The militant union at the centre of violent protests in Melbourne has a long history of disruptive behaviour, antagonism towards government and illegal conduct. 

The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union – technically the CFMMEU but usually shortened to CFMEU – has about 144,000 members, or 1 per cent of the Australian workforce. 

It is one of Australia’s most powerful trade unions, with a motto of ‘If Provoked Will Strike’ and is a strong influence over the left wing of Labor politics. 

CFMEU boss John Setka has distanced the union from protesters objecting to mandatory Covid-19 vaccine requirements for Victorian construction workers.

The militant union at the centre of violent protests in Melbourne has a long history of disruptive behaviour, antagonism towards government and illegal conduct. CFMEU Victorian construction branch secretary John Setka is pictured with wife Emma Walters

The militant union at the centre of violent protests in Melbourne has a long history of disruptive behaviour, antagonism towards government and illegal conduct. CFMEU Victorian construction branch secretary John Setka is pictured with wife Emma Walters

CFMEU boss John Setka has distanced the union from protesters objecting to mandatory Covid-19 vaccine requirements, which come into effect for the construction industry later this week. Construction workers are pictured clashing with union officials on Monday

CFMEU boss John Setka has distanced the union from protesters objecting to mandatory Covid-19 vaccine requirements, which come into effect for the construction industry later this week. Construction workers are pictured clashing with union officials on Monday

The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union - technically the CFMMEU but often shortened to CFMEU - has about 144,000 members, or 1 per cent of the Australian workforce. John Setka is pictured (in blue shirt) as an organiser back in 2003

The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union – technically the CFMMEU but often shortened to CFMEU – has about 144,000 members, or 1 per cent of the Australian workforce. John Setka is pictured (in blue shirt) as an organiser back in 2003

Hundreds of workers in hi-vis vests gathered outside the union’s Elizabeth Street head office on Monday, hurling abuse and projectiles and smashing windows.

The relatively young, ethnically diverse protesters – many of them anti-vaxxers – clashed violently with police and union officials.  

Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has since shut down the construction industry for at least a fortnight. 

Public health officials had already become increasingly concerned the building workforce was becoming a major source of Covid transmission and exposure. 

Mr Setka was furious 300,000 construction staff had lost work because of the actions of ‘fake tradies’ at the protest, describing them as ‘scum of the earth, drunken and un-Australian morons’. 

‘There were a few of anti-vaxxer activists there who are not union members or are from our industry, they’re the ones you see at all the protests,’ Mr Setka told the Today show on Tuesday.

‘There was a sprinkling of construction workers there of our members and the rest were just people, I wouldn’t even know who they are.’

The protesters might not have been demonstrating under the banner of the CFMEU but the union is considered the most militant and uncompromising in the country.

Mondahy's protesters might not have been demonstrating under the banner of the CFMEU but the union is considered the most militant and uncompromising in the country. Construction workers are pictured at a rally in Melbourne in 2017

Mondahy’s protesters might not have been demonstrating under the banner of the CFMEU but the union is considered the most militant and uncompromising in the country. Construction workers are pictured at a rally in Melbourne in 2017

Hundreds of workers in hi-vis vests gathered outside the CFMEU's Elizabeth Street head office on Monday, hurling abuse and projectiles and smashing windows. Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has since shut down the construction industry for at least a fortnight.

Hundreds of workers in hi-vis vests gathered outside the CFMEU’s Elizabeth Street head office on Monday, hurling abuse and projectiles and smashing windows. Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has since shut down the construction industry for at least a fortnight.

It has repeatedly broken laws governing industrial action, accruing more breaches and fines than any other union in the past 25 years. It has also secured high wages and good conditions for many members using its collective power.  

The union, which was founded in 1992, has offices in all capital cities and many major regional centres, while the national headquarters is in Melbourne.

It has assets of $310million, annual revenue of approximately $146million and as well as supporting Labor has donated to the Greens and political activist group GetUp!

As of last year it had been been fined almost $17million for unlawful behaviour related to almost 2,200 breaches of industrial relations legislation since 2002. 

Breaches include unlawful strike action, unauthorised entry of construction sites by officials and attempts to stop non-members working on projects. Its actions have included intimidation, coercion and threats. 

While not as disruptive as the disbanded Builders Labourers Federation of the 1980s or criminal in the way of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union of the 1970s, the CFMEU is nonetheless hard core. 

Concerns about CFMEU conduct led to the 2001 Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Sector and the 2015 Royal Commission into Trade union Governance and Corruption.

Mr Setka was furious 300,000 construction staff had lost work because of the actions of 'fake tradies' at Monday's protest. There is no suggestion anyone pictured is a 'fake tradie' or engaged in any wrongdoing

Mr Setka was furious 300,000 construction staff had lost work because of the actions of ‘fake tradies’ at Monday’s protest. There is no suggestion anyone pictured is a ‘fake tradie’ or engaged in any wrongdoing

In one case against the union Federal Court judge Debra Mortimer noted ‘not only the sheer number of contraventions but the frequency of them.’

She suggested the CFMEU had a ‘conscious and deliberate strategy’ to engage in ‘disruptive, threatening and abuse behaviour towards employers without regard to the lawfulness of that action, and impervious to the prospect of prosecution and penalties.’

That, or it ‘weighs up the cost of engaging in such action… and nevertheless concludes it is a collateral cost doing its industrial business,’ Justice Mortimer said

In another Federal Court case, Justice Salvatore Vasta said, ‘it is no understatement to describe the CFMEU as the most recidivist corporate offender in Australian history.’ 

The union is organised into four divisions – construction and general, manufacturing, mining and energy, and maritime – each operating largely autonomously.  

Mr Setka is the Victorian state secretary of the construction division, which as well as covering tradespeople represents building workers who would once have belonged to the deregistered BLF.

'There were a few of anti-vaxxer activists there who are not union members or are from our industry, they're the ones you see at all the protests,' Mr Setka told the Today show on Tuesday

‘There were a few of anti-vaxxer activists there who are not union members or are from our industry, they’re the ones you see at all the protests,’ Mr Setka told the Today show on Tuesday

The 57-year-old worked as muscle for the BLF in the 1980s when he was convicted of assaults and trespassing on Melbourne building sites. 

Mr Setka is a heavy-set, tattooed, T-shirt-wearing official known outside the trade union movement for his friendship with underworld figure Mick Gatto and being the subject of domestic violence charges. 

Among those allegations were that the Croatian-Australian sent his wife Emma Walters a series of texts calling her a ‘weak f***in’ piece of s***’ and a ‘treacherous Aussie f***in’ c***’. 

In June 2019, he was found guilty of using a carriage service to harass his wife, for which he received a 12-month good behaviour bond. Other charges were dismissed and the couple reconciled. 

Mr Setka has resisted repeated demands for him to resign and is unapologetic about his past and colourful associations. He does not back down. 

‘You throw a stone at me and I’ll throw a mountain back,’ is reportedly one of his favourite warnings to colleagues. 

Labor leader Anthony Albanese previously called for Mr Setka to quit the party – he resigned under threat of expulsion in October 2019 – and ACTU secretary Sally McManus has said he should resign from his union role. 

'There was a sprinkling of construction workers there of our members and the rest were just people, I wouldn't even know who they are,' Mr Setka said on Tuesday

‘There was a sprinkling of construction workers there of our members and the rest were just people, I wouldn’t even know who they are,’ Mr Setka said on Tuesday

Mr Setka is seen a divisive force and it is expected the CFMEU will split into several smaller unions, bringing an end to its position as a major national political force. 

He has been behind major protests previously, notably shutting down his home city’s central business district in 2012 in a dispute with construction giant Grocon that drew almost 1,000 police in response.

The CFMEU has a long history of conflict with the Master Builders Victoria but that relationship had mellowed during the Covid pandemic as workers, employers and government cooperated to keep the construction industry open.

The protest against construction restrictions in Melbourne turned violent on Monday with anti-vaccination demonstrators clashing with CFMEU officials.

Flanked by other union officials, Mr Setka tried to appease the crowd and address the protesters over a loud speaker.

‘Please calm down, can you at least give me the respect to talk,’ he said. ‘We’re not the enemy, I don’t know what you have heard.

‘I have never ever said I support mandatory vaccination.’

It is one of Australia's most powerful trade unions, with a motto of 'If Provoked Will Strike' and is a strong influence over the left wing of Labor politics

It is one of Australia’s most powerful trade unions, with a motto of ‘If Provoked Will Strike’ and is a strong influence over the left wing of Labor politics

Setka told the crowd he had never even met Mr Andrews but was eventually forced to retreat inside the union office before protestors smashed a glass door, chanting ‘my body, my choice’. 

On Monday night, the Victorian government shut down the construction industry for two weeks in metropolitan Melbourne, Ballarat, Greater Geelong, Surf Coast Shire and Mitchell Shire.

All sites will need to demonstrate compliance with health directions prior to reopening, including a requirement for workers to show evidence of having had at least one dose of a vaccine before they return to their jobs.

The government said the shutdown was required to cut down movement, reduce Covid-19 transmission and give the industry time to adapt to the new requirements.

An audit of about 200 construction sites last week found 73 per cent were failing to comply with health directions 

Victorian treasurer Tim Pallas said: ‘We put the industry on notice just a week ago, we have seen appalling behaviour on-site and on our streets, and now we’re acting decisively and without hesitation.’ 

On Monday night, the Victorian government shut down the construction industry for two weeks in metropolitan Melbourne, Ballarat, Greater Geelong, Surf Coast Shire and Mitchell Shire. Protesters are pictured at CFMEU headquarters in Melbourne

On Monday night, the Victorian government shut down the construction industry for two weeks in metropolitan Melbourne, Ballarat, Greater Geelong, Surf Coast Shire and Mitchell Shire. Protesters are pictured at CFMEU headquarters in Melbourne

Queensland construction unions including that state’s CFMEU branch have opposed any blanket ‘no jab-no job’ laws which remove a worker’s right to make personal health choices.

‘We strongly support and have followed the health advice that has helped keep Queenslanders safe and our members working, even during periods of restrictions and lockdown,’ the unions said in a statement under the banner of the Building Trades Group.

‘Ultimately though, medical decisions must be a matter for an individual acting on the advice of their doctor, and workers should not be punished for acting according to their own personal circumstances.’

While demonstrations such as those scene in Melbourne have not yet occurred in Brisbane, the CFMEU’s Queensland branch is ready to strike if provoked.  

‘We continue to work with employers and members to keep our industry safe, working and fully informed, but do not accept that coercive measures are part of any solution,’ the combined unions statement said. 

‘Any employer found to be illegally coercing workers however, will be dealt with by BTG unions to the full extent of the law.’ 

While demonstrations such as those scene in Melbourne have not yet occurred in Brisbane, the CFMEU's Queensland branch is ready to strike if provoked. Protesters are pictured in Melbourne

While demonstrations such as those scene in Melbourne have not yet occurred in Brisbane, the CFMEU’s Queensland branch is ready to strike if provoked. Protesters are pictured in Melbourne



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