The national secretary and Victorian branch president of the National Workers Union, Charlie Donnelly, is leading the charge to abolish all state branches of the union, bar NSW and Victoria, in a controversial restructure plan that has divided members all over the country and involved the Federal Court.

A three tier system, which would amalgamate smaller state branches into one “general” branch, while retaining the larger NSW and Victorian branches, was proposed at the NUW national council meeting at the start of October.

QLD, NSW, SA and WA officials rejected the plan, obtaining a Federal Court Order on October 15 to prevent a union wide referendum taking place. The Federal Court hearing is set to be held on November 13 and 14.

Queensland NUW secretary John Cosgrove told Crikey the proposal was “out of the blue” and that the state branches were concerned about the lack of detail provided for the plan, or information about why a restructure was necessary.

“We were given 20 minutes to consult and vote on it. No one that’s affected has had the opportunity to discuss it, but our greatest concern was the lack of data,” said Cosgrove. “Where are the details? What’s the outcome to be?”

The NUW is one of the largest unions in Australia with over 90, 000 members and more than 140 staff. It was formed by an amalgamation of six unions in 1989.

The NUW’s base is blue collar workers of the type that constituted the backbone of the movement against the Howard government’s WorkChoices reforms. Following Labor’s win in the 2007 federal election and the abolition of WorkChoices, like other Australian unions, the NUW faces the challenge of coherently organising and recruiting members in an era without a common enemy.

The NUW needs the restructure to continue to function effectively, said Donnelly. “These states have been going backwards. The NUW is looking to the future, to really be a force for what we will have to face,” he said.

But as someone who stands to gain a lot of political clout if his proposed centralisation project goes ahead, Charlie Donnelly is himself an ongoing subject of controversy. As the president of the Victorian Labor party, Donnelly is perceived by some NUW members as politically motivated rather than concerned with the interests of union members.

Queensland secretary Cosgrove told Crikey, “They [the national office] are trying to maintain control in Victoria. This is a political move not for the personal benefit of union members.”

A key issue appears to be who gets to vote on the issue, with opposing factions saying only the members of branches to be amalgamated should vote and the national office saying all union members nationwide are entitled to.

While Donnelly says the opposing factions have “gone to the Federal Court with one purpose: to try to stop members having a vote,” the NSW and QLD branch secretaries disagree.

Cosgrove said, “I’m not opposed to a referendum but it should only be voted on by the states that have been affected, the branches or the membership haven’t had a say.”

NUW NSW secretary Derrick Belan, whose branch would not be affected by the restructure, said the proposal was a raw deal for members and he could not support it.

“We think it’s a fool hardy step to take away those branches that are owned by members,” Belan said.

“One of the strengths of the NUW is our local officials. Centralised grouping reliant on a call centre in Melbourne is a raw deal for our members outside of metropolitan Melbourne and Sydney.”

Melbourne University academic Dr Glen Moore said if the restructure is a response to a shrinking membership base, perhaps centralisation is not the answer.

“It may well be more efficient and economical, but democracy and efficiency are two different things. You can argue that local leadership and infrastructure is inefficient, but local means in tune with members who are able to feel a part of the union,” he said.

“There is a fear of centralising that is quite legitimate. If people feel more distant from the union they will drift away.”