Sue Bolton, Melbourne
On July 21, the national council of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union expelled former AMWU Victorian secretary Craig Johnston from the union. The expulsion was another step in the attempt by the National Left faction of AMWU national secretary Doug Cameron to bring the Victorian AMWU branch under its total control.
Under the leadership of the Workers First faction, the Victorian AMWU branch has pursued militant tactics that have won its members higher wages and better conditions than their counterparts in other state branches, which are led by members of Cameron's National Left faction.
The AMWU national council voted to investigate Johnston in December 2001 — shortly after receiving a letter from Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks calling for the Victorian leadership of the union to be removed because its militancy was jeopardising business investment in Victoria.
In June 2002, the AMWU national council suspended Johnston from his position as state secretary. Since then, Johnston has been a rank-and-file member and is still active in the union as a shop steward.
In 2004, the internal investigation against Johnston was resurrected and he faced 10 charges for allegedly disobeying union directives, misappropriating union funds, sexual assault and bullying.
The national council which voted on the charges is a highly factionalised body, with the vote on Johnston's expulsion being along factional lines. In addition, the charges are highly dubious. For example, the charge relating to misappropriation of union funds refers to the decision of the Victorian AMWU state council to pay the legal costs of AMWU members who were subpoenaed to appear before the building industry royal commission.
The charges of disobeying a union directive refer to several instances where the Victorian state council made decisions contrary to decisions of the national council.
One of the charges of bullying refers to an incident when Johnston had a heated verbal argument with another union official, who later went to the court and got an apprehended violence order against Johnston. Shortly after, Johnston and the other official shook hands and made up, but the incident is still being used by Cameron against Johnston.
The sexual assault charge first surfaced in early 2002 and was used by the national council to suspend Johnston from the state secretary position. In an effort to clear his name, Johnston asked the police to investigate the allegations in June 2002. At the end of the investigation, the police concluded that the evidence didn't substantiate the allegation.
There is widespread anger among AMWU members about the relentless attacks on Johnston and the Victorian branch leadership by the national council, year after year.
This anger boiled over at a northern region delegates meeting in June, when delegates sharply criticised the national council-appointed state secretary Dave Oliver for a factional letter that he sent to every AMWU member in Victoria in early June. The mail out cost at least $40,000 and it was a systematic attack on the reputation of Johnston and the Victorian leadership of the union.
Oliver's letter made a number of spurious allegations, and then repeated elements of the prosecution case against Johnston over the 2001 Johnson Tiles industrial dispute, including charges which were dropped by the prosecution.
The sentiment among the northern region delegates was that they just wanted Cameron and Oliver to stop the factional battle against Johnston and the Victorian branch, and focus on building the union for a change.
There is no doubt that members' anger will increase as news trickles out of the decisions of the national council in early June. The June national council voted to loan Cameron $360,000 to buy a house in a more expensive part of Sydney. Cameron won't have to pay the loan back in full until he is 66 and will only be charged 1.5% interest per annum. National council decisions aren't usually publicised to members, so this information is only trickling out to members slowly.
Cameron's National Left faction justify the generous home loan on the basis of a security risk to Cameron that necessitated him moving to a more expensive part of Sydney.
There is no doubt that the factional warfare in the AMWU is damaging the union. The Workers First organisers just want to get on with the job of organising the union's members. The relentless attacks from the national office are a huge distraction from what should be the central task of the Victorian officials. Or is this the reason for the National Left attacks on the Victorian branch — to undermine support for the Workers First leadership by impeding its ability to act effectively?
From Green Left Weekly, July 28, 2004.
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