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Health Services Union in controversial merger

ALP National President Michael Williamson has launched an audacious bid for control of the troubled Victorian wing of the Health Services Union, creating an eastern states conglomerate run by factional ally and the union’s national secretary Kathy Jackson.

The HSU’s national council met in Sydney yesterday to pass the changes, which will see the Victorian No. 1 and No. 3 branches dissolved and merged into a new super-entity, or “eastern branch” run from Sydney. Under the terms of the merger, around 15,000 Victorian members will be effectively absorbed into the 35,000-strong NSW branch.

Williamson will oversee the new behemoth, with Kathy Jackson serving as executive president.

The controversial move comes just months after Victorian HSU members voted to elect a new management team for a promised four year term after an extended period of farcical infighting between former-president Pauline Fegan and outgoing secretary Jeff Jackson, Kathy Jackson’s former-husband and close confidant.

It is believed that the union’s Victorian membership were not consulted over the changes, which were believed to be in the pipeline for months.

The move will cement Jackson’s control over the union and shore up the bloc of votes allocated to the union at Victorian and NSW ALP state conferences. Crikey understands that an initial proposal to amalgamate all HSU branches in all states was defeated, after representatives from South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia rebelled.

One HSU insider, who did not want to be named, told Crikey, that “NSW now have control sewn up for all time.”

Victorian Secretary Marco Bolano said the move would create a “bigger more powerful union that’s more resourced, more stable. We might be facing wall to wall Liberal governments within four years. We’re creating stability.”

Bolano claimed members had been consulted over the move through their representatives on the union’s national council. However, several Victorian HSU members contacted by Crikey this morning were unaware of the proposal.

Last year, the Victorian HSU was placed into administration by the Federal Court, as tension between the Fegan and Jackson camps turned vicious.

Subsequent elections saw forces aligned to Jackson, her former-husband and Victorian Senator David Feeney scrape over the line in a three-way race. The election was marked by a poisonous campaign that included current Assistant Secretary Jamie Martorana’s portrayal as a leather-clad gimp and claims of sham post office boxes apparently designed to filter votes.

Fegan had previously released HSU credit card statements with charges linking Jeff Jackson to an escort agency, an allegation he vehemently denied. The scandal then engulfed Federal Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, with claims circulating that Thomson had used another credit card to bankroll his 2007 federal election bid. Those allegations have been examined as part of a Senate estimates hearing and are disputed.

Crikey understands that the washup from the election fracas is continuing, with a number of legal cases involving former employees still simmering. Fegan is currently pursuing defamation claims against her rivals, including Bolano.

The damaging split in the right wing of the Victorian ALP has been mirrored at the HSU, with the Jacksons lining up between the “rebel right” centred on the National Union of Workers and the Shop Assistants Union and pledging allegiance to Feeney. Fegan, who supported rival candidate Doug Byron, was backed by Senator Stephen Conroy’s Labor Unity group.

In the wake of yesterday’s vote, the Tasmanian branch, the Victorian number 2 and number 4 branches and the South Australian and Western Australian branches remain outside the new pro-Feeney alliance.

Tasmanian HSU secretary Chris Brown, who voted against the tie-up, said there was a “trend” towards amalgamations across the labour movement. He said his branch had rejected the merger because it was “not in our branch’s interests.”

Michael Williamson and Kathy Jackson did not respond to Crikey’s requests for comment this morning.

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