Progressives challenge Labor in public sector union

PSA members at a Sydney rally for workplace rights, September 8, 2011.

An election in the NSW Public Service Association (PSA) will be held in October to determine who leads the 42,000-strong union for the next four years.

Membership of the PSA consists of public servants employed by the NSW government. The current ALP-aligned leadership team is being challenged by a group of rank-and-file members and delegates known as the Progressive PSA (PPSA).

The PPSA formed as a broad left coalition in the 1980s made up of Labor left, socialists and Communist Party members to challenge the right-wing leadership in control of the union at the time. Back then, the PPSA included the current PSA leaders John Cahill and Steve Turner.

Once elected to office, the more conservative Labor elements broke away from the PPSA and formed their own faction called “Rank and File”, which has controlled the PSA ever since.

In the past decade the PPSA has steadily increased its support among the membership, reflected in its increasing voter support at elections.

Frightened by this growing support, the PSA’s ALP right “Members First” faction and the “Rank and File” faction united against the progressives at the last election in 2008 and ran together on a single ticket for the first time.

Several months before the 2008 election the ruling factions used their numbers on PSA central council to change the rules of the union, abolishing the proportional representation system and replacing it with a winner-take-all system of bloc voting.

As a result, the PPSA went from having 12 of 45 delegate positions on the union’s Central Council and a vice-president – reflecting its 29% of the vote in 2004 – to having no positions at all after the 2008 election, despite winning 47% of the vote.

One key reason for the growth in support for the PPSA has been the ongoing failure by the current leadership team to respond to the wave of neoliberalism that has intensified over the past decade, badly impacting on public servants.

Job cuts under Labor and Coalition governments have resulted in tens of thousands of public sector jobs slashed or slated to go in the past few years.

Since Barry O’Farrell came to power 18 months ago, forced redundancies have been introduced to the public service for the first time, the NSW workers compensation scheme has suffered savage cutbacks and new legislation now forces workers to trade off conditions for pay rises above 2.5% a year. A raft of other conditions for public servants are expected to go, such as certain shift penalties and allowances, some forms of paid leave and the 17.5% annual leave loading.

The response of the PSA leadership has been to mount a legal challenge to O’Farrell’s wages cap laws. But until now they have failed to engage with members or work with other unions to organise an industrial campaign against the government’s austerity measures.

Belatedly, the leadership has called a stop-work meeting of NSW public servants on October 8, three days before the ballot opens for the union election. The meeting will likely be used as a PR opportunity by the current officials in their bid for re-election.

Until the stop-work meeting was announced they had been very reluctant to organise any industrial action. The PSA executive announced the stop-work action without involving members or without even consulting central council and it is not a genuine attempt at industrial organising.

Nonetheless, the PPSA is encouraging members and supporters to attend the mass meeting at Sydney Town Hall commencing at 10am on October 8, or one of the regional locations, and put questions to the leadership about how they intend to work with members to take the fight up to the government. However, it is expected that no discussion or debate from the floor will be permitted and members will simply be expected to endorse a predetermined resolution.

The heavily autocratic methods of the current leadership have deskilled and eroded the delegate base so that members are mostly disengaged and excluded from union processes.

Delegates are given no autonomy, but are simply expected to carry out the policies of the union head office. Secret deals with management are a common occurrence and any members and delegates who are seen as supporters of the PPSA are attacked and vilified by the union hierarchy.

This frequent harassment of members by the current officials over many years has had the effect of slowly galvanising support for the PPSA and has led many rank-and-file members to question the methods and legitimacy of the current leadership. Many other members have simply resigned in disgust, which is reflected in declining membership figures.

The PPSA has a good chance of winning this election on the back of only narrowly missing out on taking control of the PSA at the last election in 2008.

The PPSA is a cohesive and well-organised group of experienced delegates and long-term PSA members. It is composed of people from a variety of left perspectives and is running on a platform of putting power in the hands of members and building a strong, fighting union by organising extensively among the membership in opposition to the draconian policies being forced on the workforce by the employer.

In particular, the PPSA will seek to build on the organising efforts of other public sector unions and develop a united, sector-wide industrial campaign. This is in stark contrast to the pointed refusal by current PSA officials to work with other unions.

The effect of a PPSA election victory will be to assist in building working class industrial organisation and increase the power of the union movement at a very important time. It would also help provide increased support to left and progressive political causes.

Until now, PSA officials have been less than forthcoming about the amount they pay themselves. But under pressure they did finally reveal in May that their pay is tied to that of industrial court judges, putting their PSA incomes in the order of $200,000 to $300,000 a year.

In the past, paid elected officials have held board positions on various state enterprises – boosting their annual income by tens of thousands more a year.

In consultation with members, the PPSA will cut the huge salaries of the top officials, restore the previous democratic method of proportional representation and introduce a limit on the number of terms the paid elected officials may serve, as the NSW Builders Labourers Federation famously did in the 1970s under Jack Mundey.

All Green Left readers are invited to come and meet the PPSA candidates at the stop-work meeting at Sydney Town Hall from 9.30am on October 8. The postal ballot for the PSA election opens on October 11 and closes on October 30 and will be run by the NSW Electoral Commission.

[Lindsay Hawkins is a PPSA candidate for assistant general secretary in the 2012 PSA election.]

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