New PSA leadership to give members power

November 9, 2012

A group of progressive union activists organised in the Progressive PSA group won control of the NSW Public Service Association (PSA) in union elections that closed on October 30. They won all positions on the 45-member central council and the top position of general secretary.

Lindsay Hawkins is a disability support worker in Wollongong and is one of the newly elected members of the central council. He spoke to Green Left Weekly about why the group decided to run and what changes they are planning to make.

What has been your experience inside the PSA and why does the union need reform?

I joined my union five years ago and was elected as a delegate. Pretty quickly I found myself on the outer and criticised by fellow delegates in the PSA because I would attend meetings and raise questions about the way that I thought the PSA was lacking in being responsive to members.

When I came onboard in the PSA I found that there was an attitude that was very cooperative towards management. My understanding of unions was that they should be there to challenge the employer and vigorously represent the interests of the membership. Instead, I found a union that was weighed down by bureaucracy and a conservative attitude that was dominated by Labor Party politics.

The top executive [PSA] officials were paying themselves huge salaries and had become very remote from the membership. The top three paid officials had never worked as public servants — they were career union officials, heavily involved in Labor Party politics.

So I quickly found myself pushed to the margins in my union. Soon after joining the PSA and becoming a delegate, I became a supporter of the Progressive PSA and became actively involved in working with my fellow delegates to challenge the incumbent union leadership in elections.

What platform did the Progressive PSA campaign on?

The platform that the Progressive PSA ran on was one of giving power to the membership. For a long time members have been disengaged and marginalised from union processes so our main platform was to devolve power to delegates and members at the grassroots level to strengthen the union and to pursue an industrial strategy to combat the [NSW Premier Barry] O’Farrell government's attacks on the public service.

It was felt for a long time the PSA was lacking in an industrial focus and has lacked the capacity to organise and mobilise members to take action.

Instead, when it has challenged the employer the PSA leadership has focussed its energy on taking matters to court and pursuing a legal approach. Although that has a place, it really doesn’t pursue a course that plays to the strength of the union, which is the membership.

So the Progressive PSA’s platform revolves around accountability of officials to the membership. We’ve campaigned on the basis of cutting the huge salaries of the top elected officials, of implementing transparency and accountability measures within the union so that members are able to participate in affairs of the union, and to make transparent how the union functions.

For a long time, decision making within the PSA has largely been conducted in secret, without information coming to members and without delegates being able to participate.

What issues or campaigns are you planning to focus on first?

The number one biggest issue facing us right now is trying to prevent the public service from being savaged by the current O’Farrell Coalition government.

Our main task right now will be to do as much as we can to prevent heavy public servant job losses and to hold on to the conditions that are now being stripped back by the government.

But in order to do that, we need to completely rebuild the way the union functions because for a long time the union has been very weak and has failed to utilise the strength of the union — the membership.

So that means we’ll need to focus on rebuilding delegate structures within the union and putting power in the hands of the rank-and-file members and delegates to be able to take effective action to combat O’Farrell’s attacks on our working conditions.

Why is it important for left activists to be involved in their unions?

A lot of people on the left are, quite reasonably, skeptical about the role unions can play in bringing about radical social change. Unions are heavily weighed down by a layer bureaucracy that controls our unions and that plays the role of union cops — policing the working class and restricting the capacity of workers to self-organise.

One response to this — which is to reject any engagement with trade unions — although understandable, has not led to the results that we desire. And I think another approach, trying to remove those union bureaucrats from positions of authority and put in place a systematic program of mass-based control of our unions is a viable alternative. I've spent the last few years trying to engage in this.

I’m hopeful if we pursue a program of rank-and-file control of our unions, we’ll start to see radical mass action to fight back against the capitalist class.

What role do you see the PSA playing in the wider context of state politics?

It’s absolutely vital that unions form links with community groups and broader society in general to pursue a program of social change, which cuts across divisions of workplace, gender, occupation, and sexuality and unites workers as a class.

So to that extent, one union that is effective in mobilising its members can only achieve so much. But if the whole union movement was dedicated towards mobilising members to take mass action, I think that can change the whole of society for the better.

And this is even more likely when the union movement works in conjunction with other progressive social currents in society, links that can hopefully one day bring about the kind of radical social change that can bring about working-class liberation.

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