A Message from Melbourne Branch

Our union’s future shape

In the context of debate over the future of our union, the Victorian Branch Secretary Louise Connor has written this piece to open up debate:

I support elected honorary and full time officials and I support strong sections and branches as part of the future structure of our union.

Our union’s problems don’t stem from too many elected officers or from branches that are too active or independent. The reality is that the federal secretary has been moving to a more centralised governance model for more than the past ten years, reducing the numbers of elected officers and increasingly focussing leadership and decision-making in Sydney, freezing out people who don’t agree with him from information and decision-making. I fear the new structure leads to more of this and less transparency and inclusion.

Internally, a mix of full time and honorary officers working together is best for identifying and training activists as the next generation of leaders, providing continuity while ensuring we’re continually refreshing our ranks so we hear from a range of members and views, especially as we seek to encourage new members from emerging areas of coverage.

Externally, we work best when honorary and elected officers represent us in our lobbying and work with politicians, employers and employers’ organisations, other unions and community organisations. We command respect and authority as elected representatives of our community.

Similarly, having strong branches helps us organise our members, lobby on issues at the state level (on for example, arts funding, media laws) negotiate with the large number of single-state employers that engage our members.

We can have national campaigns and goals, but we organise locally to ensure the widest participation of our members.

My concern is the corporate model isn’t the best for unions. Unions are political organisations. They don’t just represent members immediate industrial concerns; they – we – stand for a better, more egalitarian society; for workers’ and citizens’ rights; for a more vibrant and creative society and spaces for us to represent and re-create a more diverse view of the world.

The reality is we are having this debate now because we’ve been chopping and changing our shape for many years, primarily in response to looking at other unions’ structures as we’ve ‘kicked the tires’ looking for potential amalgamation partners. We’re looking at the CEO/board ‘corporate’ structure because we last looked at the professional engineers’ union and this is their model.

But is it the best model for us? I don’t think it is.

The real problem here is we haven’t examined it and we haven’t talked to members about it. For the past seven years, the federal secretary has proposed various centralised models of governance and federal council has not adopted them arguing instead for a broad discussion and debate amongst our members. This current set of changes was presented to federal council sixteen months’ ago and they refused to pass them asking, yet again for a broad discussion amongst members. This limited discussion a few weeks’ out doesn’t cut the mustard I think.

Over the past few years there’s been a growing mood for leadership change in our union. This hasn’t manifested itself in a call for a CEO and board structure. It’s culminated in a large number of members wanting to see a generational change at the federal secretary level. They want a new leader with new energy and enthusiasm, who’s more inclusive and truly represents all parts of the union.

They want to participate in electing the first truly ‘post-amalgamation’ federal secretary of MEAA. I don’t think telling them that we’re dramatically changing the rules this late in the game is right.

Louise Connor

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