MUA officials withstand challenges
By Dick Nichols
The final results of the 1999 elections for the Maritime Union of Australia are now in. Both nationally and at branch level, the incumbent leadership has managed to withstand the challenge of various rank-and-file tickets, and retains control of all MUA leading bodies. However, opposition forces have won branch positions in South Queensland (deputy secretary), Central New South Wales (deputy and assistant secretaries) and Victoria (assistant secretary).
The official team has managed to hang on in the Western Australian branch, where it was under serious threat from the WA MUA Rank and File, led by Chris Cain, the convener for Mermaid Sound (North-West Shelf). Cain narrowly lost the contest for deputy secretary to incumbent Wally Pritchard, 492 to 438.
Where they were defeated in two-way contests, opposition candidates averaged 40% of the vote: in three-way contests the rank-and-file vote averaged 37%. (Full details of the final count can be found on the MUA web page at <http://mua.tcp.net.au>.)
Was this a disappointing result for the various opposition challenges? Does it mean MUA members as a whole endorse the way the MUA leadership handled such issues as the loss of the seafarers' industry roster and the final Patrick settlement? Where does the rank-and-file movement go from here? Green Left Weekly sought the views of Ian Bray (Kwinana tugs) and Grant Holden (P&O Ports, Melbourne), National MUA Rank and File candidates for assistant national secretary.
Ian Bray gave a positive assessment of the 30% vote for their ticket. "We never expected to win at our first attempt against the officials", he said.
"You have to remember that a rank-and-file candidate for a national position is up against the union machine at its strongest point. The incumbents had the resources to run their coordinated fear campaign at national MUA stop-work meetings, while we could front them at only one or two. But where rank-and-file candidates had local profile, they did very well, as with Grant Holden in Melbourne and Dave Hauser in Sydney."
Holden stressed that they hadn't had the time or money to visit the smaller ports, which meant that they had really had no chance to neutralise the official scare campaign in many areas. "Yet, wherever we got to speak directly to members, we got a good response", he added.
Both stressed the damage done by the competition among two separate non-official tickets for the three assistant national secretary positions. "There was no huge difference between the program of the National MUA Rank and File and that of Jake Haub [Patrick, Darling Harbour] and Dave Hauser [CTAL, Port Botany]", Bray said.
"A single national opposition ticket wouldn't have beaten the top two official candidates, but it would have had a good chance of winning the third spot. Unfortunately, the main purpose of the Haub-Hauser ticket was to channel the disaffected wharfie vote back to [assistant national secretary and seafarer] Mick Doleman."
According to scrutineers for the WA MUA Rank and File, 70-80% of voters followed one or other ticket, leaving 20-30% voting all-wharfie or all-seafarer, or according to other considerations. How big a role did traditional sectional differences within the union play?
Ian Bray thinks they are still important. "People are concerned that officials from a different background can't really understand their issues. That will continue until a new team — either at branch or national level — can prove in practice that it just doesn't have to be the case."
Holden thought some seafarers, used to old-style Seamen's Union of Australia elections in which campaigning was restricted to a 100-word statement in the union journal, might have gotten a bit of shock from the vigour of the campaign.
Another feature of the election was the tendency for members to vote for incumbent officials, even where, as in NSW Central (Sydney and Port Botany), they split between two competing teams. Here, disciplined voting for tickets was at its lowest. For instance, on the Maritime Unionists Socialist Activities Association-Communist Party of Australia ticket, secretary Robert Coombs (MUSAA) was re-elected with over twice the vote of the candidate for assistant secretary, the CPA's Warren Smith.
What explains this vote for existing officials in a period of strong discontent within the union over the Patrick deal and the loss of the seafarer industry roster? According to Ian Bray: "I think there's a strong 'better-the-devil-we-know' factor. It's not that members particularly agree with the way the big issues have been handled. But many are frightened of what it might mean to vote in a more militant leadership, and the incumbents certainly pulled out all stops to make people frightened!"
According to Bray, this fear is probably what got the incumbents over the line in Western Australia. The higher than expected rate of abstention among seafarers pointed to a portion of the membership being unable to choose between the despised incumbents and the WA MUA Rank and File, which was painted as trigger-happy and lacking in experience.
Holden agreed that the devil-you-know factor was strong, stressing that the National MUA Rank and File campaign would have needed more time to counter it by carefully explaining its policies and approach to MUA members.
"You could feel it when we went down to P&O in Fremantle", he said. "The officials had been through before us; people were frightened, but we didn't have time to sit down and go through the issues thoroughly with them."
Both candidates were vehement on one thing: the concession granted the MUA to run its own elections should be revoked unless the way it runs its elections is radically changed. Holden growled: "It's putting the cat in charge of the canary".
The issue that most rankled was the 8% increase in the union's membership between the opening and close of the ballot (an increase made up of new members, newly financial members and members who were "discovered to have been financial after all"). Bray also stressed that it is impossible under the present system to guarantee the security of completed voting papers.
Bray concluded: "People should remember that we started this campaign from scratch, and that we've accomplished the hardest bit — getting a national rank-and-file network together. The job now is to build on that achievement."
Holden said that such a network would soon have a lot of work before it. The rank-and-file opposition would not only be facing battles within the union around amalgamation and democratic functioning, but would also have to further develop its position on industry issues such as rampant casualisation and the near-certainty of a new offensive against cabotage by Peter Reith.
"Seafarers are very vulnerable", Holden said. "I think the shipowners are preparing a mass exodus along the lines of what has happened at Patrick and P&O."
[Dick Nichols is the national industrial convener of the Democratic Socialist Party.]