At least one building worker has already been sacked after attending Monday’s violent protest outside the CFMEU headquarters in Melbourne, and he has accused the construction union of pressuring his employers to lay him off.
A worker from a CBD construction site who attended Monday’s protests told The Age on condition of anonymity that he was sacked on Tuesday morning. He said he was not opposed to vaccination and had not been violent at the protest.
He said his employer had called him and told him he had no choice but to remove him from the job as the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union had threatened the business with loss of trade if he did not comply. Several other workers had also been laid off for attending, the worker said, which has been confirmed by The Age with third-party sources also speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared for their futures in the industry.
On Wednesday, CFMEU secretary John Setka said anyone involved in the protest “may as well go pick fruit in Mildura somewhere because they will not be working in our industry”.
“We don’t need morons, drunken morons, that think … throwing bottles at people is a good way to protest. They can go somewhere else,” Mr Setka said.
The worker, who is a CFMEU member with 25 years’ experience, said he had left-wing views and had received two COVID-19 vaccinations.
“I went there to support the blokes, to support freedom and to support freedom of choice,” said the worker, who requested anonymity as he feared repercussions.
The CFMEU has supported vaccinations but does not back mandates imposed by employers or the government. Some members argue its stance against mandatory vaccination, which the government imposed last week, has been too weak.
The worker said he and his colleagues had become angry on Monday morning after being presented with a proposal to work six hours without break but to be paid for eight. “People have had a gutful,” he said. “We said f— this, we are going to march and get some answers.”
The CFMEU has been working to identify construction workers who attacked its Melbourne headquarters, with Mr Setka telling ABC Breakfast on Wednesday it was trawling through footage on Facebook and other video taken at the protest. “We don’t need people like that. Our industry, we try to make it safe,” he said.
The worker who was sacked said he feared he would be driven out of the industry and unable to support his family. He estimated well over 90 per cent of the crowd when he was there on Monday were building workers. “It was genuine angry workers.”
However, Mr Setka on Tuesday described them on radio 3AW as “pigs, drunken morons” and said: “I will not pander to them.
“So you know what, there will be consequences out of this. We are not going to tolerate this. Melbourne doesn’t need this.”
Mr Setka’s repudiation of the protests won support from Labor leader Anthony Albanese on Wednesday, though he maintained he was right to push the union leader out of the ALP in 2019. Mr Albanese highlighted anger from the CFMEU leadership and other unions such as the nurses over the protests, which included a contingent of construction union members.
“John Setka is right on this occasion,” Mr Albanese said. “What we have seen is people’s jobs and livelihoods endangered because of the actions of an extreme fringe who engaged in a violent demonstration yesterday, who attacked and assaulted police, who attacked and assaulted people from the media, who attacked and assaulted innocent people.”
Mr Setka did not respond to questions from The Age. The union has played down the extent of building worker involvement at Monday’s protest, saying the rally had been overtaken by far right and anti-vaccination outsiders.
While the far right and those opposed to vaccinations were active, senior union figures estimated about 80 to 90 per cent of the protesters on Monday were construction workers. That proportion was estimated to have dropped considerably over the following days.
Some of Monday’s protesters were drawn from Mr Setka’s powerbase in the Croatian community and rely on him for work as part of patronage networks. Many are right-wing and have anti-vaccination views and have now turned on the union leader. There were further signs of the fracturing of this powerbase with the presence at the rallies on Monday and Wednesday of Anton Sucic, one of Mr Setka’s closest long-term friends.
The Age has been provided with images of Mr Sucic, a long-time shop steward at Multiplex, a builder with close links to the CFMEU. In 2014 Mr Setka was accused of pressuring employers to hire Mr Sucic.
The Australian Building and Construction Commission, the industrial regulator for the sector, said it was “pursuing lines of inquiry” about unlawful industrial action on Melbourne building sites this week. It said anybody who had been “the victim of unlawful industrial action or any other contraventions of workplace laws” was encouraged to contact the regulator.
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