Construction union the CFMEU has been accused of “lawlessly” intimidating the customers of a Queensland crane company unless it agreed to union demands on enterprise bargaining and a multi-million dollar redundancy fund.
Albert Smith, the managing director of a company that owns Universal Cranes, made the allegations as the first witness at this week’s Brisbane hearings of the royal commission into union governance and corruption.
“Clients wouldn’t use Universal Cranes so we lost several customers and, in some cases, customers that were in the bag,” he told the inquiry.
“The union made it clear to the clients they wouldn’t allow us to be on the site.”
Senior counsel assisting the inquiry, Jeremy Stoljar, said that in July 2012 Peter Close, the assistant Queensland secretary of the CFMEU, told Mr Smith the union would keep campaigning against Universal Cranes unless it signed a collective agreement on the union’s terms.
Mr Smith had told him Universal was “on its knees” but this didn’t stop the CFMEU pushing for an enterprise bargaining agreement, which included a multi-million dollar redundancy pool, Mr Stoljar said.
In August 2012, Mr Smith wrote to the CFMEU’s Queensland secretary Michael Ravbar agreeing to its terms so the boycott could be lifted, he added.
“This evidence again suggests a troubling lawlessness on the part of the CFMEU and its officers,” Mr Stoljar said.
“If the evidence of the witnesses called by the commission is accepted, a number of CFMEU officers have acted in disregard and defiance of the law, apparently with impunity.”
But the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union’s legal counsel, John Agius SC, questioned Mr Smith’s allegations, which are based on conversations with clients.
“It’s your assumption that you were kicked off sites because the union said to the head contractor that the union didn’t want you there,” Mr Agius said.
Mr Smith replied: “It’s a reasonable assumption.”
Mr Agius is the first union legal counsel to have questioned a company boss since this royal commission began hearing evidence in May.
Witnesses who have previously appeared in this inquiry are being cross examined later.
Mr Agius said the CFMEU’s merged Queensland and Northern Territory branch had not made any threats to kick Universal from work sites.
As part of the deal with the CFMEU, Universal accepted the union’s redundancy scheme, even though the funds weren’t used to retrain workers, Mr Stoljar said.
The CFMEU received $3.3 million in the past financial year from Universal Cranes’ and other employers’ redundancy schemes.
The Builders Labourers Federation’s Queensland branch, which has merged with the CFMEU, received another $1.27 million from these schemes and other employers during the same period.
Mr Stoljar said the training grants to the unions did not fund worker training.
“Much of the money goes on meeting the CFMEU’s own expenses,” he said.
The four-day hearing in Brisbane before retired High Court justice Dyson Heydon resumes on Tuesday.