Defend the CFMMEU but John Setka should resign

Socialist Alliance will always fight for and defend the rights of workers and their unions, including the CFMMEU. This union has faced relentless attacks from the capitalist class and the Liberal-National Coalition — including through the introduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission — because it is a militant union.

The Australian Labor Party has done little to undo the anti-union laws that successive governments have introduced, dating right back to the Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser years, and that worsened under John Howard and Tony Abbott.

We do not support any laws that remove democratically elected union leaders, nor those that deregister unions. It is very clear that the ALP factions, the ruling class media and the Coalition are using this controversy for their own anti-union purposes, in an attempt to weaken or even destroy the union.

The CFMMEU is the most important industrially militant union in Australia today and has spearheaded many recent union fightbacks.

But what is also at stake in the current attack on the CFMMEU is the fight against the violent treatment of women which plagues our society.

This fight for women’s rights and against gendered violence is union business. In Australia today more than one woman is killed by their current or former partner every week and domestic violence is the leading cause of death and injury for women under 45.

CFMMEU Victoria-Tasmania Secretary John Setka’s lawyers have said that he will plead guilty to breaching a court order and serious harassment charges against a woman in late June.

All unions and their spokespeople declined to comment on the allegations and charges surrounding this case while it was before the courts. Clearly this was so that the parties involved could get a fair hearing without the public innuendo that could prejudice the case.

The CFMMEU, it would appear, had an agreement with Setka that he would take leave until the case was complete. This followed a highly publicised incident with his wife, Emma Walters, where allegations of domestic violence were raised.

The CFMMEU had just undertaken a campaign called “Family Violence — 16 Days of Activism” in November last year, which stated: “It is up to all of us to oppose violence against women and promote a culture of non-violence and respect in our community.”

However on May 20, after Setka and Walters had reunited and the federal elections were over, Setka decided to return to work. Socialist Alliance, along with many other unionists, believes this was a mistake and has inflamed the current controversy and signalled that Setka and the CFMMEU are not treating family and domestic violence with the seriousness it deserves.

The case was still ongoing and although many charges had been dropped against Setka, he is still to be prosecuted. Setka also began to talk about his case openly in many union forums and this has led to leaks and misreporting, as well as opportunities to attack the union.

Socialist Alliance believes Setka should step down and resign as State Secretary of the CFMMEU. To stay in makes a mockery of the union’s commitment to opposing violence against women.

Clearly, even though Setka now minimises the alleged harassment incident, he sets a poor example to all unionists. The charges to which he has said he will plead guilty certainly fit the CFMMEU’s own definition of ‘violent, threatening or controlling behaviour’ as per the Toolbox Notes from the 16 Days of Activism.

Socialist Alliance absolutely rejects the proposal by the Coalition to impose a "fit and proper person" test. We know that the legal system is stacked against workers’ rights and that bad laws have to be broken in order to advance workers' rights.

We also reject ALP leader Anthony Albanese’s interventions against Setka. They are clearly motivated by a right-wing,  anti-union push within the Labor Party that will increase the attacks on unions. They show the dangers of union funding and integration into the ALP, which mean that Labor believes it can intervene in union affairs at will.

If the Labor opposition supports Morrison's “union integrity bill” or any moves to deregister the CFMMEU, this would be another gross betrayal of the worker's movement.

However, Setka's refusal to stand down and resign is the wrong call. It hands a dangerous weapon to the enemies of the union and allows the very conservative forces who have failed the campaign against family and domestic violence to posture and stereotype construction workers as vicious, misogynist thugs. It is also isolating the CFMMEU from many other unions at a time when we need to be united against the Morrison government's assault.

Defending John Setka is not synonymous with defending the CFMMEU. “Touch One Touch All” does not mean putting the rights of Setka ahead of the interests of his members. It means defending the rights of all workers – women and men.