An insider caught up in a battle to control the Australian Services Union has followed the lead of Delia Delegate and decided to unload on his enemies through Crikey.

Over the past year much attention has been centred around the machinations and goings on in a few prominent national unions such as the CFMEU and the Tony Abbott inspired Royal Commission, and the mad and bad Craig Johnston led Victorian Branch of the AMWU. It’s often said you should never let a dose of democracy get in the way of a good union punchup, and unions do that so well.

Just look at the decrepit Victorian Health Services Unions and the byzantine battles within the Victorian Right Wing Labor Unity faction on who has control between former State Secretary David Feeney and NUW Powerbroker Greg Sword. And by the way, the NUW elections are now open with hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent by both Sword’s camp and the NSW Belan anti-Sword group. They are battles that can be little afforded by unions who are struggling to recruit new members and have to use resources to shore up there own power bases. And behind it all is the influence each affiliated union to the ALP has within its forums. The ALP itself is trying to grapple with its union links. All this makes former Labor Minister John Button’s essay about unions and the ALP severing their links formally as more and more pertinent.

ASU under the spotlight

One National union which has so far escaped attention is the Australian Services Union, or known to many of its members as “Australia’s Slackest Union”. The ASU is a strategic cog in the ACTU’s drive to unionise those white collar service industries which are a priority in recruitment. With a membership of under 100,000 now, (and declining) the ASU is a merger of three big unions some ten years ago which brought together white and blue collar municipal workers, clerks, and a range of industries including water, social and community services, transport, business equipment, airlines and energy.

Following the super union strategy devised by Bill Kelty, it is now quite apparent that this merger has now failed. The reasons for this are numerous, much of it revolves around poor leadership, factional and personality differences, and industrial cultures and suspicions that appear not to be able to be overcome. The failure of the ASU to surmount these problems and grow its membership is a continuing soure of frustration at the ACTU level and many union insiders despair at this major union failing to capitalise on its major advantages being its broad rules of coverage of growth industries.

Ironically at a recent meeting by ASU leaders to discuss negotiations for next years 2003 elections, a group led by the Labor Unity Right Wing old guard Clerks leader Michael O’Sullivan, the blue collar Municipal Employees Union, and Services branches, proposed to take from the grass roots membership the ability to elect National Executive Delegates and set up an electoral college. This proposal further removes from the membership their rights to have a say in there union. How ironic that the ALP is now looking at proposals to make the party more democratic to its members and break the grip of the factional warlords whilst the ASU seems to be determined to go into the reverse direction.

The ASU is a maze of different fational complexions in each state, however its National Office, once a powerhouse of activity under former National Secretary Steve Gibbs, is now a shadow of its former self, gutted and rudderless. The current National Secretary Paul Slape, has proved ineffective in providing any real leadership or strategic direction for the union. Indeed, it can be said that the ASU has now broken into a very loose federation of state branches with little national office imput, which for a national union, is a disaster. It now appears that factional alliances are being built up between the Services and MEU branches in most states against the Clerks, however it varies from state to state. In NSW, proposals to merge the NSW Clerical and Administration Branch led by Michael Want with the right wing NSW MEU (The ASU’s largest branch) led by the “stylish” Brian Harris, are on the table in a move to protect the C & A Branch from possible Left takeover at next years elections. In Western Australia, mergers have proved disastrous with the MEU and Services Branches experiencing continuing tensions.

ASU weakest in Victoria

But it is in Victoria where things are really starting to hot up. It is now accepted that the ASU Services & Energy Branch will be under attack in the 2003 elections. The leadership of Branch Secretary Russell Atwood is weak, the union under his leadership failed to deliver results to its membership. For example, only 21 Victorian Councils out of a total of 87, have paid maternity leave of 12 weeks, considered the minimum in the public sector, and this is for a membership of over 60% female. Workers in the Social and Community Services, who are over 70% female rarely have access to any paid maternity leave, receive pay rates of $100 less per week than their counterparts doing the same work in hospitals, and have no portability of leave arrangements in the industry. In most white collar Local Government areas, union density which was once 80% is now down to 20% to 30%.

The branch is barely recognisable from the days of the 1980’s when it was a union trendsetter as the MOA under the leadership of Gary Weaven. In the 1999 elections, the leadership campaigned against a lone female candidate in the Local Government division and lost comprehensively. In tried and true union fashion, Atwood, who was a former political adviser in the Cain Labor Government, and his assistants Wendy McManus and Michael Rizzo, have sacked or dispensed with any ASU Opposition perceived or otherwise to ensure their survival, and appointed yes men and women.

A few months ago Atwood joined the Right Wing Labor Unity faction to head off any opposition to him from that faction, together with former Socialist Left, turned Labor Renewal Alliance turned Labor Unity member Michael Rizzo (who once worked for Theo “brother of Andrew” Theophanous as an adviser when he was a minister in the Cain Government) and takes his instructions from him. Theophanous is a close ally of Senator Stephen Conroy, and with the self immolation of Labor Unity, Theophanous is starting to exert real authoriy in the faction much to the dismay of many Labor Unity members. Rizzo, Conroy and Theophanous see the Services & Energy Branch as an important base. Labor Unity is desperately hoping its precious ALP State Conference votes will be protected, and when your a faction currently sitting on 40% strength in the ALP in Victoria, any further loss means serious irrelevance.

For the past few years the Services & Energy Branch have been under attack from a group called “Members for Democracy”, sending emails to ASU members and to whom ever else it could target. This group is led by former ASU staffer Joe Cerritelli who now works for the ultra Right Wing Catholic Shop Assistants Union.

The other Victorian ASU Branch is the MEU/Private Sector Branch, a combination of blue collar Municipal and white collar private sector clerical workers led by Daryl Cochrane and Martin Foley. Cochrane is alligned with the loose Ferguson grouping led by MHR’s Martin Ferguson, and Brendan O’Connor and Martin Foley is from the Socialist Left. This Branch’s merger now appears to be in its death throws with its personality and factional differenes insurmoutable. The Victorian MEU is eyeing off the Services and Energy Branch like a hungry animal hunts its prey. The MEU is now proposing to break up its branch and merge with the Sevices & Energy Branch, with the Clerks going there own way. In this deal, Cochrane gets the most powerful position of Branch Secretary, Atwood and McManus receive MEU protection in the 2003 ballot, and ultimately the MEU takes full control of the Branch by 2007 with all the vital ALP State Conference votes that come with it. (Obviously the ASU Members are a consideration in these machinations but I can’t find it)

Whether this deal is consumated remains to be seen, however the MEU are desperate to see it go ahead. How the smaller ASU industries other than Local Government will react in this new predominantly Local Government union will be interesting. The machinations in the ASU reveals a union that is flawed in its structures. Dominated by its leadership whom political survival has become the pre dominant occupation, the rot has well and truly set in. The 2003 elections could well prove a watershed for those ASU Leaders who have failed to deliver results to their members and who have grown lazy over the years. The talk around the ACTU is that they would welcome a clean out. Indeed it may well be the better course that the ASU members are all given the chance next year to vote on what they think of their ASU leadership, because as things stand now, they appear to be the real losers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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