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Construction industry to be shut down for two weeks after clashes at CFMEU

“Closing the industry will prevent them going to work and getting paid and it will stall projects causing immensely costly delays, putting projects and Victorian jobs at risk.

Victorian opposition spokeswoman for Industry, Bridget Vallence, called for the immediate reversal of what she called the “panicked” decision to suspend construction.

“The Liberal Nationals condemn the violent protests, but the actions of a few should not be used as an excuse to shut down an entire industry, putting tens of thousands of people out of work,” she said in a statement.

After confirming they had met Mr Pallas on Monday night, the Master Builders Association of Victoria said in a Facebook post the shutdown in the regional areas might last for just one week if the lockdown was lifted after seven days as forecast.

Work sites will be required to demonstrate compliance with Chief Health Officer’s directions before reopening on October 5, with all construction workers required to show their employer evidence of having at least once dose of COVID-19 vaccine before returning to work.

Over the course of Monday, hundreds of protesters rallied outside the CFMEU’s Elizabeth Street office. Some protesters threatened to burn their union tickets and directed abuse at CFMEU Victorian secretary John Setka, who addressed the crowd, but was shouted down and called the “bitch” of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

The union, builders and senior Andrews government officials had been locked in meetings on Monday to stop the building sector from grinding to a halt, with the CFMEU threatening to walk off major projects if a compromise couldn’t be reached.

Earlier on Monday the CFMEU had demanded eight hours’ pay for six hours’ work as it fought against a ban on tea rooms and against mandatory vaccinations in the industry. The six-hour proposal would include no breaks and was put forward by the union as a compromise position to keep working.

Police keep protesters away from the office of the CFMEU in Melbourne on Monday.

Police keep protesters away from the office of the CFMEU in Melbourne on Monday.Credit:Justin McManus

However, the proposal was rejected by most large builders and one industry source said it would significantly reduce output of workers at projects where some builders worked 12-hour shifts, which would add to time and cost blowouts on government projects.

The move also infuriated some building workers who walked off CBD sites angry at the lack of breaks and the union’s response to pandemic measures.

Late on Monday afternoon a group of workers moved towards the building’s rear entrance where CFMEU officials stood gesticulating at protesters.

Projectiles were thrown and scuffles broke out before some of the protesters ran from the scene claiming a union official was holding a gun. Dozens of riot police then moved to separate the two groups and deployed rubber bullets. The Age has not verified if a firearm was at the scene.

About half an hour later, riot police began moving down Elizabeth and Victoria streets in unison firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the group, causing the demonstration to fizzle out.

The Age witnessed three men hit with rubber bullets, including one who suffered a hand injury and another bleeding from his face.

A man is seen with a wound to his forehead on Monday

A man is seen with a wound to his forehead on MondayCredit:Justin McManus

People inside the CFMEU office had earlier fended off protesters with fire extinguishers. Police defended not arriving at the scene until late in the day, saying the “crowd grew increasingly hostile”. Another rally was being promoted for Tuesday at the CFMEU office by anti-vaccination activists on messaging service Telegram.

The Age spoke to six of the hundreds of workers who stood opposite a line of police on Monday afternoon.

Each of them said the Andrews government decision to mandate vaccines for construction sector workers from September 23 was the reason they were attending the protest.

“You can’t make us take an experimental vaccine to keep doing our jobs,” one said.

Fluoro-clad protesters had earlier pelted the construction union office with plastic bottles, a plastic crate and smashed windows. The crowd included a mix of construction workers, far-right activists and people opposed to COVID-19 vaccines.

One flyer distributed to members said: “Our rights and conditions are under threat, there is a core group of members within union delegates and within members who believe this attack on our conditions and rights should not be allowed.”

“We will no longer sit in the dark, this is our union, our city and we will take it back if need be.”

The protests at the union office quickly grew on Monday, with attacks on both the union leadership and the state government.

Members threatened to burn their union tickets and directed abuse at CFMEU Victorian secretary John Setka, who addressed the crowd, but was shouted down and called the “bitch” of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

“F— you Setka you rat,” one protester said. Others called the union leadership “f—ing dogs’, “f— you c–s”.

CFMEU boss John Setka talks to construction workers before clashes broke out on Monday.

CFMEU boss John Setka talks to construction workers before clashes broke out on Monday.Credit:AAP

Mr Setka said last week that while he and other industry leaders were “all for vaccination”, workers should have a choice.

However, under rules announced by Mr Andrews on Thursday, construction workers would need to be vaccinated if they want to keep working after outbreaks of COVID-19 on sites.

Workers in the industry will need to show evidence to their employer that they have had a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by 11.59pm on Thursday.

Union officials and building companies have been frustrated at the lack of consultation with the Health Department before the government announced the new rules on lunch rooms and vaccinations.

The Victorian Building Industry Group of Unions, representing four major construction unions, said it warned the state government against requiring construction workers to be vaccinated as it would cause anger and discontent.

“At that time, and following the announcement, we have strongly conveyed to the highest levels of government that these restrictions will be unworkable and too heavy-handed,” the unions said in a combined statement released on Monday night.

“This heavy-handed mandate by the Chief Health Officer, which was implemented with no notice, has only served to drive many people towards the anti-vax movement.”

Some of the more onerous rules the government initially imposed, including a ban on drinking water on site, were overturned in consultation with the sector over the weekend.

Riot police move in to control a violent protest outside the CFMEU’s Melbourne offices.

Riot police move in to control a violent protest outside the CFMEU’s Melbourne offices.Credit:Justin McManus

Mr Setka was flanked on Monday by senior officials Steve Balta and Derek Christopher.

After union officials retreated into the office with some representatives of the protesters, the first pelting of the windows began and there was jostling between officials and workers.

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Mr Setka condemned the attack.

“When they started throwing projectiles and missiles, smashing the union office windows and that, for me that was just absolutely disgusting, absolutely disgraceful,” he told radio station Triple J.

The ACTU in a statement condemned the attacks saying it was “orchestrated by violent right-wing extremists and anti-vaccination activists.”

The union in a statement said it had “fought tirelessly since the beginning of the pandemic to keep this industry open and safe, and this continues to be the priority of the union”.

When asked about the incident during Monday’s COVID-19 press conference, Mr Andrews said protests would not stop the virus.

“I would simply say the protests don’t work against this virus, protests are not smart, they’re not safe,” Mr Andrews said.

Protesters on Elizabeth Street on Monday.

Protesters on Elizabeth Street on Monday.Credit:Justin McManus

“I’ve got nothing but respect for people who do the building in our city and state, as a government we’ve employed and supported that industry, I think more than any other government in the history of the state,” he said.

“But what I will say is I reckon that there’ll be a whole bunch of people who are at home, because their industry is shut, and they’d be scratching their heads about why anyone would be protesting about being open.”

With Carolyn Webb, Nick Bonyhady and Ashleigh McMillan

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