Construction’s largest union is facing a nasty breakup

Jarrod Brown
By Jarrod Brown
4 Min Read

Disgruntled tradies are looking to split from construction’s largest union after a recent spat with the AFL landed leaders in hot water. 

Last week, ministers put forward a demerger bill that, if backed by a majority vote, would see the manufacturing arm of the Construction, Forestry, and Maritime Employees Union (CFMEU) break away from the broader organisation.

If given the go-ahead, the legislation will map out the kinds of workers covered under each resulting union, include safeguards that address any overlapping eligibility and secure the new organisation’s regulatory power until January 2034. 

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said the laws will give the manufacturing division a chance to decide their own future.

“It’s clear many Manufacturing Division members – including workers in heavily feminised industries like textiles – do not feel properly represented by the CFMEU,” said Burke.

“The recent threatening and thuggish behaviour of John Setka has hardened the Government’s resolve to give members a choice. It’s not hard to see why those members might want to vote to leave.”

The move comes only weeks after the union’s Victorian secretary, John Setka, threatened to bring work to a halt on AFL-linked construction sites if the organisation didn’t fire its top umpire, Stephen McBurney.

McBurney previously headed up the now-defunct Australian Building and Construction Commission, which was responsible for several investigations into conduct on CFMEU sites.

RELATED: Union boss demands the AFL sack its “anti-worker” top umpire

The CFMEU Manufacturing Division national secretary Michael O’Connor welcomed the opportunity to be “free from the shackles of the dysfunctional CFMEU.”

“The government is doing the right thing, they have listened to us and are respecting the good judgment of our members,” he said.

“We will be encouraging every member to vote in the secret ballot and ensure they are fully informed of the benefits to them from the Manufacturing Division becoming independent of the CFMEU.”   

After waiting two years for their application to demerger to get past the Fair Work Commission, the Manufacturing Division will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Mining and Energy Union, which voted with an overwhelming 98 per cent majority to leave the CFMEU last year. 

Leaving workers worse off

While manufacturing considers this vote a win, the union’s national body says the federal interference sets a “dangerous precedent” to undermine the organisation’s power. 

“A federal government intervention in determining union coverage is a massive mistake that could ultimately hurt workers,” said National Secretary Zach Smith.

“This bill risks setting a dangerous precedent for anti-worker ideologues in future coalition governments to break up unions.

“The Fair Work Commission has ruled very clearly on this issue. Instead of accepting the umpire’s decision, we’ve now seen backroom political games trump members’ best interests.”

Controversy aside, the CFMEU has been responsible for negotiating impressive pay deals for its workers in recent months, with tradies in New South Wales and Victoria in particular seeing a sizable pay bump of over 20 per cent. 

Outside of the union’s powerful umbrella, Mr Smith said he’s worried what the demerger will mean for workers in the long run. 

“The outcomes speak for themselves. We are absolutely confident those members would be better served by remaining with the CFMEU,” he said. 

“Our focus will always be on world-first safety campaigns like banning engineered stone and delivering the pay and conditions workers in a dangerous industry deserve.”

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. He has a strong passion for new and emerging consumer technology within the building sector. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.