The ACCC has defended itself against criticism of its handling of the Boral case in Victoria, and called for members of the construction industry to speak out publicly against union misconduct.

Australia’s competition regulator has voiced its determination to deal harshly with any misconduct on the part of the country’s unions, in the wake of criticism of its failure to deal more promptly with an alleged boycott case in the building sector.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has indicated that its case against the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) for alleged boycotting of building materials company Boral will be a key priority for 2015, and called for members of the industry to speak out publicly about any other cases of union malfeasance.

The ACCC launched its case against CFMEU in November following long-standing allegations that the union had boycotted concrete manufactured by Boral on at least a dozen commercial construction sites throughout Melbourne.

The CFMEU boycott has reportedly run for the past several years, costing Boral as much as $10 million in lost business. According to Sims the lawsuit is the largest secondary boycott case ever undertaken by the ACCC, with the union facing fines of up to $10 million and two state officials accused of breaches that incur a maximum penalty of $220,000.

The ACCC has been censured, however, for not acting more promptly, with the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption issuing a report towards the end of 2014 that referred to the legal system as “fundamentally defective” for its failure to address the allegations earlier.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims has defended the competition watchdog against such criticism, pointing instead to the difficulties of mounting the case in the absence of witnesses willing to provide evidence against union misconduct.

Rod Sims

Rod Sims

“I know people said we were a bit slow in tackling the CFMEU case” said ACCC chairman Rod Sims to the Australia Financial Review. “I don’t think we were. We were right out of the blocks but nobody wanted to talk to us.”

According to Sims the ACCC experienced significant difficulty in persuading members of industry to provide testimony, claiming that the organisation met with widespread denial of any such problems.

Sims hailed the decision of Boral chief executive Mike Kane to speak publicly on the issue, and called for other members of industry to follow his lead when it came to union misconduct.

“It was only when Mike Kane came out and went more public on it that it opened people up and got them talking about it,” said Sims.

Sim said he hopes the case will spur other victims of union bullying tactics to take their grievances to the authorities.

“We’re hopeful the CFMEU case will encourage others to come and talk to us about secondary boycott activity,” said Sims. “We do find when we bring a case like this to court, people often come forward and tell you about other related cases, so bringing one case can often lead to more.”

Mike Kane

Mike Kane

Kane told the royal commission in June 2014 that the CFMEU’s control of building sites in Melbourne had reached the point where “the law doesn’t apply.”

According to sworn statements by other executives from Boral, CFMEU state leader John Setka allegedly admitted at an April 2014 meeting that the company was a collateral victim of the union’s ongoing conflict with Grocon.

“We are at war with Grocon and in a war you cut the supply line,” Setka is alleged to have said.

CFMEU blockades at Grocon’s Myer Emporium worksite on Melbourne’s Lonsdale Street had previously turned violent in August and September 2012, compelling police to close down parts of the city.

The union was subsequently fined $1 million for contempt of court in relation to the Emporium blockade, as well as $250,000 for protests staged at two other Grocon sites.