No choice for Noel
For as long as he can remember, he has always hated bullies. And because of that he has always spoken out or stood up against those with power who intimidate or harass people. He has done it, even at the risk of losing his job. In 1990, as an organiser with the former Federated Ironworkers Union, he couldn't stomach a leadership that sold workers short by doing deals that that were of no benefit to them. He ran on a ticket with others against the leadership in an election and lost his job.
This time he risks losing his freedom, but the way Noel Washington sees it, he has no choice.
Noel faces jail as he has been charged by the Department of Public Prosecutions and is set to appear in the Magistrates Court in August. The charge is for refusing to attend an interview with the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) - an organization that was set up by the Howard government to harass, intimidate and bully workers and their unions in the construction industry.
As a union official for twenty seven years, Noel is no stranger to being in the witness box and being cross examined by the best of them. He's not afraid of being questioned by the ABCC and that's not why he hasn't turned up, despite three letters requesting him to do so.
"The ABCC are the biggest bullies I've ever dealt with," Noel says. "The laws they have at their disposal have no place in a so called democratic society like Australia and they use those laws freely to go after ordinary workers.
"They frighten people, they threaten people by forcing them to attend these interrogations, workers are not entitled to choose their own legal representative and they are forbidden to talk to anyone about what took place in these interrogations.
"I mean, why is this organization given so much power to go after workers? Where are we living, Soviet Russia?"
The ABCC want Noel to answer questions relating to union meetings held at Bovis Lend Lease in 2007. The way Noel sees it, it's none of their business.
"I'm not going to talk about what happened at a union meeting. I'm not going to give up workers, our members or any official of the union."
Bovis Lend Lease are complaining, among other things, that uncomplimentary things were said about company managers at the union meeting.
Noel thinks this in itself is laughable, since union meetings are probably the one place where workers are free to have a whinge about the boss.
But there are deeper issues involved in this case. Bovis Lend Lease are a company that enthusiastically embraced the Howard government's agenda to weaken unions in the construction industry.
The union has had difficulty getting on Bovis sites and the company is trying to introduce swipe cards in order to further obstruct the right of entry of union officials. They are the company that lodged complaints to the ABCC about another CFMEU organiser, Adrian "Skinner" McLoughlin.
The ABCC went after Skinner, taking the case all the way to the Industrial Relations Commission. He was found guilty on purely technical grounds and had his right of entry permit revoked for 2 months. However the Commissioner who heard the case was scathing in his criticisms of the ABCC and their investigation methods, saying their use of selective evidence was designed to cast a CFMEU organiser 'in the worst possible light'.
Victorian Assistant Secretary Bill Oliver said the Commissioner confirmed what the union already knew - that the ABCC are 'set up merchants.'
"The ABCC made up their minds they were going to get Skinner so they went looking for 'evidence' to support their aim. They weren't interested in uncovering the truth, because that's not what they're all about. They want to come after us.
"And now they're coming after Noel."
Noel makes it clear that he is not taking a stand against the ABCC to draw attention to himself. He has been involved in a number of cases where the ABCC have gone after people he knows.
"This is about the defenceless people that the ABCC have picked on and will continue to pick on if these laws are kept in place.
For Noel, this is about Brodene Wardley, an OHS rep who was doing her job in protecting the safety of workers, this is about Ivan Franjic, a nineteen year old apprentice who was interrogated after an accident where a worker was seriously injured. This is about the delegate who stopped a job to raise money for the family of a worker who died from a workplace accident.
"All of these people and many, many more have been hauled into secret interrogations by the ABCC when they've done nothing wrong. Workers are phoned in their homes at night, intimidated into answering questions about union meetings."
"Why should anyone have to live in this state of fear?
"I have a brother, son and son in law in this industry, not to mention the countless friends. I don't want any of them working and living under these laws."
Australia's reputation as a country with decent rights for working people has taken a battering with these laws. The International Labor Organisation has condemned the ABCC and made personal representations to Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard about the issue.
"The last thing I want to do is go to jail," says Noel. "But there are bigger things at stake here. Workers' rights for one. And in the building industry, we don't have them."