Share Button standard

Sunday, April 30, 2006

SFWU AGMs Oppose Rule Changes

Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU) members in Auckland are rejecting the rule changes proposed by their leadership that would deprive them of the right to directly elect their leaders.
The rules being voted on at the round of Annual General Meetings currently under way around the country provide for the national and regional leadership of the SFWU to be elected at delegates’ conferences rather than by the votes of all members. The make-up of these delegates’ conferences is not decided by the members. Rather the delegates who wish to attend are required to submit a written "expression of interest" in attending. The National or Regional executives then determine the size and composition of the delegates’ conference to elect the leaders whose positions are up for election.
At the national level, the elected positions concerned include the National Secretary (a full-time paid position) and the National President (an unpaid, voluntary post). The three Regional Secretaries (full-time paid officials) and Regional Presidents (again, unpaid volunteers) would be elected the same way at the regional level. (The SFWU is essentially a federation of three regions, Northern – with the largest membership – Central, and Southern.) The Secretaries have a four-year term, the Presidents face re-election every two years.
Given that the Regional Secretaries and Presidents sit on (and have a big influence in determining the membership of) their respective Regional Executives, and the National Executive includes the National Secretary and President as well as the six aforementioned regional officers, there are clear conflicts of interest in this arrangement.
The people seeking re-election are effectively in charge of the process of selecting the people who will be voting for (or against) them in the elections held to fill the positions they, as incumbents, currently hold.
The rule changes were rammed through the union’s 2004 Northern Region conference by Darien Fenton, before she won a Labour Party list seat in Parliament in September 2005. The official registration of the new rules took place on September 21, just days after the election result was known.
However, these new rules were required to be re-submitted to the membership this year after the union obtained legal advice that the rule-change meetings held in 2004 had not been properly notified.
This puts the union in a quandary as the current National Secretary was elected under the newly registered rules after the position of National Secretary was vacated by Darien Fenton on her accession (or is that ascension) to parliament.
The four omnibus resolutions being put to the membership seek: (1) the membership’s endorsement of the 2004 rule changes; (2) their acceptance of the result of the elections already held under these rules; (3) their approval of the actions taken by the officers of the union (principally John Ryall) since their election under the faulty 2004 rules; (4) their endorsement of some further (2006) rule changes that seek to make the rules consistent with the intentions of the earlier (2004) changes.
In Auckland, concerned members and delegates have circulated letters and leaflets, exercised their rights to speak at meetings, and otherwise organised to oppose the recommended resolutions. The result is that where there has been debate at the AGMs on the rule changes they have been overwhelmingly rejected in all but one or two meetings. At one stage the votes were running two to one against. Only the late night convening of some factory site-meetings where oppositional voices were not able to be heard has partially rescued the situation for the leadership.
The most startlingly shocking aspect of the AGMs has been the direct intervention of Darien Fenton MP into the voting process. Fenton, whose office is on Auckland’s North Shore, has attended several AGMs and spoken in favour of the Resolutions. Many members see this as inappropriate and an attempt to wield undue influence. Despite Fenton’s best efforts meetings like the large one held at the Papatoetoe Town Hall last week have still voted down the resolutions (134 against, to 92 for, on Resolution 1 at this meeting).
After the Papatoetoe meeting, Fenton was observed haranguing a delegate who had spoken strongly in defence of union democracy and against the resolutions. The delegate was visibly shaken by the vehemence of Fenton’s verbal assault on him.
The rule change debacle has impacted on the election of Fenton’s successor as SFWU Northern Region Secretary (Fenton was a dual office-holder before her departure to Parliament).
The Union’s Rules require an election to be held to fill the vacant Northern Region Secretary position. Nominations were called last December but the election still has not been held. It has been postponed twice; once in February because of improper notification (this seems to be an endemic problem for the SFWU), and secondly in March after the election rules themselves came into question. The election will now not be held until June, after the completion of the round of AGMs and the ratification (or not) of the Rule changes.
Fenton’s anointed successor, one Lisa Eldret (Fenton’s "wing-person" and Assistant Regional Secretary in the Northern office), is being strongly challenged by the experienced and respected trade unionist Jill Ovens. Ovens is the former full-time, paid President of ASTE, the technical teachers’ union, and was until recently the CTU Women’s Convenor and representative on the CTU National Affiliates Council.
Ovens has been a senior organiser with the SFWU in the health and aged-care sectors (Northern Region) for the last year and a half, and now heads the "Healthy Pay, Healthy Hospitals" campaign in the region. She has gained the respect and support of the Northern SFWU office staff and organisers, as well as the members and delegates she has been working with.
A suspicious mind might think the real reason the election has been postponed twice is because the "numbers" were against the chosen one. An old adage of Labour Party politics is that you never hold a vote unless you know in advance that the outcome will be favourable to you.
The SFWU is a living example of the operation of the "iron law of oligarchy" that the sociologist Robert Michels exposed in the German workers’ movement nearly one hundred years ago. Michels examined how large organisations, particularly trade unions and political parties, tend to create structures that perpetuate the status quo and undermine their own internal democracy even though they may be publicly committed to defending democracy in society as a whole. Control of information, resources, staffing, and election processes are the means by which incumbent leaders maintain their power. Michels was extremely pessimistic that anything could be done to combat this tendency (hence his description of it as an "iron law").
Well, members of the SFWU in Auckland (and possibly the rest of the Northern Region) give supporters of union democracy reason for optimism. They are showing at their AGMs that it is not true that "oligarchy" always triumphs. The members have a voice and they are showing that they know how to make it heard.

No comments: