Public service union restructure in a mess


By Frank Gollan

SYDNEY — Plans by the Public Sector Union Group of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) to restructure massively are floundering. The plans are designed to centralise financial and other controls of the group, with 100,000 or so members, in the hands of the union's national office.

These changes were prompted by the problems of the pro-ALP Progressive Caucus, which runs the PSU Group's national executive, in recent state branch elections. In Queensland, Western Australia, the ACT, Tasmania and Victoria, some or all Progressive Caucus-supported candidates have been defeated in branch elections since 1993.

The national executive is also particularly annoyed that in the ACT, the latest national wages and conditions agreement was strongly rejected. Union members were quite angry at the loss of a range of conditions in the 137-page agreement.

Voting on the restructure has been under way since July. It was meant to take place at workplace meetings by early August. The quality of information provided to the union's members has been so confusing and poor, however, that there has been virtually no interest in the restructure.

The proposal, for example:

  • fails to include the actual rules, so union members can't know what changes they are voting for;

  • takes all income off the branches, but leaves a new financial and staffing arrangement to be worked out by the national executive in the future;

  • doesn't give even a hint of where a large proportion of members would fit into the new structure.

While the proposal significantly weakens the power of the PSU Group's state branches, some have done little to inform members about the changes. The great majority of union members are unaware that the issue is even under discussion. This is exacerbated by the chronic illness of the national membership system, which has restricted the distribution of material to members.

While official figures are not yet available, anecdotal evidence indicates that, where a serious discussion is held on the restructure, union members often reject it by a margin of 10 to one.

The low level of interest has led to a second delay in the close of voting, to early September.

If the proposal is endorsed nationally, the national executive then plans to present a new set of rules to state branch conferences. Once approved there, the new rules can be adopted by a PSU Group national council meeting, without any membership vote on the actual changes.

The current schedule was expected to be September branch conferences and an October national council. With existing PSU Group rules running to well over 100 pages, and the proposed restructure affecting most aspects of that, there may not be enough time to meet those deadlines.

Doubt has also been cast on this time frame by an Industrial Relations Court ruling on August 15. This overturned some of the results of the 1994 Victorian branch elections and required the holding of new elections for four branch executive positions.

The decision will also force the national executive to rethink its current drafting process. In doubt are all rules relating to candidate eligibility. The ruling may also affect plans to give branches power to set their own rules concerning branch executives. If these are hastily drawn up by local branches, they could invite a flood of legal challenges.

Meanwhile, joint national secretary David Bunn has begun to talk about a further restructure in the July-August issue of the PSU Group journal Our Voice. A June 27 meeting, he writes, has "determined to refer a proposal on the future top structure of the CPSU to each of the two Groups of the CPSU for discussion and consultation over the next six months".

For the PSU Group to set a further round of restructure meetings before the end of the year is probably testing union members' boredom threshold.