The first broadly contested election for the Western Australian branch of the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) in more than a decade came to a semi-seismic end on October 18. The challenger Team Fenn ticket won nearly all available council seats and came within 60 votes of winning secretary.
The vote for Team Fenn was not enough to win an outright majority of council positions, and resulted in a split executive. However, it represents a significant rank-and-file dissatisfaction with the incumbents and a good intervention by grassroots members into the boardroom of WA’s biggest union.
It had been common practice for the union executive to keep the election a closely held secret, resulting in theirs being the only nominations received by the Electoral Commission. This time, Team Fenn members were poised to ensure nominations were submitted.
The election was delayed two months, as the previous executive failed to file an application with the Electoral Commission. This meant the election ran concurrently with the union’s enterprise bargaining (EB) period, thereby providing the executive a good campaign platform.
From organising rallies to a flurry of emails, the old executive gave us a fleeting glimpse of how a proactive union leadership could act.
At its peak, the EB campaign drew 2500 nurses and midwives to a mass meeting on October 12, filling the Perth Convention Centre theatre. There, we were presented with a previously unseen agenda and motions that we were expected to vote on within two hours.
The union was encouraging us to vote for a 5% wage rise, up from the government’s insulting 3% offer, and mandatory staffing ratios.
Motions from another union member and myself were put for an 8% and 10% (respectively) raise each year, over three years, to great applause. Later, another successful motion called for a 4.5% immediate cost-of-living payment.
Within minutes of these motions being carried, the executive started to undermine them.
Janet Reah, then an appointed secretary, told the media that she did not know how “realistic” the demands were, but that the executive would put them to the government in any case.
Mark Olson, the previous secretary, told the media over October 15–16 that ANF members did not really expect a 10% wage rise, but were expressing their frustration. He said that wages could be traded for an agreement on ratios.
While we expect MPs and the establishment media will throw cold water on the union’s wage demands, it is particularly galling when union leaders also signal that the membership’s demands do not need to be taken seriously.
The union has set a course of rolling industrial action over the coming weeks. We have an uphill battle ahead, with sabotage from the leadership before it even begins.
Not surprisingly, the cashed-up Mark McGowan Labor government is not budging from its well-below-inflation pay offer, which amounts to a significant wage cut.
This struggle for decent workplace conditions and pay is made so much harder by the lack of internal union structures that could galvanise and organise members.
The WA ANF has no workplace delegates and workplace reps are given no training. I am a workplace representative and, apart from one other colleague, I might be the only rep for the whole South Metro Health Service.
The union executive is currently trying to organise — via email — a ban on overtime which could lead to beds being closed.
The election result will not provide an immediate improvement. While six of the seven available council positions went to the grassroots Fenn ticket, Reah won the secretary position by 57 votes.
Many members do not seem to have received their postal vote, which may form the basis of a legal challenge. However, it will not affect the EB campaign, with industrial action set to start in the coming days.
It was ambitious to try and overhaul WA’s biggest union in one election and Team Fenn did well considering the incumbent’s resources.
However, the election turnout of only 4300 members from an eligible 36,000 shows the level of demoralisation.
The task ahead includes rebuilding union structures, through the election of workplace representatives and hospital committees capable of taking up day-to-day workplace problems. Only an engaged membership will be able to keep the union executive accountable.
Industrial action is a challenging starting point but, hopefully, we can start building the union we deserve.
[Chris Jenkins is a member of the WA ANF and the Socialist Alliance. He ran on the Team Fenn ticket.]