BY SUE BOLTON
SYDNEY — The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union national conference, held July 21-25 at Sydney's plush Parkroyal Hotel, adopted a series of rule changes which strip decision-making power from state branches and shift it to the national council and the national secretary, currently Doug Cameron.
Cameron's faction had the majority support of the conference delegates, and has been intractably hostile to the Workers First leadership of the Victorian branch. That branch contains more than 50% of the unions' financial members. On at least two occasions the Victorian branch has had to legally challenge decisions made by the national council that overturned branch decisions.
Cameron's harassment became more public when Workers First member Craig Johnston was stood down as Victorian state secretary and barred from attending union meetings by a July 9 national council meeting. This was justified by allegations of "gross misconduct" towards an employee — despite the alleged "victim" denying, now in a statutory declaration, that the incident ever took place.
The battle lines were drawn at the beginning of the conference when a motion to seat Johnston as a delegate was disallowed. From there, the conference just got worse.
The conference's results included:
- All decisions of all union bodies, including state councils and state conferences, are now subject to approval by the national council. (Previously, the national council could only overturn decisions if they breached certain rules.)
- Although no notice is required in order to hold an emergency national council meeting, there is now a three-working-day notice required for emergency state council meetings.
- State secretaries, state assistant secretaries and state organisers no longer have the same level of independence from the national council.
- All legal matters now have to be referred to the national secretary. This means the national council can, in effect, intervene in any Victorian industrial dispute in which the bosses take legal action against the union. Bosses frequently use legal action to intimidate militant unionists.
- State branches are no longer allowed to produce any publicity, including leaflets and media releases, without the approval of the national council.
- Union officials can now be sacked for wearing "unauthorised" logos on their clothing. This rule was adopted to prevent Workers First shirts from being worn. Cameron also stated, however, that shirts with slogans from important disputes were also banned.
- When an elected organiser's term runs out, finance can be used as a reason to appoint, rather than elect, a replacement.
- Sexual harassment charges can now be brought without the consent of the alleged victim. The national secretary can now ignore the recommendations of investigative reports into such harassment.
- The different divisions of the union — printing, vehicle builders, food and confectionery and technical and supervisory — no longer have a power of veto over rules whose effect is broader than that division. The divisions were given a veto when different unions (corresponding to the current divisions) amalgamated into what was a metalworkers union. While the divisions have had a veto over broader union decisions, Cameron announced he had legal advice that was not allowed.
Other decisions were also rammed through in contravention of union rules. When the divisions met separately, the food and confectionary division election procedure was changed by Cameron. Instead of weighting delegates' votes by the membership their branch represented, each delegate had the same number of votes. This meant that South Australia, which has 112 members in the food division, got an equal number of votes to Victoria which has 6000 members.
Even before the changes, the national office had enormous control over the union, because it receives all the membership dues. An allowance is handed back to the state branches. The national office determines how many organisers to allocate to a state branch or division. Branches at odds with Cameron's faction are frequently starved of resources.
Johnston described to Green Left Weekly the effect which the rule changes will have on the state branches: "Every dispute, what can be done, any industrial action, any strike — Cameron will have to OK it. What you wear — Cameron will have to OK it. Any decision that the state council makes — Cameron will have to OK it."
Johnston was very critical of the conference decisions. "It's the people in the divisions and the branches who understand their members best. National metalworkers officials don't understand what a food worker or printer goes through in Shepparton", he said.
Victorian delegate Paul Wisniewski told GLW the atmosphere of the conference was intimidatory: "If anyone raised anything which Cameron wasn't happy with, then Cameron would vilify them and rule them out of order."
Conference delegate and Workers First member Justine Kamprad was disgusted at the ban on "unauthorised" logos. "All we're asking", she said, "is to be able to express our political and democratic rights, to be involved in a faction and identify ourselves politically on the job". In the July AMWU journal, a picture of Kamprad had the Workers First logo on her shirt blacked out.
Kamprad, who is an active member of the Victorian branch's women's committee, also condemned the new sexual harassment policy. She pointed out that the Victorian branch has been campaigning to treat sexual harassment as a serious issue. Instead of factionalised bodies dealing with such issues, Kamprad argued they should be addressed by a body based around women's rights. She added that allowing others to press charges "on behalf" of unwilling women was disempowering.
Many Victorian delegates were frustrated by the conference. As the branch enters another industrial campaign, they are preparing for battles with employers. The last thing they wanted is attacks from their own national office.
Australian Industries Group chief executive Bob Herbert has said he would prefer Cameron to be running the next industrial campaign. "The employers are terrified about what we're going to push for next year, because we were so successful in 2000", Johnston pointed out.
The result of a federal court case to determine whether or not the AMWU national council breached union rules in standing Johnston down is expected on July 29.
However, on July 22, Judge Mark Weinberg said that he could think of few less satisfactory situations than a collection of national council members, perhaps including factional enemies, judging the allegations against Johnston.
From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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