Right-wing attempts takeover of Victorian AMWU

March 23, 2007

The most important elections for many years in the Victorian branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) are set for mid-April. This election will be a showdown between the incumbent unified Victorian branch leadership and the conservative vehicle division of the union and its supporters.

The important positions of state secretary, assistant state secretary (metal division) and food division state secretary will be contested, as well as some organiser positions in the food and metals divisions of the AMWU.

Current Victorian printing division secretary Jim Reid will be challenging Dave Oliver for the union's national secretary position. Oliver has been acting national secretary since Doug Cameron vacated the position to contest an ALP Senate seat. Assistant national secretary Glenn Thompson will be challenged by Doug McMinamee.

The Workers Rights team, which represents the current leadership of the union, formed as an act of unity against the Work Choices legislation late last year. Despite years of hostility and conflict within the union, the Workers First and National Left groups in Victoria put aside their differences and merged to better combat the federal government's anti-union laws.

The vehicle division leadership regards this election as an opportunity to deliver the Victorian branch of the AMWU to the conservative vehicle division national secretary Ian Jones. It has united with the Victorian printing division leadership and a disaffected food division organiser in the New Directions team.

Court challenges over the eligibility of candidates to stand for various positions may delay the election past its scheduled date of April 12.

Long-running factional conflict between the vehicle division and the branch leadership re-ignited last September after a dispute at the Toyota plant in Melbourne. Toyota management attempted to sack metal division shop steward Tony Brooks instead of relocating his job as promised from the closing Port Melbourne plant to the Altona plant.

A community picket line supported by the AMWU metal division and Electrical Trades Union members on site won Brooks's job back. However, the vehicle division organisers angered many AMWU members by instructing their members to cross the picket line.

Subsequently, the December 1 Melbourne Age reported on a County Court hearing into misconduct by serving police officer Constable Norman Dunn and former police officer Kerry Milte. Milte had persuaded Dunn to conduct illegal police searches on a number of people, including an AMWU metal division shop steward, Tony Carvalho, who worked at Toyota.

According to the article, the County Court heard that AMWU vehicle division national secretary Ian Jones was present at a meeting with Milte where a request was made to find evidence that could be used to disqualify Carvalho from running in union elections.

Both Milte and Dunn were found guilty of misconduct and fined.

Workers Rights candidate for Victorian secretary Steve Dargavel, who is being challenged by vehicle division organiser David Nunns, described the Jones team's politics as "corporate unionism".

Workers Rights supporter Stuart Martin agrees. Martin worked at Toyota subsidiary Araco, which was set up in 2003-2004 to take over the manufacture of car upholstery seats from the Toyota division at the now-closed Port Melbourne plant.

Despite many Toyota workers coming over from the old plant to the Araco site, the vehicle division had already signed a "greenfields" agreement with Araco that resulted in drastic cuts to wages and conditions. Greenfields agreements are those signed by a union and a new company before any workers are hired.

Martin told Green Left Weekly that a fitter at Araco earned around $18 per hour, whereas the industry average was $22. The labour-hire fitters on the site were paid more than $23 per hour on a metals division agreement. Production workers only saved some of their overtime conditions from Toyota because they spontaneously took strike action over the issue.

The incumbents who formed the Workers Rights team have led the Victorian AMWU in the most militant defence of workers' rights of any union under the federal government's anti-union Work Choices. The AMWU nationally has been responsible for 42% of protected strike action since Work Choices became law on March 27, 2006. The majority of AMWU industrial action has taken place in Victoria.

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