By Frank Gollan
CANBERRA — Delegates attending the March 13 branch conference of the ACT Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) expressed strong support for a united and effective fight against attacks on the public service. The meeting rejected individual and agency level agreements and called for "a comprehensive agency- and service-wide strategy for taking industrial action".
It specifically called on the union's national leadership to "convene mass meetings to consider a campaign of escalating industrial action across the Australian Public Service in response to the Workplace Relations Act and attacks on the public sector".
The conference also showed that despite branch secretary Cath Garvan losing office late last year, the branch had not swung back to supporting the CPSU's ruling ALP-dominated faction. All seven executive positions contested were won by the BEST (Balance, Experience, Scrutiny and Talent) team, which is continuing the independent activist tradition of the earlier CPSU Challenge group.
With office holders elected in late 1996, this gives the team a clear majority on the branch executive.
The meeting opened with an address by CPSU joint national secretary Wendy Caird, in which she predicted that no government departments would implement new styles of industrial agreements with public service workers until after the May budget.
Delegates pointed out that some agencies have already started to move on the issue, and that union members were feeling uninformed and powerless. One summarised the situation in workplaces as "a vacuum of information and strategy".
Caird was also quizzed on the decision to send NSW branch secretary Vicky Telfer to work in the ACT branch.
This was the first branch conference since new branch secretary Simon Jarmen took office. In his first 10 weeks, Jarmen had substantially curtailed the democratic practices of the branch. As the ruling body of the branch, the conference sought to rectify a number of problems:
- <~>The secretary was instructed to circulate all national bulletins to members, and hold all nationally initiated consultative processes, rather than selectively deciding what to circulate.
- <~>Jarmen was instructed to convene a branch conference to prepare the ACT position prior to each national executive meeting. Branch members have had no opportunity to direct the secretary on any issues on the agenda of the next national executive meeting, due before the end of March.
- <~>Jarmen was instructed not to appoint delegates to ACT Trades and Labour Council through the branch executive, but to abide by branch conference election.
The conference also resolved that all other avenues should be exhausted before consideration of legal action against other unions over membership coverage. This position had been previously rejected by the branch executive.
With the new secretary closely tied to one wing of the Labor Party, delegates were concerned that the CPSU's resources would be thrown into disputes with other unions based on ALP factional issues rather than the interests of members.
One of Jarmen's first actions in office was to provide union office reception staff with "a list of people who I will always talk to". Of the 21 listed (most not in the CPSU), 15 were members of the ALP left faction. Only one (the branch president) was a CPSU member outside his faction.
Successful BEST candidate Val Edwards told Green Left Weekly, "This result opens up the opportunity for ACT members to have a strong say and direct involvement in fighting the Howard government attacks. This will not be easy, but at least members will know that they have a supportive branch executive."