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Victoria’s construction industry managed to stay open and productive during the long, hard lockdown of 2020, thanks to compromises made by unlikely allies. By Jon Faine.

John Setka and the Covid-19 truce

John Setka is tested for Covid-19 on a Melbourne construction site on April 29, 2020.
Credit: AAP Image / James Ross

How did the Victorian construction industry stay open through the state’s protracted nearly four-month Covid-19 lockdown?

How was it possible that personal, industrial and commercial differences, bitter and long-running enmities going back years, were set aside? What happened that enabled a level of co-operation among traditional foes that would’ve once been unimaginable?

Central to all of this is the controversial John Setka, Victorian state secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).

A classic union strongman, Setka is as admired and praised by his loyal members as he is disliked and feared by most developers and builders. He has few friends within the wider union movement and, after a high-profile conviction for harassing his wife, was recently forced out of the Australian Labor Party. He is, without doubt, a polarising figure.

Despite all those problems, his authority within the construction division of the CFMEU is undoubtable and his physical presence is matched by his industrial muscle.

The CFMEU and the Master Builders Association of Victoria (MBV) have a long relationship, best described as frosty. In late 2018, the MBV appointed a new chief executive, Rebecca Casson. She was not from “the club”. She had no experience in the building industry or in industrial relations at all.

Casson and Setka first met in late 2019, and then only to prepare for what are typically brutal enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) negotiations, which were due to get under way in 2020. Ground rules were established by consensus between the union boss and the new CEO – they agreed that the past was the past, mutual honesty was vital, personal animosity was unproductive and public disagreement would happen only if private debate failed. Both restated their commitment to deliver a new EBA, and their initial meetings resulted in a nucleus of mutual respect.

If either Casson or Setka had asked for permission from their respective constituents for these new ground rules, their meeting would never have happened. At the time, neither of them knew the value of what they had created – initially a way forward to an EBA, but what turned out to be much more.

When Covid-19 hit soon after Casson and Setka’s meeting, the forum they created and the rules for negotiation of the EBA morphed seamlessly into a Covid-19 emergency taskforce. Almost overnight, industry guidelines were developed to help worksites manage new practices in order to limit the impact of the disease.

Across Australia, thousands of workers were losing their jobs because of the pandemic, with even more sent to work from home. Entire industries were grinding to a halt. The Victorian construction sector decided to do whatever it would take to try to stay open.

Late in March 2020, the managing directors of the biggest building companies met with the four most senior officials of the CFMMEU, which also encompasses maritime workers. Typically terse negotiations over the EBA paused, and consensus – driven by desperation due to the pandemic – became their sole priority.

Several people who were in these meetings say the curious and novel feeling of unity in that room will never be lost. The energy was palpable. There was no appointed hierarchy. They became a self-appointed board. They spoke of risk, allocated responsibilities and agreed to a common purpose.

No one sought to score points or dominate. They needed each other like never before.

These unlikely allies worked together and within days had an industry and jobs survival plan to submit to a sceptical Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews. His government needed to be convinced that there was minimal risk in allowing a self-regulating industry to keep working.

The simplicity of the resulting guidelines disguised the enormity of the task. Industry-wide, uniform rules would be strictly enforced with no exceptions under any circumstances for anybody. Only expert health advice would inform the decision-making.

The government created a parallel taskforce named Rapid Industry Guidance (RIG), which included the CEO of WorkSafe Victoria, Colin Radford, plus senior public servants, academic experts and industry leaders.

New strict rules for social distancing along with rigid cleaning protocols, “stay at home if unwell” rules and regular site testing were all rushed in – not without some pain. Setka personally went from site to site to ensure the seriousness of the situation was understood at every level. The example was set by the boss – the rules were the same no matter who was on site. The union leadership, from Setka to shop stewards on small sites, went to Covid-19 testing stations and these leaders openly submitted to nasal swabs to inspire compliance and overcome resistance within the rank and file.

Most importantly, multiple telephone helplines were activated overnight. If there were confusion on even a small detail, top union officials were on call day and night to sort out problems and conflict. The construction industry is always a bearpit and Covid-19 did not mean any of those complex issues just vanished. It meant, instead, that they had to be managed differently.

When there was an early outbreak of the virus on a city site, Setka immediately attended. Too much was at stake to leave the suppression of any cases to junior officials – infections at a single site could have led to the entire industry shutting down overnight.

Because of social distancing rules, it took more than three hours to conduct the site meetings. Setka had to give the same speech and answer the same questions again and again. The construction company and union safety representatives, usually at loggerheads, worked in unison to get the outbreak under control. This particular city building project lost just two days.

Four hundred CFMEU health and safety representatives and shop stewards voluntarily undertook contact tracing training. Some members saw contact tracing as the precursor of a long-desired dream of the construction companies to introduce worker tracking on building sites. The historic taboo for tracking was maintained, but tracing was pushed through. Explaining the difference in nuance between the two was not easy. This was a suspicious and even neurotic workforce, long habituated to seeing every move by the boss as an attack on either safety or conditions.

In all, just within the city construction sector, more than 22,000 Covid-19 tests were conducted at more than 300 newly created site-based clinics during the course of Melbourne’s lockdown.

In the end, during the 2020 lockdown, there was no construction industry shutdown. Just 12 days were lost across five sites in the entire city of Melbourne. One irresponsible developer caused their site to close for a week – a blessing in disguise, standing as an example to everyone of what could go wrong, and demonstrating the resultant cost.

As the second wave hit, the challenge was particularly acute for culturally and linguistically diverse construction workers. Multiple tailored messages were drafted in the main community languages. These quickly racked up 2.3 million views on social media.

Commercial radio ads were produced to reassure crews on site that the new measures had the union leadership’s consent and approval. To reinforce the message, Setka voiced many of the ads himself. The last positive Covid-19 case in the Victorian construction industry was found on September 23, 2020.

A long-term action plan for safe operations has been agreed to and implemented. Other states have borrowed heavily from the Victorian experience. The new consensus is that complacency is the biggest threat.

The MBV estimates that for every day of construction industry shutdown, the Victorian economy loses $450 million in revenue and $63 million in wages. Over the course of the nearly four months of lockdown, billions of dollars and countless jobs were saved, and workplaces stayed open.

The benefits may continue long after this pandemic. Despite long-entrenched positions, historic mutual suspicion and rampant prejudice on both sides, the unexpected co-operation and trust generated through the Covid-19 crisis management has surprised even these most unlikely of partners.

Whether this workplace success leads to any rethink of Setka’s status within the broader union movement or the ALP is unlikely. He is also persona non grata with the Australian Council of Trade Unions leadership, although he does not seem to be troubled by any of it. This crisis has cemented his authority within the union, just as those who disapprove of him in the wider labour movement were hoping to blast him out.

But it remains unclear whether his success in keeping the construction industry open through Covid-19 will work in Setka’s favour as he prepares for more internal brawls in the union, which are this week threatening to go nuclear. 

 

A relative of the author works for Maurice Blackburn, which represents the CFMEU in Victoria. Randell Fuller assisted in the preparation of this account.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2021 as "Building consensus".

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Jon Faine is a former lawyer and ABC broadcaster.