Bill Shorten's Grocon crunch

The workplace relations minister isn't riding to the rescue for Grocon as he did for Qantas. But his decision to bide his time may not be enough for the building industry.

Smart Company

I wonder if Workplace Minister Bill Shorten is regretting his decision to heroically intervene in last year’s Qantas grounding dispute.

One of the unintended consequences of that intervention – which was entirely sensible, of course – is that he is now going to be called on every time a major industrial dispute breaks out.

And so it is with the battle between Melbourne construction group Grocon and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

The images of union members clashing with police on foot and horseback were an ugly throwback to what many thought was a bygone era. Amazingly, the CFMEU claimed that the Victorian Police had told them it was the most disciplined protest in 20 years – the footage of union members pushing police horses and agitating police to the point where capsicum spray was used said otherwise.

Grocon yesterday was successful in its attempt to get the Victorian Supreme Court to extend an injunction against the blockage, which the builder says is costing it $370,000 a day.

However, the CFMEU is clearly ignoring the court. The blockade was in place today; I estimate there were about 100 union officials and members on site when I went passed just before 7.30am, after as many as 400 people were on site after dawn.

Grocon chief Daniel Grollo says he won’t try to dismantle the blockade today, but you would assume he will have to make another attempt in the coming days. And you would have to assume that a union that has clearly dug in will not react well to any moves by police.

So the question for Bill Shorten remains: What to do?

Shorten has indicated this dispute is essentially the result of a major breakdown in relations between two parties – Grocon and the CFMEU – who have had many tussles over the years.

He’s urged the two parties to get around the negotiating table and over the weekend pushed them towards a private mediation at Fair Work Australia.

Again, sensible stuff. But it doesn’t seem to have worked and another violent clash will have the building sector – and other IR sector watchers – looking towards Shorten again.

Shorten’s tactics so far have been to condemn the violence and to deny that it is in any way linked to the federal government decision to disband the Australian Building and Construction Commission and replace it with a new body, the Fair Work Building Commission, that has less power to intervene in disputes.

But he’s also used an interesting argument to buy himself time. While Grocon’s Daniel Grollo is telling all and sundry this is an illegal blockade, Shorten told The Australian Financial Review that blockades were not covered by the Fair Work regime.

He continued with this line yesterday.

"Whether or not the CFMEU action is illegal or not is for the court to decide,” he said.

"But I’m very clear that unlawful action will be met by a strong response from the government.”

But presumably that "strong response” will only come after a court decision – which could take some time.

If there are more incidents like yesterday, the "we’ll wait for the courts to decide” line might not be enough. Grocon and the building industry will look for a more proactive response from Shorten.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.