Unions claim anti-vaxxers and extremists have hijacked construction worker protests in a bid to spread misinformation about COVID-19 and derail the nation's vaccine rollout.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions confirmed to The Canberra Times that for months, unions have been targeted by extremist groups which are sowing seeds of division and doubt to thwart vaccinations among workers. "For months we have been seeing these extremist groups targeting unions on social media and spreading misinformation about the vaccines," the ACTU said.
The revelation by the ACTU came as a mob of protesters, some carrying pro-Trump flags, stormed Melbourne's CBD, attempting to destroy the CFMEU headquarters in Carlton and brought traffic to a standstill on the West Gate bridge.
The ACTU, the CFMEU and senior Labor politicians have condemned the protests, which were sparked by the Victorian government implementing a mandatory vaccination code for the construction sector and a two-week shutdown to curb virus transmission rates.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus and former Labor leader Bill Shorten said the protests were hijacked by right-wing anti-vax extremists who had no known links to the union movement.
"This is all because the construction unions have been responsible, have been running radio ads, have been encouraging people to get vaccinated, and that doesn't suit the hard right or the extremist agenda of some troublemakers and infiltrators," Mr Shorten said.
Ms McManus said on Tuesday: "This is an example of these groups hijacking concerns that some people have in the community, spreading misinformation and lies about the vaccine."
Notwithstanding the claims of union infiltration and of opportunist "fake tradies" attending the rally, it is understood a large proportion of the protesters were construction workers.
Far-right groups on Tuesday were sharing footage and information about the protests through social media platforms like Telegram.
The ACTU also lashed out at the Morrison government, linking Tuesday's events to the slowness of the vaccine rollout and a lack of vaccine education.
"The slowness of the vaccine rollout and the lack of an effective government public education campaign has created a void that these groups have tried to exploit," the ACTU said.
Australian National University professor Colin Klein also agreed the union protests were hijacked by the anti-vax movement, which was creating a breeding ground for further spread of misinformation.
He also noted far-right US political rhetoric through social media was also fuelling the outburst.
"We're talking about them rather than the union," Dr Klein said.
"People are upset, people feel powerless, and there are fewer answers still than we'd like.
"So, all of that is a really good environment to make misinformation spread easier.
"When this kind of anger and resentment spills over, it also makes people more willing to accept misinformation."
University of Canberra associate professor Michael Jensen said the unions have a responsibility to stamp out the spreading of misinformation among their membership base, noting conspiracists are using the protests to legitimise claims which undermine health policy.
"These are issues that are fundamentally dividing construction workers to the extent that people do not get vaccinated," Dr Jensen said. "It's a matter of the unions trying to protect the people they represent."
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has flagged 50 per cent of its domestic counter-terrorism case load is related to right-wing extremism.
Labor senator Kristina Keneally said the Morrison government was failing to identify these risks which was allowing disinformation to spread like wildfire during the pandemic.
Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash was contacted for comment.
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