live in such a great democracy, how come the corporate bastards with their billions can still rob young and old of health and even life? It’s clear governments won’t act unless people do first.
A striker revealed he still checks the lists showing which Chinese companies export asbestos products, that it was difficult finding the name the killer asbestos company James Hardie now uses.
A sparky said all construction workers are affected by silica dust. The day after, a labourer friend told how, four years ago, he’d swept piles of Ceasarstone dust, wearing just a basic mask.
Another at the rally said the hairspray his hairdresser wife uses every day is full of silica. Like asbestos, silica spreads its gifts. Is it why my middle-aged hairdresser is often in hospital with lung problems?
Our “great democracy”
In our “great democracy”, unions and workers that consistently stand up and fight have their reputations trashed and face special laws and giant “commissions” attacking them.
A Spirit of Eureka leaflet handed out at Wednesday’s Sydney joint unions rally stated, “Your unions continue struggles of others like the Builders Labourers Federation, that surrounded corporate headquarters over asbestos and insurance companies refusing to pay” sick and injured workers.
For crimes like these, for demanding better wages, conditions, safety and basic human dignity, the Hawke Labor government deregistered the BLF.
The Builders Labourers Federation fought till they could no longer do so as the BLF. It took two deregistrations, trumped up royal commissions, jailing of leaders and hundreds of arrests of organisers just for doing their jobs.
The CFMEU took up the struggle where the BLF left off.
The union and its members have withstood threats of jail over nearly twenty years of ABCC attacks on their basic rights to organise. Members refused to front the Commission, risking jail.
As the leaflet said, “Albo has shut down the ABCC as promised, and dumped the shitty 2016 code of conduct.”
But he’s shifted the ABCC bosses to the UnFair Work Ombudsman. There, those ex-ABCC bosses are refusing organisers’ rights of entry. They target rank and file leaders too, saying they’re “bringing ABCC methods” with them.
Spirit of Eureka’s leaflet declared, “Let them try! Your unions are united. Today you show your strength.”
Breaking ABCC power right now is essential, because Australia’s longest construction boom ever is winding down.
Ongoing resistance to deadly dust has the potential to win wide community support for big compensation, for bans on silica products and against the ABCC new style persecution.
On Wednesday striking workers took another battle to the streets and to NSW Parliament House, a reminder to both state and federal governments that workers and trade unions made sure they were elected, that they expect promises to be kept in deeds not just words.
But there’s three more questions needing answers. Why are we fighting the same battles won decades ago? Isn’t the system we all live under the problem? Isn’t it time for fundamental change?