Mark Skulley: Our sense of belonging will go under #MEAA CEO

I write as yet another Fairfax vet who is now freelancing in the all-bets-are-off digital era. I’ve been forced to dust off my CV and LinkedIn entry, which has reminded me that I joined the old Australian Journalists Association way back in 1978.

Not that I’m blowing my own bugle about career longevity. Indeed, many employers seem polite but doubtful when they consider my timeline, perhaps pondering whether I need an ear trumpet or similar prosthetics.

No, I mention the date because I joined the old AJA straight after talking my way into a job on a bush newspaper in Western Australia. It was a start, even though I wasn’t a reporter’s bootlace for some years. Getting my union card was a welcome moment because it made me feel that I was part of the industry (as well as part of the tribe).

My most recent reporting gig was covering the national IR round for the Fin Review for the last decade. I saw some amalgamated unions struggle to march in step, while others worked better. At the same time, the media industry’s old business models were smashed, putting pressure on the MEAA and a large part of its membership.

As a former long-term Luddite, I’ve had to work hard to update my own skills and recognize the need to reshape the MEAA. And I respect people who are arguing in support of the plans to have an appointed CEO, rather than a national secretary who is elected by the membership.

However, I strongly disagree with both the proposal and the way it is being pursued. I believe that the election of the union’s most important officeholder by members is vital for its future.

The 10 reasons given for supporting the changes include the argument that the MEAA would not be alone in having the CEO model. Yes, the CEO model is used at Professionals Australia, which was formerly the Association of Professionals Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia (APESMA).
But how many other Australian unions have a CEO model? Why is the MEAA switching to this model when the overwhelming majority of Australian unions are sticking to elected leaders?

It is argued that MEAA members will “remain a union run by members, for members” and that “under this democratic accountable model, members will be doing plenty of voting.”

Plenty of voting, yes. But it is Orwellian to argue that a model is democratic and accountable when members can vote on everything, apart from the most important position.

On one hand it’s claim that “appointed staff are more democratically accountable”.

But the argument is then put that the CEO will be accountable to the elected board and can be removed if members are dissatisfied.

Exactly. My concern is that the primary power relationship of the CEO would be with the board, and not with union members.

I also disagree with the case for change put by my former Fairfax colleagues, Stuart Washington and Gina McColl. They have argued: “A union that is balkanised by competing elected officials cannot provide the protections necessary to the broad cross section of members we now serve. It wastes energy better expended in furthering members’ industrial and professional interests.”

“That is why we no longer have elected assistant federal secretaries – because federal council recognised their electoral duties were in conflict with their pastoral duties. And federal management committee believes that argument extends to the federal secretary’s role.”

Yes, internal infighting is mostly a waste of time, energy and money. Yes, the needs of the MEAA’s different divisions need to be met and not squabbled over endlessly. But discussion and even disagreement should be encouraged, and not seen as a bad thing.

Unions do best when their members have a sense of engagement, of ownership. I believe that sense of belonging will be weakened, not strengthened, by switching to a CEO who is appointed and not elected.

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