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Issue #1898      December 11, 2019

What makes a union?

In November (28-29) the Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association, the union which covers administrative workers in the Western Australian Public Service, held their annual delegates convention. It coincided with the state public servants receiving their payment and back-pay of the first of the two annual $1,000 flat rate payments from the new General Agreement which they had negotiated with the government.

The campaign had begun auspiciously about a year ago with union branch secretary, Rikki Hendon, declaring at a mass union delegates meeting held on December 5, 2018 (see Guardian 12-12-2018) that as the CPSU/CSA was the first cab off the rank to test government wages policy that we “needed to make a stand” and despite some hesitancy from members who were unaccustomed to taking industrial action, Hendon said, “We needed to activate our members”.

Fast forward to September 2019, and the union decides to accept the offer from government wages policy of $1,000 plus $1,000 over two years as well as some improvement in conditions and bargaining tools for future negotiation for General Agreements. There was no need for industrial action as the revised offer was put to a meeting of delegates and a majority of them accepted the offer.

As a consequence, the leadership of the other public sector unions (e.g. nurses, teachers, police, WA Prison Officers’ Union, and so on) weren’t too impressed.

The first exercise of the delegates’ conference was intriguing. Delegates were asked to participate in a Word Cloud exercise. Using an application via their smart phones, they were requested to write brief descriptions from the question, “What does it mean to be a successful union?”

As people submitted their answers, there response appeared as text on a screen in the front of the room. The most common expressions were, “Member driven”, “Wins”, “High density” and “Good outcomes”. Much smaller text appeared for the expressions, “unity”, “solidarity” and “working class consciousness”. Key challenges were discussed as a consequence and these were seen as; membership decline, exercising industrial power, shared theory of unions and an aging population.

The union leadership received their questions and answers to what was needed when the current agreement expires in 2021 which is also around the time of the next State Election.

The keynote speaker was Tim Lyons, a former assistant director of the ACTU and now a director of Reveille Strategy, a transformative change organisation, who spoke about his experiences with a number of unions. Lyons spoke of the importance of union organising and how the activity of union delegates formed the basis of organising by the full-time officials.

The more workplaces are organised, the more unity and strength the union movement has – as organising helps to build union power. Lyons also observed that the different unions representing public sector workers need to have “joint voices” to build solidarity and shared values amongst workers. Only if a workplace is organised and has union consciousness can a group of workers have union power.

Matt Abrahamson, a delegate at the Department of Justice, a vice president of the CPSU/CSA and member of the Noongar people of the south west, expressed his concern at the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system, in particular of the younger Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region of WA.

Abrahamson is also a member of Social Re-investment WA which believes in addressing causal factors of crime and offending rather than building more prisons and courts. Aboriginal communities, added Abrahamson, needed to be empowered to solve issues at a local level which included listening to elders in the community rather than a government imposing a “solution” from on top. Aboriginal people needed to communicate to a white government about what a black community wants and needs.

The final speaker, Labor Premier Mark McGowan addressed the convention and started by thanking the union movement for their defeat of the anti-union Ensuring Integrity Bill. Unions were needed to help provide a fair and just society. McGowan also spoke about the scandal of the former Assistant Director General of the Department of Communities, Paul Whyte, who has been accused of siphoning off millions of dollars into bogus accounts and shelf companies set up in his own name. Changes have now been made to ensure instances of corruption such as this do not occur again by having improved oversight and more intense audits by the Auditor General’s Office.

McGowan also thanked Branch Secretary Rikki Hendon for the manner in which negotiations had been conducted on the just completed General Agreement and the course of the government’s four year wages policy was now over and a new one would be negotiated. McGowan added that it was preferable to have had the Wages Policy, “instead of the mass sackings, as wage restraint had helped the government to recover from the poor financial state left from the previous Liberal government.”

The 2019 delegates’ conference was the culmination of a challenging year for the CPSU/CSA and for many unions in Australia facing declining union membership, union power and low wage growth, coupled often with a loss of conditions. While the messages of the importance of organising from the convention were timely it has been the lesson of unity and solidarity shown by the union movement over its campaign to see off the Ensuring Integrity Bill that is arguably most valuable here.

* Richard Titelius is a Delegate CPSU/CSA)

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