Constant Vigilance

Australian Workers Film Guide


Produced for the CFMEU, this polished documentary charts the campaigns and struggles of the union to improve safety and working conditions for Victoria construction workers. Interspersed with overlay of construction, protests and stills, the film is primarily driven by well-crafted interviews with union officials and rank and file construction workers. The interview subjects include prominent union leaders such as John Setka, Mark Kingham and Dave Noonan.

Given the dangerous nature of construction, the central theme of the film is workplace safety, which union officials argue requires constant vigilance. Workers talk about the lack of safety considerations in the 60s and 70s, working at height without protective scaffolding or guard rails. Union militancy was seen as a necessity in protecting their members from injury and death. This is highlighted by the Westgate Bridge collapse in 1970, which claimed the lives of 35 construction workers. A survivor recounts how they were sacked the next day without compensation or counseling. This horrific workplace accident galvanised the union movement into demanding better workplace safety, leading to the 1985 Occupational Health and Safety Act.

With deaths and accidents happening on a regular basis, the union then turned its attention to insurance companies refusing to pay workers compensation to injured workers, resulting in the Victorian Accident Compensation Act, which guaranteed workers were paid while off work. With the Kennett Government’s deregulation of the industry, accidents and deaths began to climb again. The union responded with a successful strategy of industry wide work stoppages when a worker was killed on any construction site.

With the introduction of the Australian Building Construction Commission (ABCC), union officials talk about companies maximising profit at the expense of safety. Rank and file construction workers talk about being treated like second class citizens and experiencing a class divide with management, with no public holidays, no toilets, and no lunch facilities on many construction sites.

Under the direction of ACTU, the 1980s were a period of amalgamation for unions in the construction sector, with 14 unions becoming only 4, which resulted in the creation of the CFMEU. The objective of this consolidation was to create better unity across unions and create a more powerful voice for workers. In the aftermath of the deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in 1986, the Victorian Building Industry Agreement (VBIA) was formulated as well as the Victorian Industry Agreement Consultative Committee. In the early 1990s, Paul Keating introduced the enterprise bargaining agreement system, which became the main vehicle for workplace agreements.

The film features a lengthy segment on the struggle to regulate asbestos removal safety provisions in the construction sector. Without proper training, immigrants were often sent to work on projects involving asbestos. Workers dying of asbestos induced mesothelioma became a critical issue in the industry, with the union leading a concerted campaign for a code of conduct for asbestos removal as well as worker training.

The union continued to campaign for wider conditions, such as trauma counseling, drug and alcohol counseling, financial planning as well as a severance pay fund to tide workers over between jobs. In 1984 the union launched an industry superannuation campaign for construction workers, leading to the establishment of Cbus. Other campaigns included the use of foreign labour on building sites and the 36 hour week.

The Howard Government’s introduction of Work Choices saw increasing attacks on construction workers, and in 2014, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption was viewed as a witch hunt designed to tear apart individual rank and file members and attack union structures.  While no one was charged for wrongdoing, union officials argue this became a template for the radical deregulation of workers’ rights. The film concludes with a segment on the importance of union membership and the active participation of members in the affairs the union.

Special Notes/Achievements

Produced by Maze Productions for the CFMEU.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 55 mins 11 secs

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Film Cinematographer: Josh Waddell, Colin Cairns,

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Film Sound Recordist: Josh Waddell, Colin Cairns,

Film Composer: Dan Gautreau, Ian McKean,

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