AMWU members defend union democracy

July 24, 2002


MELBOURNE — “Why is the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union national office attacking the Victorian branch?”, AMWU state secretary Craig Johnston asked a stop-work rally on July 17. Addressing around 5000 of his union's members, Johnston answered his own question: “Because the national office wants to take over [the 2003 round of enterprise bargaining] and do a deal with the boss to sell you all down the river”.

The AMWU national office forced Johnston to stand aside from his elected union position in mid-July, after he was accused of alleged “gross misconduct” towards a young female union employee. The alleged victim signed a statutory declaration on July 16 explaining that she had been pressured by the national officials to support the accusation. The declaration stated that it is her “firm and clear belief” that the allegations are part of a political campaign to remove Johnston.

Johnston is a member of the militant Workers First faction, under whose leadership the Victorian AMWU has won significantly better wages and conditions for its members.

Workers travelled from Echuca, Bendigo, Portland, Ballarat and Shepparton, as well as metropolitan Melbourne and Geelong, to attend the rally. Many could not make it — 10,000 workers stopped work in support — and held meetings in their workplaces.

This was a massive show of support for Johnston in the face of national office and employer attempts to undermine it. The union’s national office called employers, “explaining” that the stop-work was unauthorised (and hence illegal). In the Dandenong Visyboard plant, workers were offered a $500 bonus to not attend the meeting. All the workers at Ballantine's chocolate factory in South Melbourne stopped work, despite the manager’s refusal to leave the room while a meeting was held.

The workers at the meeting were overwhelmingly supportive of Johnston, and outraged by the AMWU national office. Placards reading, “Tony Abbott + bosses + Doug Cameron = wage cuts”, “who elected Oliver?” and “Craig Johnston, democratically elected leader of Victoria”, were scattered through the crowd.

In contrast to the cheers Johnston received, the national office-appointed branch administrator, Dave Oliver, was drowned out by boos and chants of “We want Craig” when he attempted to address the rally. In response to the MC’s request for enough “discipline” to allow Oliver to speak, hecklers demanded Oliver be disciplined, getting “the same democracy he gave Victoria”.

Oliver also came under fire from Ian Thomas, a shop steward at the BHP Western Port plant. Addressing the rally, Thomas ridiculed a letter Oliver sent to members claiming he was “at the forefront of some of the most important campaigns in Victoria” — including the recent dispute at BHP.

Thomas told the rally that it was the state branch officials who supported BHP workers in their nine-month struggle. A shop steward from Martin Bright Steel, another workplace named in Oliver's letter, also confirmed that the only input Oliver had into their enterprise bargain was to “sell us out”.

The meeting also heard from the Victorian AMWU’s food and confectionary division secretary Bronwyn Halfpenny, who condemned the AMWU’s national office for being “in bed with the bosses”. Jimmy Reid, secretary of the Victorian AMWU’s printing division, pledged that division's opposition to interference in the Victorian branch.

He said that Cameron had told him that he wouldn’t stop until Johnston was “gone from the union”. Reid accused Cameron of wanting “slavish, lickspittle, forelock-tugging” union officials, and called on Cameron and Oliver to accept “free speech, democracy and open debate without fear of reprisal” or to stand down.

The rally passed a resolution condemning the national office's “vicious political attack” and calling for Johnston to be reinstated, echoing a motion passed by the Victorian Trades Hall Council.

The workers marched to the AMWU’s Elizabeth Street offices. Six female shop stewards attempted to present the resolution to the state office, but the building lifts were locked and office staff had been sent home.

A further resolution, directing all union officials to cooperate with democratically elected AMWU committees and officials, including the state secretary, state council and regional councils, and not to cooperate with the state administrator (Dave Oliver), was passed.

Johnston, and the militant Workers First faction which leads the Victorian AMWU, has also been under attack from the state and federal government. The Skilled Six Campaign group — defending AMWU members facing charges arising out of a dispute at Johnson Tiles last year — held a Melbourne meeting of 45 people on July 16, after a meeting of 30 launched a Geelong campaign group on July 15. Workers at a construction site in Port Melbourne recently pledged a monthly $1000 donation to the campaign. For information about the campaign, phone Chris Spindler on 9689 0136 or Sue Bull on 0407 096 996.

From Green Left Weekly, July 24, 2002.
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