The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) held its biennial conference in Sydney on July 26-30. Delegates to the conference report that it was quite different to the previous conference with a lot of guest speakers and not a lot of time for debate and discussion.
The recurring themes in speeches from the national officials were for recruitment and "increasing democracy". However, some of the proposals ran counter to the broad theme. For example, the national conference passed a resolution directing state councils that they can only meet quarterly. Previously, state councils have determined how frequently they meet.
The Victorian state council meets monthly, and has done so since 1932. The Victorian branch is the largest state branch and has the largest state council. The new meeting frequency will make it harder for the state council to operate and further reduces the independence of state branches.
The rule change was sprung on the national council, which met in Sydney in the week before the conference, giving no time for any state council to discuss the issue.
Victorian delegates were particularly angry, accusing the national officials of pushing the rule change for factional reasons. The only state council which is not controlled by AMWU national secretary Doug Cameron's National Left faction is the Victorian state council.
Under Cameron's leadership, the AMWU also appears to be heading down the path of service unionism, emulating the Community and Public Sector Union. The conference voted to introduce a national call centre with a central number in Sydney. The CPSU's call centre was one which the AMWU national officials looked at before putting forward the proposal at conference.
The call centre was described as a means of assisting organisers, and there's no doubt that in the less active state branches, some members will think that a call centre is better than not getting to see an organiser.
However, the Victorian delegation and the vehicle division delegation voted against the call centre proposal, arguing that the idea of an individual union member ringing a national call centre for individual advice runs contrary to the collectivist principles of unionism. Some Victorian delegates said that when a help desk was experimented with in Victoria, more often than not, the information given to members was wrong because the call centre workers didn't know the particular workplace.
A quarter of Cameron's conference speech was devoted to a factional attack on the Victorian branch, on the Workers First grouping within the branch and on former Victorian branch secretary Craig Johnston. Cameron said that their actions were an "unmitigated disaster" for the union movement generally.
Victorian delegates weren't given equal time to respond. Nor did Cameron examine the question of why union density in the metals section of the Victorian branch is over 45%, but languishing at around 30% in the metals section nationally.
Cameron made an implicit threat against anyone who doesn't agree with the National Left viewpoint when he said: "My preference is to work with those in Victoria who want a tough, smart, effective national union. Those who choose to continue down the path of division, vilification and personality conflict will be confronted and defeated... I will watch this conference with interest to see whether there is a genuine attempt to work constructively in the interests of our members."
This indicates that despite all of the conference discussion about democratising the union, the existence of different viewpoints within the union will not be tolerated by the national leadership.
Another discussion at the conference was about the problems with the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. Cameron has been the main union leader commenting in the media about the pitfalls of the FTA for workers.
The AMWU has responded to the ALP's decision to support the FTA with a statement on the union's website declaring that the "AMWU will prune support for Labor's federal election campaign in the wake of this week's free trade 'betrayal'".
From Green Left Weekly, August 11, 2004.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.