Transforming the Health Services Union: A lesson in rank and file organising

Members of the Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association celebrate a new enterprise agreement on August 4, 2016 in Melbourne.

The Health Services Union (HSU) expenses affair was a protracted political scandal that, 2006 to 2011, revealed the criminal activity of former HSU national secretary and former Labor politician Craig Thomson as well as former national president and former general secretary of HSU East Michael Williamson.

In 2008 Kathy Jackson succeeded Craig Thomson as general secretary of the HSU. Jackson’s role in the HSU scandal provides us with an intriguing case study on the relationship between politics and cognitive dissonance.

Jackson successfully presented herself as a whistleblower and a hero of the working people and genuinely seemed to believe her own spin. This self-belief goes a long way towards her success in having her narrative unquestioningly parroted by the mainstream media for years.

In truth, Jackson worked overtime to keep a lid on the scandal. It was only when it became clear that this would be impossible that Jackson positioned herself as a corruption buster and lifted the veil on practices of which she had long been aware.

In Planet Jackson: Power, Greed and Unions, Brad Norington claims Jackson was the most cynical of the three. Jackson falsely claimed to have blown the whistle on Thomson but this task was in fact performed by two former HSU national officials who have chosen to fly under the media radar. Only very late in the piece, under considerable pressure and for sordid motives, did she expose Williamson. The noble whistleblower was the “perfect cover” for her own corruption, according to Norington.

Unsurprisingly, for those close to the union, Jackson was later found by the Federal Court to have misappropriated $1.4 million in members’ funds herself. There is reason to doubt whether Jackson’s immoral practices would have seen the light of day had the subsequent Branch 3 election seen Jackson’s anointed candidate take the office of Branch Secretary.

In June 2012, the HSU East Branch, which consisted of the merged HSU NSW and HSU branches 1 and 3 in Victoria, was put under administration and demerged back into three separate branches. All elected positions were declared vacant.

Clean Sweep

Five months later a rank-and-file ticket, called Clean Sweep, stood for and won all the elected positions in HSU Branch 3. The ticket consisted of rank and file HSU members, including radiographers, occupational therapists and other allied health professionals.

The ticket, led by Craig McGregor, won the support of members against a ticket led by Fleur Behrens, who was a Branch 3 organiser at the time and had the backing of Kathy Jackson and right-wing Labor Senator David Feeney.

It seems Behrens received more than campaigning advice from her backers — there is compelling evidence suggesting Jackson arranged for $10,000 of member’s funds to be put towards her protégé’s election campaign.

McGregor, who won the position of secretary in 2012 and has retained that position since, commented on the formation of the ticket and the response from members at the time: “Members were walking away from the union in droves and I found that to be incredibly self-destructive.

“The ineptitude of the union had already led to real problems for Allied Health in Victoria. The last thing we needed was for more of the same, or worse, for further deterioration in the union. We had no choice but to put everything into winning the union back.”

Victorian Health Professionals Association

Since then, HSU Branch 3 has undergone some names changes, as it sought to establish its identity as a union and industry of health professionals.

In July 2013, Branch 3 was rebranded as Victorian Health Professionals Association (VHPA) and established a new office in West Melbourne. The rebranding was supported by feedback from union members who wanted to distance themselves from the name “HSU” due to the corruption scandals, and to reflect the collective identity of branch members as health professionals.

When the Federal Court demerged HSU East and divided up the assets, Branch 3 came away with only $350,000 in assets and no equipment, essentially leaving the newly elected leadership to rebuild their union from the ground up.

McGregor says these early challenges faced by the union meant they not only had to rebuild the organisation, but also regain the trust of the membership.

“A number of senior officials remain convinced that Branch 3 was set up to fail and indeed certain factional warriors have been disappointed by our success. The members, however, have been incredibly supportive and recognise the clear difference between the old bastardised union and the new member-owned iteration: a democratic community of allied health professionals.”

Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association

The VHPA rebranded slightly again in July 2015, changing its name to Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association (VAHPA) as it is known today. The name change was a further step in establishing the identity of the union’s membership as a discrete industry.

Since establishing VAHPA, the union has more than doubled its membership, built up staff to support the rapidly expanding membership base, and achieved a landmark enterprise agreement for allied health professionals in the public sector that was significant in terms of improved wages and conditions.

The public sector campaign, branded “Code Blue”, resulted in 700 physiotherapists, radiographers, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, social workers and other allied health professionals walking off the job on more than one occasion. The symbol of the campaign was an inflatable dinosaur, which represented the Jurassic career structures that had last been updated in 1966.

McGregor said of VAHPA’s achievements: “The two things I am most proud of are first, the introduction of a professional career structure for Victorian allied health professionals. Jackson and co neglected allied health for years, setting us back decades and leaving us bare to the ravages of neoliberalism. We have laid the foundations for the next 20 or so years and have ambitious plans for the future.

“The second real achievement is the growth in numbers and activism of the membership. VAHPA is now a genuine community of allied health professionals with a strong progressive political agenda. This is the result of our focus on grassroots campaigning and on the vital importance of solidarity.”

In a period marked by declining union membership across many industries, and legislative changes that have made it increasingly difficult for unions to organise and represent their members, VAHPA’s story is a glimmer of hope and an example of what can be achieved when rank-and-file members play an active role in their union.

Change the Rules campaign

The union movement is currently engaged in the Change the Rules campaign, led by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). This is the largest campaign since the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work mobilisations that resulted in the ousting the John Howard Coalition government in 2007.

The Change the Rules campaign is gearing up for 12 days of action around the country, culminating in a rally in Melbourne on May 9, which is likely to be the largest protest in Victoria, possibly Australia, this year.

However, the campaign has been met with some cynicism after the rapid demobilisation of the Your Rights at Work campaign following the election of the Kevin Rudd government, and Labor’s failure to address most of the demands put forward by the union movement at the time.

McGregor said of the campaign: “Obviously the contemporary political frame impacts seriously on our ability to operate as a union, even on the day-to-day level.

“The Australian public appears to be blithely unaware of the draconian nature of our [industrial relations] system and the extent of reform necessary. Clearly this is a product of the non-stop war being waged on the unions by big business and right-wing ideologues, including many of our so-called saviours in the ALP.

“I really think the Change the Rules campaign is more than a once-in a generation opportunity. We are at a critical juncture in Australian union history; if we fail in this the consequences for workers and for society will be catastrophic.”

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