BY SUE BOLTON
On October 24, the Victorian state council of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union appointed Dave Oliver as state secretary of the AMWU, and industrial officer Steve Dargavel as assistant state secretary, with responsibility for the metal industry. Oliver is from the AMWU's dominant National Left faction, while Dargavel is from the more militant, Victorian-based Workers First.
These appointments are the result of a truce between National Left, which is led by AMWU national secretary Doug Cameron, and the elected leadership of the Victorian branch, including recently resigned state secretary Craig Johnston and others in Workers First.
The truce means that the national office of the union will release the funds for the operation of the Victorian branch. AMWU dues are all paid directly to the national office, which then doles out money to state branches.
Victorian officials from the printing division, and officials aligned with the Workers First faction in the metal division and the food and confectionery division will now be paid for the first time in more than two months. Organisers from the printing division who had been denied mobile phones and fuel cards for union cars will be provided with the resources they need to continue doing their jobs as organisers.
National Left and Workers First also agreed not to challenge each other's candidates in the current elections for metal organisers. Four Workers First candidates and two National Left candidates were thus elected unopposed.
It has also been agreed that the union will make a submission to the Federal Court on October 28, seeking deferral of the charges being faced by several Workers First and printing division officials. The charges result from a picket of the AMWU office in Melbourne between August 13 and September 2.
This picket was initiated by printing division officials, after industrial officer Denis Matson was sacked by Cameron for dubious factional reasons. The picket, which was also supported by Workers First officials, called for the reinstatement of Matson.
If the agreement between National Left and Workers First works smoothly over the next 12 months, National Left will take a resolution to the national council, which it overwhelmingly dominates, to "not proceed with contempt proceedings to recover costs or damages from individuals who were involved in the picket".
However, a national council-initiated internal union inquiry into the Victorian branch will continue, but will be confidential unless there are "very serious legal issues".
The agreement for a cease-fire between the National Left and Workers First factions follows a court battle over control of the branch that ended in a stalemate.
Justice Alan Goldberg ruled on October 4 that the AMWU national council had the right to appoint Oliver as state secretary of the Victorian branch until September 16. However, according to Goldberg's ruling, Oliver's appointment could not be extended past September 16 unless some new extraordinary situation occurred. Goldberg also ruled that a national council resolution to disband the Victorian state council was invalid.
However, the National Left-controlled AMWU national office's control of finances gave it the ability to starve rebel branches of funds. It was also using the internal inquiry to search out allegations which could be used as a basis for bringing internal union charges against Workers First-aligned officials.
National Left has not been successful, however, at weakening rank and file members' support for Workers First, and the militant leadership of the printing division which is not part of the Workers First faction.
The 4000-strong demonstration of AMWU members on July 17 to protest Johnston's suspension and the well-attended shop stewards meeting in August were signs of the strength of support for the elected Victorian leadership.
The National Left faction did its best to destroy membership support for Workers First and the printing division leadership by sending squads of organisers from Queensland and NSW to Victoria, but to no avail.
Such a stalemate had to be resolved in some way.
Although the agreement has resulted in Workers First giving up its right to stand a candidate for state secretary, it is still in the leadership of the metal division and the food and confectionery division of the union, as well as having a close working relationship with leaders of the printing division.
This means that the bureaucratic national leadership of the AMWU, which has demonstrated its loyalty to its Labor Party mates' desire for industrial peace, still has to contend with a strong militant current. Cameron did not succeed in his goal of routing militant unionism from the Victorian branch of the AMWU.
Workers First has been hated by the national leadership because of the militant, pro-worker unionism it is trying to rebuild. It is unashamed to stand up firmly for workers' rights and bases its strength upon developing the confidence of rank-and-file members.
Workers First's struggle to rebuild this unionism in the face of fierce opposition from the AMWU national leadership represents the deepest anti-bureaucratic struggle in the union movement since the Builders Labourers Federation campaign against deregistration.
The progress of this struggle will be heavily influenced by the next AMWU "pattern bargaining" industry-wide campaign, due to commence early in 2003; future industrial struggles; and its continuing support for campaigns such as the global justice movement, the refugees' rights and anti-war movements.
From Green Left Weekly, October 30, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.