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2194Response to Bob Gould on WA ETU elections

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  • dofp2000
    Aug 26, 2003
      23/8/03

      Response to Bob Gould on WA ETU elections

      By Anthony Benbow, WA CEPU/ETU member and member of Perth branch of
      the DSP

      Bob Gould's distance from WA, and the WA CEPU/ETU has given him a
      distorted view of the election campaign that is currently being
      fought in that union. Factual inaccuracies in Gould's emails about
      the WA ETU elections indicate that he doesn't understand the issues
      in the union.

      This is shown by his latest email offering, where he reprints
      official material from incumbent WA state CEPU secretary Bill Game's
      Workers First ticket, juxtaposed with an unauthorised anti-Game
      leaflet which is presented as typical of the reform ticket ETU
      Recharge's material. This is unfair. Gould has not reprinted the
      official ETU Recharge leaflets and has also not reprinted an
      unauthorised anti-Recharge leaflet. I have had Recharge's official
      material put on a website – visit <www.iinet.net.au/~axb> to view.

      Let me first say that I am indebted to comrade Peter Boyle for
      contributing to this debate so far. Personally I have a schedule that
      does not allow time to spend glued to email debates on an ongoing
      basis.

      Gould takes Boyle to task on many points, including accusing him
      of "shifting the responsibility" for deciding to support the Recharge
      ticket on to me. It's a strange accusation, as it is quite proper
      that a fair degree of the responsibility should rest with me as I am
      a member of the WA CEPU/ETU, and I am the one who recommended after
      much consideration and discussion that the Recharge team be
      supported. I also agree with Boyle that Chris Latham's article could
      have been clearer on some points, but, as Latham was relying on me
      for key information and organisation of interviews, that is my
      responsibility also.

      I am puzzled by Gould's claim that the Green Left Weekly article
      about the WA ETU election campaign had inferred that WA ETU state
      secretary Bill Game had been interviewed for the article. I have re-
      read the article and cannot find any inference that Game was
      interviewed. We never interviewed Game as the article was about the
      ETU Recharge team, however, we did quote official leaflets circulated
      by Game's "Workers First" team.

      Gould suggests that the Green Left article glossed over my past
      differences with Bill Game. I have known Game, McLaughlan and most of
      the key people on both sides for over 10 years. In 1995 I supported a
      challenge to the Game leadership. During my time as a State
      Councillor, I supported Game's Hamersley Iron legal challenge. In
      1998 and for most of 1999 I was living interstate, just prior to my
      return to WA in 1999, Game was returned unopposed as state secretary.
      This information was omitted from the Green Left article as I didn't
      think it crucial to an article about the current election campaign.

      The ticket I supported in 1995 was led by the organiser of the
      electronics section (this is the sector I work in), Vince George.
      George was not only "industrially militant" but was an active
      socialist, having been a member of the New Left Party. George was
      also outspoken against the ALP for selling out workers and against
      the prices and incomes accord. George was not successful in his
      challenge, but a numer of his supporters were elected to the unions'
      State Council, myself included.

      My support for Les McLaughlan and the Recharge team is not based on
      old differences but is based on differences which have arisen
      relatively recently.

      My criticism of the Game leadership does not hinge around the union's
      role in the now-concluded Hamersley Iron dispute, but around what the
      union does next in the climate of renewed attacks in the construction
      sector and Tony Abbott's anti-union laws. On a local level, there are
      opportunities for the union to expand in the north-west of the state
      with a large increase in construction activity there and there is the
      challenge of fighting off the state government's proposal to
      restructure and corporatise WA's electricity supply.

      Gould states that his information is coming from "acquaintances and
      observers" in WA. I appreciate these people may be well-meaning but
      from what Gould presents as fact, I doubt that any of them are close
      enough to know the WA ETU from the inside, or else, they are
      supporters of Game.

      It is not accurate to caricature this election campaign as being
      between "the militant left versus the ALP right". The choice is
      between continuing with a principled leadership that has come through
      tough fights in the past but has no effective plan to address several
      pressing issues the union currently faces; or, to elect a new
      leadership team that has a plan to meet these challenges and which
      has proven itself to be industrially militant and is left-wing.

      So who are the Recharge team and what do they stand for? Gould jumps
      to hasty and incorrect conclusions such as: the Recharge team have
      their base in the contracting (construction) sector therefore they
      must be puppets of Kevin Reynolds. Or: the Recharge team are opposed
      to Game therefore they must be in the ALP. Or: Bill Game has been
      outspoken and active in the past therefore he must be playing the
      same role now.

      The Recharge team is led by long-term contracting organiser Les
      McLaughlan. McLaughlan has been an active unionist in Australia for
      more than 20 years, and was an active unionist in his native Scotland
      before that. He has been a successful shop steward and convener in
      the contracting sector, and has been an organiser for 13 years. He
      has represented members all over WA.

      Politically McLaughlan regards himself as a socialist. He was a
      founding member and was active in the now-defunct New Left Party. He
      was also briefly involved in the Nuclear Disarmament Party before
      that. McLaughlan is not, and has never been a member of either the
      Labor Party in Australia or in Britain.

      Fellow contracting organiser Peter Carter is another key member of
      the Recharge leadership. Carter is not politically affiliated, but is
      supportive of left causes, and has long been scathing in his
      criticisms of the ALP.

      The Recharge leadership does include some who are ALP members or
      supporters such as Jim Murie. However, Game's Workers First team also
      includes ALP members or supporters, such as organisers Joe Fiala and
      Shane O'Byrne.

      The DSP branch in Perth only became aware of the ETU Recharge ticket
      in June when official nominations were not yet open, but the putting
      together of a reform ticket was already well advanced. This was long
      after any opportunity to "mediate" between the two tickets had
      passed.

      Members of the Recharge team approached me in late June and asked me
      to nominate for state council as part of their ticket. After being
      briefed on their reasons for challenging the Game leadership, the DSP
      leadership in Perth and nationally discussed the respective merits of
      the two tickets.

      We had three options open to us: 1. support Bill Game's Workers First
      ticket; 2. Don't take a position on which ticket to support; or, 3.
      Support the Recharge ticket. Our decision to support Recharge was not
      a hasty but a considered one. With a member in the WA CEPU, it wasn't
      possible for the DSP to abstain from supporting either ticket. We had
      to make an assessment of which was the better team.

      It is true, as Gould notes, that Game is a socialist and has been
      outspoken on issues of principle in the past such as opposing the
      wage-cutting prices and incomes accord of the federal Labor
      government under Hawke and Keating. This was a courageous position to
      take. Game has also maintained a principled opposition to the ALP as
      a party which does not represent the interests of workers. Game is
      not a member of the ALP and the CEPU is not affiliated to the ALP.

      Game was elected as state secretary in 1995 after around 18 months as
      acting secretary. In the 1999 election, Game was returned unopposed.

      In recent times, Game hasn't promoted as much activism among members
      as he might have done in the past. Game's key achievements are in the
      past rather than in the present.

      The team challenging Game is not a right-wing challenge. McLaughlan
      and Carter consider themselves socialists, although they haven't had
      the same level of socialist education that Game would have had when
      he was a member of the Socialist Labour League. McLaughlan has
      advocated progressive causes while being a union official, although
      he doesn't have a profile on the left outside the union.

      Contrary to Game's allegations, McLaughlan and Carter are not pushing
      for the ETU to reaffiliate with the ALP. Neither of them are Labor
      Party members. McLaughlan says that if the ETU was pushed by the
      national executive of the CEPU to have a ballot over the question of
      reaffiliation, he would not shy away from members having a say over
      the issue, but that he cannot see any good reason for the union
      reaffiliating with the ALP. Carter has a similar response. The
      Recharge team's election material makes this plain: "Recharge are not
      promoting a reaffiliation to the ALP...every union needs to strive to
      influence the political agenda for the benefit of their members and
      the community at large. Any decision to reaffiliate or not with the
      Labor party will be by democratic vote".

      A sign of the quality of a union leadership and a union's strength is
      the ability to inspire members to mobilise and to take action. At the
      big rallies against the third wave of draconian WA industrial
      legislation in 1997, the majority of ETU members mobilised for the
      rallies came from the construction sector, the sector which
      McLaughlan and Carter organise.

      Game doesn't have a high profile on the ground among the members,
      even during major industrial disputes over the last two years such as
      the 10-week strike in the lift industry and the 10-week strike at
      Alcoa.

      There were two key issues which convinced Les McLaughlan and his
      running mate Peter Carter that they had no choice but to challenge
      Bill Game's leadership of the union. One issue was the failure of
      Game to use the construction boom on the Burrup Peninsula to further
      the organising of the north-west mining sector. Game sacked the
      previous north-west organiser in 1999, but made no arrangements for a
      replacement. Les McLaughlan and Peter Carter currently organise the
      north-west on a fly-in fly-out basis. However, this arrangement isn't
      adequate. The size of the workforce and the distance from Perth
      warrants a full-time organiser being based in the north-west. This is
      essential if the ETU is to play a big role in helping re-unionise the
      north-west.

      Since the Hamersley Iron dispute in the 1992, there has been a lot of
      hostility among mineworkers in the north-west toward unions. Much of
      this hostility is based on the perception that union leaderships
      based in Perth or over east make decisions without consulting the
      workers in the north west. This hostility is starting to be broken
      down now, but the process would be aided if the ETU had an organiser
      based in the north west rather than flying in organisers from Perth.
      Also, when McLaughlan or Carter visit the north west, it leaves one
      contracting organiser for the rest of the state. Given that the
      contracting section is by far the biggest section of the union
      (almost 50%) this cannot continue. The Recharge team's leaflet
      pledges: ``We will put an organiser in the north-west to rebuild the
      strong membership we once had there".

      The second issue is that the Game leadership has failed to allocate
      an equitable share of resources to organising the contracting sector.
      This is a serious issue given that all construction workers are
      likely to face draconian special legislation in the wake of the
      building industry royal commission.

      Are the Recharge team a front for WA CFMEU secretary Kevin Reynolds
      as Bill Game alleges and Bob Gould speculates? The view of the
      Recharge team is that the ETU must assert its own position in the
      contracting sector. They don't want the ETU to be swallowed up by the
      CFMEU but they do want to work in an alliance with other construction
      unions. Furthering relations with the principal union in the area,
      the CFMEU, is a key part of such a strategy.

      With the federal government planning to target construction workers
      for special anti-union laws as a first step towards extending such
      laws to all workers, it is logical that the WA ETU should seek to
      join with other militant unions in the state to challenge such
      attacks on unions. This means building an alliance with other unions
      which are prepared to take a stand, like the CFMEU. Working
      cooperatively with other militant unions does not mean that the ETU
      has to give up its political independence.

      Some of the allegations being made by Game in the election campaign
      do not help this process. Gould echoes Game's allegation that
      Reynolds is the force behind this challenge and Gould implies that
      the Recharge ticket is receiving money from Reynolds. Gould asserts
      that Game's Workers First ticket is conducting its campaign "on the
      cheap" by mailing out its how-to-vote ticket and ringing delegates
      whereas McLaughlan's Recharge ticket is conducting its campaign in
      the ``new, extremely expensive way" of doing an extensive phoning of
      members.

      The facts are that Game's Workers First ticket has done two or three
      mailouts, as has the Recharge ticket. The Recharge team is also doing
      an extensive phone around of members, but that is standard practice
      in most union elections where there is a serious challenge. If the
      Workers First team is only phoning delegates, that is likely to be an
      indication that they have not been able to mobilise many supporters.

      There is no mystery about where the Recharge team's funds are coming
      from. Key members of the Recharge team have been putting aside money
      each week over the last few years, giving them adequate campaign
      funds for an election in a union the size of the WA CEPU which has
      around 4000 members.

      Gould alleges that the Recharge candidates for the full-time
      positions are all current full-time officials. This isn't true.
      Although most of the Recharge candidates are full-time officials, Ian
      Gill is a convenor and is not a full-time official. In contrast, the
      Workers First candidates are all full-time officials.

      Gould points to Workers First's production of a leaflet indicating
      support from a range of members in different sections of the union.
      Contrary to Gould's information, many of these are rank and file
      members, not delegates.

      Although the Recharge team didn't produce a similar leaflet with the
      names of its supporters, this does not demonstrate that the Recharge
      team doesn't have widespread support among delegates. The contracting
      section of the union, where the Recharge team has its biggest base,
      has had more than a dozen major blues over the last 2 years. Some of
      these have been drawn-out battles which they have won, such as the 10-
      week strike at Alcoa and the 10-week strike in the lift industry. How
      would this be possible if the contracting section rank and file were
      not solid and organised, and if the membership didn't have confidence
      in the key officials leading those struggles? The people who led
      those struggles are the leading Recharge candidates.

      On the issue of the WA state Labor government's proposal to
      corporatise Western Power, both the Recharge team and the Workers
      First team say that they are opposed to corporatisation on the basis
      it will lead to privatisation.
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