By Ray Fulcher
MELBOURNE — In what was described as an "exceptional decision" by sources in the Victorian branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Victorian Industrial Relations Court on November 14 overturned the May 1993 elections which had placed the current left-wing leadership of that union into office.
Justice Keely ruled void last year's election of the officials, including current secretary Martin Kingham, after finding irregularities in the ballot. The Age reported that the irregularities included the "exclusion of several members of the former Operative Painters and Decorators Union from the ballot".
However, the election was conducted by the Commonwealth Electoral Officer in terms of the rules and conduct of elections approved by the Industrial Relations Commission.
When the then OPDU and Building Workers Industrial Union amalgamated in 1992, the rules allowed the OPDU and BWIU memberships to elect their own leaders; then after a period of integration a general election would be held, allowing all members to decide on the new leadership of the CFMEU.
"Before the amalgamation was completed, the OPDU had an election and this leadership went into the CFMEU. In 1993 it was the turn of the old BWIU members to elect their part of the leadership team, and that's what happened. It was all very uncontroversial at the time", Kingham told Green Left Weekly.
The court action was brought by the old BWIU ticket, led by Don Henderson, which lost the 1993 election. The court's decision says that the old BWIU members' election should have included all members of the current CFMEU — including the old painters union membership. Furthermore, the decision allows the old painters union leadership to retain office without facing election, as would be required of the old BWIU team.
According to Kingham, there has been tension between the two sets of leaders since the amalgamation. "All the OPDU assets are in a private trust, and they have withheld funds from the combined union. Prior to the amalgamation, they inflated their membership to around 9000 and so elected themselves 10 official positions, but the membership records they brought into the new union show a membership of 1000 to 1500", said Kingham.
The case comes in the wake of a successful wage push and recruiting drive on Victorian building sites and an attempt by the media to paint the CFMEU as a "rogue" union. Several articles have appeared in establishment papers about "thuggery" and "intimidation" in the building industry. Two CFMEU organisers were recently charged with possession of firearms, which they explained were needed for protection after one organiser had been pistol-whipped on a building site.
An appeal will be made to the Federal Court to overturn the industrial court's decision. Stan Sharkey, national secretary of the CFMEU, said, "It is our view that if, and when, a ballot is held all positions, including all painters' positions, should be up for election. This would be the fairest test of who Victorian building workers actually support as their union's leaders."