Junk Explained: How Did Melbourne’s Tradie Protests Get Tangled Up With Right-Wing Extremists?

"These are not actions of people who care about their workmates and the construction industry. They are the actions of extremists or people manipulated by extremists".

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A ‘Freedom Rally’ in Melbourne spiralled out of control on Tuesday after right-wing troublemakers overtook the protests, originally kicked off by construction workers who were protesting against mandatory industry vaccinations in the state.

— Content Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide. — 

An estimated 2000 people gathered in front of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining, and Energy Union (CFMEU) Victoria building in the CBD, forming the second demonstration of the week — with vows of more to come.

What Started This?

So far, there are over 400 COVID cases within the Victorian construction industry, affecting nearly 200 sites throughout the state. Recent government inspections found three out of four construction sites were breaking COVID safety rules, and failing to implement proper protection plans, according to The Age. Building has continued throughout the pandemic bar temporary worker number caps at points.

Tearooms were recently identified as the “most dangerous” place for possible transmission, and were forced to shut down. Tradies responded by taking their meal and smoke breaks on the Melbourne’s roads, obstructing traffic and trams during lunch over two days last week. The move was backed and organised by the CFMEU.

“Masks, restrictions on accessing tearooms, and vaccination are all critical health and safety measures during this pandemic,” the Victorian branch of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “These measures will help Victoria emerge from lockdown, see our friends and family again, and re-open our businesses.”

Then, amid the roadmap out of Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, with roughly six more weeks to go, the Victorian Government announced construction workers throughout the state would need to show evidence of at least one jab by Thursday, 23rd September.

What Happened At Monday’s Protest?

On Monday, a crowd of 500 gathered outside CMFEU HQ to protest the mandatory vaccination deadline. The building was damaged, bottles thrown around, and a dog was reportedly kicked by protestors.

Union state secretary John Setka, who tried and failed to appeal to the masses, later told the Today Show that the majority of the rowdy protestors weren’t even tradies. “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,” said Setka.

“A few of them anti-vaxxer activists were there, who are not union members. They’re not from our industry, and they’re the ones you see at all the protests,” he claimed, describing the turnout as “rent-a-crowds” made up of “professional protestors”.

Labor MP and former union leader Bill Shorten agreed, calling out the fake protestors who’d “been down to the reject shop and got themselves a $2 hi-vis hoodie so they can pretend they were [in] construction. There is a network of hard-right, man-baby Nazis, just people who want to cause trouble. These man-babies, they want to complain about vaccinations.”

This isn’t the first time misinformation groups have co-opted and fed off the concerns of workers in precarious positions during the pandemic. In July, conspiracist anti-vaxxers took advantage of government disillusionment during similar protests across the country to cause widespread unrest. It’s a trend experts say will continue, with “anti-lockdown protesters co-opting the concerns of the working class on a global scale”, but that it’s important to remember there are a “a mix of people there with a mix of concerns” that cant be pinned on one specific group, according to The Feed.

However, the CMFEU have said in a comment that extremist groups have been targeting union members for months with vaccine misinformation on social media.

In response to Monday’s protest, the Andrews Government shut down construction for two weeks over case numbers and transmission risk concern from the day’s events — a move estimated to cost the industry $6 billion.

Building and construction is the fourth largest sector in Victoria, and the halt will see $63 million in lost wages, according to the Guardian.

And The Next Day?

Naturally, being two weeks out of work overnight enraged the tradie protestors even more, and triggered the second day of protests on Tuesday — this time, in the thousands.

On Tuesday morning, the body of a man was found at a West Melbourne worksite. While still under investigation, his death is reportedly a suicide, and is thought to have fortified the day’s turnout at the protest.

The second protest began at 10am also near the CMFEU building. A swarm of hi-vis jackets then aimlessly circled the city for hours, before bringing the West Gate freeway bridge to a standstill during peak traffic hours.

Raucous protestors faced off with riot squad police, yelling out “fuck the jab” while continuing to throw things — including urine — at reporters, officers, and civilians. Windows were smashed, cars attacked, flares lit, and the protestors got increasingly more intoxicated as the day rolled up at 6pm. Five hundred police were deployed including riot specialist units, and over 60 arrests were made.

“This protest has been called for, led and promoted by far right groups and anti-vaxx groups and there is a big overlap between the two at the moment, unfortunately,” secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions Sally McManus said about the “misinformation and lies” being spread.

State Health Minister Martin Foley said the two protests were “an insult to every Victorian doing the right thing, and working so hard”, noting the mass gatherings risk forming a super-spreader event.

What Were The Protestors’ Demands?

The mob have vowed to return every morning until their demands are met, including an anticipated third day with a smaller turnout. At 9.15am on Wednesday, a magnitude six earthquake hit central Victoria, obstructing any plans to riot in large so far.

The anti-lockdown organising groups are calling for construction sites to reopen, lockdown restrictions to end, a royal commission into the government’s response to the pandemic,  the”mass distribution of ivermectin, vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc”, and the immediate resignation of Premier Dan Andrews. Andrews has condemned the use of violence, and said the disruption wouldn’t lessen the impacts and longevity of COVID response plans.

“The union will continue to defend its members’ rights to work safely across Australia and we will not be intimidated from doing our job,” CMFEU wrote in a statement on Monday. “These are not actions of people who care about their workmates and the construction industry. They are the actions of extremists or people manipulated by extremists.”

How today unfolds is yet to be seen.

Photo Credit: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images