By Cliff Owls
PERTH - On April 15 internal struggles within the WA State School Teachers' Union (SSTU) took another poor turn when the state executive sacked general secretary Peter Quinn. The sacking came without warning while Quinn was on leave just prior to the Easter break.
It was the latest in a series of actions since last July by a majority faction on the executive hostile to the leadership of president Ed Harken and senior vice-president Colleen Hayward. This faction, in association with presidential hopeful Beverley Dornan, has repeatedly used section 66 of the WA Industrial Relations Act (IRA) to achieve its aims.
While the group's political agenda remains unclear, its actions have hampered the operations of the union. Section 66 applications can enable the president of the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) to intervene extensively in union affairs.
As a result of the applications, IRC president Peter Sharkey has made numerous rulings against the union. He has excluded the general secretary and union organisers from membership and delayed the SSTU's wage claim, costing members an estimated $5 million in lost wages. Sharkey also declared last October's senior officers' election null and void. Dornan was overwhelmingly defeated in that ballot.
The sacking of Quinn has many SSTU members outraged and has also aroused strong opposition in other sections of the union movement. The April 22 Trades and Labour Council state council called for the removal of section 66 from the IRA and of commissioner Sharkey from the presidency.
While his opponents sought legal assistance to enforce the sacking, Quinn turned up for work as usual after the Easter break, to a reception by a large and active group of rank and file members calling for his reinstatement and an end to state intervention in their union. The group confronted members of the Dornan faction over the sacking.
The group called on members to organise for a democratic and effective union and described those using the IRC to run the union as traitors. "State intervention in our union by the Industrial Relations Commission has allowed unscrupulous elements to effectively take control of the union out of the hands of the rank and file", said Gail Reed, a spokesperson for the group. "We are here today to give them notice that we will take it back."
Union organisers have placed a work ban on all executive matters, and will work only on behalf of rank and file members until Quinn is reinstated. "The rank and file actions represent unionism at its best. They have a right to democratic control of their own union", one of the organisers told Green Left Weekly.
"The behaviour of this executive parallels some of the worst anagement. This is a shame on unionism", said Quinn.