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

Jarrod Brown
By Jarrod Brown
6 Min Read

A construction union boss has threatened to shut down AFL-linked job sites until the league sacks head umpire Stephen McBurney.

Last week, state secretary of the juggernaut Construction, Forestry and Maritime Employees Union (CFMEU) John Setka called out the league for appointing the “anti-union” former commissioner of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner (ABCC) as head of officiating in Australia’s “number one sport”. 

“To have someone of his caliber and of his history in charge of the umpires there, I just reckon it’s absolutely disgusting,” he told listeners on Melbournes 3AW radio show.

“After what he has done to workers, to construction workers, and pursuing them with coercive powers which North Korea would actually be jealous of.

“To be quite honest and I think that’s where he belongs.”

After its revival in 2018, the ABCC was responsible for handling dozens of cases against the union, including accusing senior CFMEU members of bid-rigging construction contracts and sparking investigations into reports of cocaine being sold out of union-branded vehicles. 

But McBurney’s industry crackdown was shortlived. Many of the commissions’ cases garnered heated backlash from construction workers, and federal judges condemned certain prosecution proceedings, leading many to label the group as glorified government-backed union busters. 

The Albanese government would go on to formally abolish the watchdog in 2023, but Setka says the former commissioner can’t outrun his past. 

“McBurney’s job was to sort of come after us, and come after our members, and cost us millions of dollars,” he said.

“It was just an ideological attack dog which has been condemned by the ILO (International Labour Organisation).

“It was designed to strip away workers’ rights and freedoms.

“We will tell everyone what he did, who he is and what his history is.”

A war on watchdogs

The CFMEU’s heated response should come as no surprise to those sitting on the sidelines to the union boss’s long-running beef with the now-defunct commission. 

In a now-deleted tweet, the former posted in 2018 a photo of his children holding up a sign reading “go get fu#ked” with the comment directed at the ABCC saying, “GO CATCH REAL CRIMINALS YOU COWARDS!!”

In May 2018, he also penned a union blog post in which he labelled McBurney Malcolm Turnbull’s “attack dog”. 

“Stephen McBurney … was an assistant commissioner of the ABCC under John Howard at a time when construction worker deaths peaked – 48 killed in 2006 and 51 in 2007,” reads the post.

Even with the ABCC’s doors now shuttered, Setka says McBurney should not be allowed to work again on Aussie soil. 

“I don’t care if he’s umpired a thousand games. What I’m saying is, he’s not a good person,” he told 3AW.

“He’s anti-worker zealot.”

The union boss has threatened to ignite union “work to rule” campaigns or shutdowns on multiple sites linked to the AFL if the umpire holds his top position, potentially jeopardising a proposed new stadium in Hobart and a training base for the Adelaide Crows.

“This is going to cost the AFL a lot of f*cking money,” he told The Australian.

How has the AFL responded

Despite Setka’s worrying power over the fate of vital sporting infrastructure, the AFL is refusing to back down.

“Steve McBurney umpired 401 games, including four AFL grand finals, he has been a long-time mentor to umpires at every level and has done an outstanding job since returning to the AFL to take up the role of head of officiating,” the organisation said in a statement.

“All projects the AFL contributes to are designed to provide better training venues for AFL and AFLW players, gender-friendly facilities and change rooms at community football clubs, and to create a more welcoming footy environment for families who make up many of the 1.2 million club members and the many more millions of fans who attend games, so we are hopeful any intended action does not impact players, supporters or the wider community who benefit from upgrades to local clubrooms and our stadiums,” 

The AFL Umpires Association also backed the decision and called out Setka for his attempt to influence the sport. 

“Given the recent appalling and threatening commentary from the Victorian Secretary of the CFMEU, John Setka, the AFLUA wishes to again declare its support for Stephen McBurney’s appointment to the AFL’s Head of Officiating role,” they said in a statement.

“In the AFLUA’s dealings and negotiations with the AFL, any differences of opinion are managed in a positive, respectful, and civil manner. 

“With Steve as Head of Officiating, we have every confidence this relationship will continue for the betterment of umpiring.”

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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.