Melbourne CFMEU protest: City braces for another ‘freedom rally’

Melbourne is bracing for more chaos today, with protesters planning to hold another “freedom rally” despite yesterday’s violence.

Melbourne is bracing for more bedlam today, with protesters planning to hold another “freedom rally” outside the headquarters of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) on Elizabeth Street.

The city’s $22 billion construction industry has been shut down for two weeks following yesterday’s violent protest against mandatory vaccinations for construction workers, which descended into a chaotic brawl.

Demonstrators pelted projectiles at the CFMEU building, damaging it, and riot police were deployed, firing rubber bullets into the crowd.

CFMEU boss John Setka, who tried to calm the mob before retreating inside when violence erupted, said he believed the protest had been “hijacked” by “extreme organisations” opposed to Covid restrictions.

“Those drunken, fascist, un-Australian morons are the reason construction workers will be sitting at home and not getting paid for the next two weeks,” he said.

Mr Setka told The Hearld Sun the violent protesters were “not really unionists” but “just the scum of the earth”.

Another demonstration is being planned for today. A poster being distributed on social media and via the app Telegram calls for protesters to gather at the CFMEU headquarters at 10am. It’s headlined: “Victorian Workers Rally For Freedom.”

“Rally will continue until demands are met. Bring your friends and family in support. Wear work gear. Bring food and drinks,” it instructs.

The Victorian government announced its decision to suspend the construction industry late on Monday night, citing the high transmission of Covid on construction sites and concerns about workers failing to comply with restrictions. Health officials estimate building sites are the source of more than 10 per cent of all cases in Victoria.

Only critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, will be exempt from the shutdown. As a result, about 300,000 people will be out of work, and the sector will lose almost half a billion dollars per day.

“Recently, we have seen multiple outbreaks linked to construction. Construction workers are a mobile workforce who may work across multiple sites and travel longer distances to work than other permitted workers. Concerns have also been raised, and remain, about the sector’s compliance with public health measures and directions,” Industrial Relations Minister Tim Pallas said.

“Also concerning is the transmission risk and geographic spread of construction cases, which led to a number of important health measures including preventing workers from crossing the regional/metropolitan border. But more action is required to stop the spread.

“The immediate shutdown action is being taken to reduce movement, minimise transmission and allow for the entire industry to appropriately adapt to the chief health officer’s directions, including increasing vaccination rates.”

Construction projects will be closed in metropolitan Melbourne, Ballarat, Greater Geelong, Surf Coast Shire and Mitchell Shire, with a “strictly limited” exemption for workers who are responding to an emergency or performing “urgent and essential work to protect health and safety”.

There’s also a brief amnesty to allow a limited number of workers to shut down the sites safely.

All construction sites will be required to demonstrate their compliance with the chief health officer’s instructions before they can reopen, including the requirement for workers to show evidence to their employer of having had at least one dose of the Covid vaccine.

“Before workers return to site, they must comply with this requirement,” said Mr Pallas.

Premier Daniel Andrews slammed yesterday’s protest, telling rallygoers their tactics would “not work”.

And Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, condemned “extreme right-wing activists” for stoking the “reprehensible” violence.

“The ACTU condemns the violent attack on the CFMEU office orchestrated by violent right-wing extremists and anti-vaccination activists,” she said.

During the rally, workers were heard chanting in opposition the Covid vaccines. Others referred to the pandemic as a “conspiracy”.

Mr Setka copped abuse from the crowd as he tried to calm the situation.

“People are allowed to express their opinions and you’ve got to take it on the chin sometimes. People get emotional, I understand that,” he said afterwards.

“But when you go out of your way to address people and they just talk over you, yelling and screaming, and throw projectiles and injure people and smash property, it’s just absolutely unacceptable.

“It wasn’t out decision (to mandate vaccinations). We didn’t do it. We didn’t bring this pandemic in. All we’ve tried to do is keep everyone working.”

Victoria recorded its highest number of infections in the current outbreak on Monday, with 567 new locally acquired cases and one death.

Originally published as Melbourne braces for more chaos as workers plan another ‘freedom rally’

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