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Labor candidate for Melbourne Cath Bowtell is scrambling for trade union cash in a bid to blunt renegade support for Greens candidate Adam Bandt, as the battle for control of the electorate enters its final days.

The Australian Services Union’s Victorian divisions are leading the charge, donating physical labour, office space, phone lines and about $10,000 in cash. They have also plastered the walls of their national office in Carlton with ALP propaganda, with Bowtell’s HQ located inside the bunker.

Vehicle Builders Union chief Ian Jones said he was providing “as much financial assistance as possible”, with the union also helping with phone polling, pre-polling and the distribution of how-to-vote cards on August 21. His cash splash is expected to run to five figures. Australian Manufacturing Workers Union national secretary Dave Oliver, of which the vehicle builders are a part, told Crikey that “several thousand” dollars will be directed to the Bowtell following a national directive.  A “small donation” would also be made to the Greens Senate campaign.

CFMEU national construction scion Dave Noonan is also supportive, saying the former ACTU organiser was “one of the most capable people that I’ve ever dealt with” and that he was firmly behind her. Although the union will provide some support form the Greens in the Senate, Noonan said that a Bandt victory in Melbourne was a “zero sum game” in terms of worker rights because it did nothing to keep Tony Abbott out of power. While the union was yet to write a cheque out to Bowtell, its members would be providing logistical support in the election’s final days.

Maritime Union of Australia Victorian branch secretary Kevin Bracken told Crikey his members had helped out with ALP pre-pollling and had made a recent cash donation to Bowtell that he was reluctant to reveal. However, union sources suggested the cheque could run close to $10,000.

And Crikey understands that a number of large right-wing unions, including the National Union of Workers and Paul Howes’ Australian Workers Union have also pledged conditional support via the ACTU.

The surge in support for Bowtell is expected to be spent on a last-minute blitz to counter the Greens momentum in the seat, which has been building for at least six months. The departed Worksafe chief was forced to hit the ground running following the surprise resignation of Lindsay Tanner on the same day Kevin Rudd was knifed by Julia Gillard for the prime ministership. Frantic fundraisers have also seen many of Bowtell’s legal comrades leaned on for personal donations.

Labor holds the seat by just 4.7% with the latest Sportingbet odds rating Bandt as a $1.60 favourite compared to $2.60 for Bowtell.

Meanwhile, the plumbers division of the of the Communications Electrical Plumbing Union is also believed to be tipping in cash, putting it at odds with the broader union, which has elected to support the Greens. The union’s national vice president, Len Cooper, has recently refused to turn the union’s membership list over to the ACTU to enable members in Melbourne to be cold-called and has instead backed Bandt.

The Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union has transformed its offices into a call centre and the public service division of the Community and Public Sector Union has helped bankroll a direct mail blast. Former CPSU SPSF assistant secretary Peter Keogh is Botwell’s husband and currently serves as chief of staff for Socialist Left state housing minister Dick Wynne.

On Sunday, former ACTU chief Sharan Burrow, who supported Bowtell in her failed bid to replace her as president, was seen pounding the footpath in North Fitzroy to spread the word. The ACTU’s building in Queen Street has erected Botwell billboards in addition to attempts to marshal phone numbers.

Still, the election continues to splinter support with a number of unions rounding behind Bandt over Julia Gillard’s lukewarm approach to industrial relations reform.

Last month, Crikey revealed the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union was preparing to donate around $20,000 to Bandt’s campaign and $100,000 to Richard Di Natale’s Victorian Senate bid. Chief Dean Mighell, whose members recently voted to disaffiliate from the ALP, is currently involved in a Federal Court bid to claw back the $500,000 the federal Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union (of which the ETU is a member) donated to the ALP’s national campaign. Mighell says around $100,000 of that money originated from the wallets of the Victorian ETU’s 15,000-strong membership.

Crikey can reveal that tomorrow afternoon the ETU’s state council will meet and vote on a resolution to throw $20,000 behind Greens senate candidates Penny Wright in South Australia and Larissa Waters in Queensland. The motion is expected to be passed unanimously.

And the United Firefighters Union, currently embroiled in a dispute with dissident members in New South Wales, has also pledged support for the Greens, although Crikey understands this is likely to be in-kind rather than a substantial cash injection.

The funding stoush in Melbourne is all the more intriguing given both Bowtell and Bandt’s close working relationship in the trade union movement. Both have previously toiled at the ACTU, where Bandt regularly popped up representing workers as part of his Slater and Gordon gig.

But the bonhomie is likely to be sidelined in the lead up to polling day as both sides pull out all stops to secure victory.

Peter Fray

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