Union elections can be messy affairs. Having been directly involved in the successful challenge that unseated the John Corsetti leadership of the Victorian Metal Workers Union back in 1997, I understand how heated and ugly these battles for union positions can be.
Union elections have never been tea parties but they are now scorched earth affairs involving huge amounts of money where the losers face the prospect of never working in that industry again.
Two election challenges are taking place at the moment in the Electrical Trades Union (ETU). In the Victorian Branch two former organisers Dave Mier and Paul Coffee, along with the current National Assistant Secretary, John Ingram, are running under the name ‘Reconnect’ for the three top positions.
John Ingram is running for Branch Secretary while Dave Mier and Paul Coffee are running for the two Assistant Secretary positions.
They are up against the incumbent ‘Full Charge’ team led by Dean Mighell. Mighell is defending his position as Branch Secretary while lead organisers Troy Gray and Wes Hayes are standing for the Assistant Secretary positions on the Full Charge ticket.
Simultaneously elections for national positions are also taking place. Mighell’s ally Howard Worthing is standing against the current ETU National Secretary Peter Tighe who is being supported by right wing elements in the NSW ALP. Both ballots will open on August 8th and run until August 29th.
Much is at stake in this election and the Socialist Party wants to use this relatively rare occasion, when many rank & file ETU members will be taking a closer look at the politics at hand, to put forward our own view on who members should support and how to take the union forward.
Both the Victorian and National elections are being framed around the question of union ‘independence’. The personalities involved are important but secondary.
Put simply Dean Mighell and the Full Charge team represent a half step forward while the Reconnect team represents a full step backwards. We say Dean Mighell represents a half step forward because he has taken the ETU out of the grip of the ALP by giving the members a vote to disaffiliate.
A full step forward, in our view, would be for the ETU to work with other militant unions and community groups to form a new mass working class political party.
Both teams are using the word ‘independent’ in their material though the Reconnect team says they are ‘truly’ independent. This could be confusing unless you are clear on the different meanings imparted onto this word by the rival teams.
In one piece of material Dean Mighell says “During the past two Federal elections, Tighe and his mates in NSW, Queensland and Tasmania voted to donate $1,000,000 of ETU money to the Federal ALP via the ETU Divisional Council – against the wishes of Victoria and WA. The same Federal ALP Government which then kept the worst elements of Howard’s WorkChoices, rolled out the failed insulation scheme and, most importantly, kept the hated anti-worker ABCC.”
The 85% of Victorian ETU members who voted to disaffiliate from the ALP drew the correct conclusion that working with this bosses party has achieved nothing in the interests of workers. The ability of the ETU to struggle against anti-worker laws, fight against privatisation and improve wages and conditions, is best achieved outside the orbit of this corrupt big business party.
The real meaning behind Reconnect’s ‘independence’ is as it is stated on their website: “truly independent from politics”. This means a return to the lowest form of trade unionism where we only fight for wages and conditions and all the political questions are left in the hands of the ALP.
While individuals in Reconnect may think they are fighting for ‘democracy’, this election is about nothing of the sort. The ALP machine that is funding this team has put Ingram in the driver’s seat to make sure the Reconnect team as a whole will serve their political masters. The ALP has no interest at all in union democracy. They want to silence Mighell and the Victorian ETU who dare to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
If the Reconnect team was so keen on union democracy why did the existing National ETU officials vote against allowing members in each state to vote on ALP affiliation? Firstly because these officials are hostile to rank & file democracy in general and secondly because these officials recognise that many, if not most, ETU members understand that the ALP no longer serves their interests.
By supporting candidates to the left of the ALP the Victorian ETU has shown that pressure from without is far superior to pressure from within. That said the political pressure exerted by the ETU would pale in comparison to what could be achieved by the establishment of a new party that fought for workers historic interests.
The ALP expelled Dean Mighell for highlighting at a mass meeting his record of winning decent wages and conditions. Yet the Reconnect team, backed by the ALP, claim they will deliver even better outcomes! This is fanciful given their links to the ALP and that they have no serious industrial strategy.
Dean Mighell has used the boom to win some very good wage deals for electricians. Most likely members will vote for the team that they trust on this front. In states where the union is firmly in the grip of the ALP electricians are often on much lower wages and union membership is dismal. Clearly the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
The rotten and corrupt national leadership of the Postal and Telecommunication division of the CEPU has recently been knocked off in their elections. This has caused panic amongst the ALP apparatchiks who fear the Electrical division going the same way.
If gains were made in the ETU at a national level it is likely that a national vote on ALP affiliation could be on the table. The Socialist Party supports such as vote as we would like to see the end of the ETU being used as an ATM for the ALP.
In this election the Socialist Party is supporting Dean Mighell and the Full Charge team. We call on the ETU nationally to break from the ALP but also to take initiatives to build a new workers party in Australia.
We understand this will not happen overnight, and that the real basis for such a party will come from an increase in class struggle, but every progressive break from the ALP is a step in the right direction.
As the world economic situation gets worse, bosses and governments will be looking to undermine our living standards. The presence of fighting unions and of a party that stands for public ownership, democratic control and sustainable planning will be key if we are to protect our hard won gains.
While we are still a way away from being battle ready, we must accept that a half step forward is far better than a full step backwards.
By ETU member, Simon Millar