AMWU elections: the left cleans up

July 14, 2007

In last month's elections in the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), the Workers' Rights team took all positions against a ticket led by an alliance between the union's print and vehicle divisions. Some Workers' Rights candidates received over 80% of the vote. In the Victorian branch, where most positions were strongly contested, 40% of members voted.

The unsuccessful New Directions team emerged after AMWU national secretary Doug Cameron announced his retirement to run for ALP preselection for a Senate position in NSW, which he subsequently secured.

The Workers' Rights team formed as a result of an alliance between the ruling National Left caucus and the Workers First leadership of the Victorian branch when Workers First agreed to support National Left candidate and former Victorian secretary Dave Oliver for AMWU national secretary.

Despite years of conflict between the Workers First and National Left groups within the union, they agreed to put aside their differences and merged to form the Workers' Rights team so that the AMWU could better combat the federal government's anti-union laws.

New Directions fielded candidates for national and state positions in an attempt to deliver the Victorian branch of the AMWU to the conservative vehicle division national secretary Ian Jones.

The Workers' Rights team stood Victorian metal division secretary Steve Dargavel for the state secretary position, the most hotly contested in the campaign. Dargavel was opposed by New Directions candidate and vehicle division organiser David Nunns.

Many in the Workers' Rights campaign were initially doubtful they could win the state secretary position against the vehicle division's solid block of support from the huge car plants. The possibility of losing the Victorian branch to a more right-wing ticket was a serious worry for Workers' Rights campaigners and union members, resulting in a higher than usual return.

An indication that a victory for the New Directions team would have resulted in a right-wing shift in the union is the vehicle division's campaign for unions to withdraw support for the activist group Union Solidarity and the community picket lines that it organises. In 2006, the vehicle division leadership instructed its members to cross a community picket line that was established in support of a shop steward at Toyota in Melbourne.

Jones was implicated in a court case that found a police officer guilty of misconduct for an illegal investigation of another AMWU metal division steward at Toyota, Tony Carvalho.

Carvalho and occupational health and safety representative Shane Blackney were sacked on trumped up charges the day that Carvalho nominated to stand for Victorian state secretary in the election. Carvalho challenged Nunns over the vehicle division's victimisation of himself and directed preferences to Dargavel. Carvalho and Blackney are maintaining a protest outside Toyota to demand their jobs back.

Dargavel won the Victorian state secretary position with 55% of the vote, which means that a significant number of members of the vehicle and print divisions would have voted for the Workers' Rights team.

Other positions fell more easily: Workers' Rights candidate Gary Robb won assistant state secretary (metal division) with over 82% of the vote, metal division organiser Lou Malgeri won with over 79%, and Oliver won national secretary with over 60% of the vote against Victorian print division secretary Jim Reid.

The last hurdle was in the Victorian food division, where New Directions supporters challenged the legitimacy of the initial vote. While the allegations were not substantiated, the vote was conducted again and Workers' Rights candidates Tom Hale and Angela McCarthy won the positions of food division secretary and food division organiser.

The Workers' Rights team won with mail-outs of campaign material and leafleting by supporters outside factory gates. The Workers' Rights team produced a poster with the names of more than 100 delegates and activists supporting the team, beneath a photo of a large crowd of supporters. By contrast, the New Directions' material only included a photo of the candidates and the officials supporting them.

The incumbents who formed the Workers' Rights team have led the Victorian AMWU in the most militant defence of workers' rights of any union under the federal government's anti-union Work Choices. The AMWU nationally has been responsible for 42% of protected strike action since Work Choices became law on March 27, 2006. The majority of AMWU industrial action has taken place in Victoria.

The Workers' Rights team put forward a program for expanding the union, for active campaigns for members and against Howard's Work Choices, and for developing the AMWU into a more active and involving union — through an apprenticeship officer, an expanded health and safety unit, and new structures for members' participation.

The Victorian branch of the AMWU is one of a group of unions in Victoria that is pushing for a mass protest against Work Choices.

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