Four unions in Victoria, covering electricians, plumbers, construction workers and metalworkers, are encouraging their members to walk off government jobs if the Dan Andrews government bans duck hunting.
It is not necessarily an idle threat. The Electrical Trades Union, which is leading the charge, launched the campaign on 31 March when 800 of its members on Victoria’s largest construction project, the Metro rail tunnel, stopped work and rallied.
Normally it would be welcome to see unions advocating industrial action in defiance of the law and using their industrial power for social or political reasons.
But the unions’ campaign is reactionary and misguided. They should be mobilising their members to fight the bosses for real wage rises and for action on climate change.
The ETU has launched an Outdoor Recreation Advocacy Group, open to all union members, which has been holding well-attended meetings in Melbourne and regional centres.
It reported after one meeting that, “Sparkies, plumbers, power industry workers, metal workers, chippies, miners, and many more unanimously endorsed walking off their respective worksites if duck hunting is banned and our outdoor recreation continues to be under attack.”
The four unions, operating as the Building Industry Group (BIG), say they are prepared to spend $2 million defending all outdoor recreation. But in reality their focus is on duck and quail hunting.
They are courting right-wing support, playing to culture war stereotypes about “niche, inner city activists” and using the reactionary slogan, “History, heritage and culture”.
A parliamentary committee on native bird hunting last month recommended a ban on duck hunting, in line with WA, NSW and Queensland, with exemptions for farmers and traditional owners. Victorian Labor now has six months to respond.
BirdLife Australia says that although climate change and poor water management are factors in a decline in bird numbers, hunting makes things worse, with an average 300,000 birds shot each year.
“Long-term monitoring shows waterbird populations in eastern Australia have declined as much as 90 per cent over the last forty years, including ‘game’ duck species, which are at only 25 per cent of their long-term average numbers,” it says.
BIG unions cover 85,000 workers. Yet last year there were only 11,500 duck hunters across the state
(certainly many of them not union members)—down from an estimated 100,000 in 1986.
If the unions were serious about defending outdoor recreation, they should welcome the parliamentary committee’s call for duck hunting reserves to be converted into parks to provide “greater access to outdoor recreation for all Victorians, with appropriate investment in camping, boating and related infrastructure”.
Fight global heating
If the BIG unions are looking for an environmental campaign that will protect outdoor recreation, create jobs and benefit the planet and their members, how about taking up the issue of global heating?
As the world breaks through the 1.5-degree barrier and Australia faces an El Nino summer, going boating, camping or fishing will become more difficult and unpleasant.
Declining rainfall and outright drought are a bigger risk to wetlands than a hunting ban could ever be.
Let’s walk off the job to boost the fight for state-owned 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and guaranteed good replacement jobs for fossil fuel workers.
The BIG unions argue that duck hunting is needed because their members work so hard, including so-called “suicide shifts” on government Big Build projects, where workers put in seven 12-hour day shifts followed by seven 12-hour night shifts. The suicide shifts are a disgrace and should have been banned long ago.
The unions’ statement says, “This hard, physical and dangerous labour pushes these workers to outdoor pursuits on their long weekends, their kid’s school holidays or whenever they can squeeze in an RDO. For many of our members this includes various forms of hunting, including for game birds.”
Suicide among construction workers is indeed a terrible problem. The campaign group MATES in Construction reports, “Every year 190 Australians working in the construction industry take their own lives; this means we lose a construction worker every second day to suicide.”
Yet the BIG unions’ focus on duck hunting does nothing to tackle the very real issues that underpin mental stress and suicide.
Construction workers are being killed by the murderous conditions in the industry that leaves workers with no time for personal or family life, and results in enormous stress on relationships and high rates of drinking.
Instead of talk about duck hunting, the unions should be doing something about the 50 and 60-hour weeks that are the rule on construction sites.
In 2016, the CFMEU fought and won a 36-hour week with a guaranteed RDO every second week, on top of pay rises of twice the national average. But hardly anyone works just 36 hours and the deal was mainly a way of including more overtime hours to boost the pay increase.
In addition, the BIG campaign reinforces one of the main risk factors contributing to suicide among their members.
MATES in Construction reports, “Research has shown us that workers find it difficult to discuss feelings and emotions with colleagues at work, and the nature of the work has made social support more difficult. ‘Pride’ is identified as an issue: male workers have a problem with not being viewed as ‘manly’.”
Despite efforts such as the CFMEU’s recent public advertising to highlight women in construction, the industry is still characterised by sexism and its blokey image.
This is reinforced by initiatives such as the ETU’s Facebook competition calling for photos of members on their RDOs with six categories: Hunting, Off-Road, Unique, Scenery, Man’s Best Friend and Fishing.
Power to win
There are major problems with the BIG unions’ arguments. The fascination with duck hunting has seen the ETU flirting with right-wing politicians of the Shooters and Fishers party and the likes of Bob Katter.
The unions should be using their industrial muscle to fight long, alternating shifts.
Instead of posturing over duck hunting, the unions should be calling walk-offs to demand shorter shifts, an end to weekend work and a real shorter working week with no loss in wages.
The BIG unions have the power to win—when they put a green ban on the demolition of the historic John Curtin pub in Carlton, the developers backed down.
CFMEU Victorian branch secretary John Setka has released a survey of 14,000 union members showing that 87 per cent were ready to take industrial action for pay rises of 4 per cent or more. A quarter are prepared to break the anti-strike laws.
This power could be mobilised for strike action that can win real improvement in conditions, some real recreation time and a real pay rise.
Let’s take aim at the building bosses. Focusing on duck hunting is a total diversion.
By David Glanz