The election of a new secretary for the Queensland branch of the Transport Workers Union has turned into a bitter personal feud that also exposes the political power struggle in the labour movement under embattled premier Anna Bligh. And the aftermath could be messy.
Long-time incumbent Hughie Williams was last week ousted after 18 years running the show in the Sunshine State, but the former Olympic wrestler and hero to many in the transport sector isn’t about to go quietly.
Former friend turned rival Peter Biagini turfed Hughie out on the back of strong support from grassroots members and a campaign built on whistlestop tours to workplaces, leaflet drops and letter bombs. Biagini didn’t hold back, alleging Hughie oversaw “cosy deals” with bosses and government and used member fees to finance “boozy lunches” down at the local pub.
While it might have helped his campaign, Biagini’s efforts are now at the heart of a bitter legal fight between him and Williams. Hughie is planning to file a defamation suit against Biagini, claiming his good name and that of the union has been sullied. Biagini is expected to launch a counter claim alleging Hughie and his boys were far from innocent in their campaigning.
It’s a blow to Left forces within the labour movement, and to embattled Left-aligned Bligh who received strong backing from the party powerbroker.
A union source reveals Williams was tapped on the shoulder last year. “Hughie was given the chance to go out gracefully but he didn’t,” they told Crikey.
Caught up in all this will be Hughie’s son, Greg, who is a currently a senior figure in the Queensland TWU. There were accusations flying around that Hughie was warming the seat for his offspring — strenuously denied by the hulking union head.
Will he stay now that dad has departed or see what the new leadership has in store for him? According to the union source: “His position there is untenable.”
No doubt Hughie will also be casting his eye wider than his home town. He is adamant Biagini and his crew received outside funding from interstate unions hell-bent on de-throning him because of past grudges. The federal office of the TWU is remaining quiet, but the word around the traps is that it was time for Hughie to go in favour of a fresh face.
Biagini credited grassroot activists for delivering him more than 70% of the vote, claiming he now has a mandate to fix “a moribund union”.
The agenda is ambitious, particularly his plan to significantly increase the number of delegates and organisers and install sector-specific representatives in the airline, road, waste and oil industries.
“We are resolved to take on the long and difficult task of rebuilding our union with energy and single-minded focus,” Biagini said following his win. He’s also threatened action against employers he claims have used the decline of the Queensland TWU to exploit workers.
His first big fight, however, is likely to be against his old boss in the courtroom.