“Save our local union organiser!”

Newcastle CPSU members say NO to centralisation

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Steve Tonks. Photo: Alison Thorne.

CPSU members in the Hunter region have been making waves inside the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU). When the National Management Committee (NMC) of the union made a decision to close its Newcastle office, members were incensed and vowed to get the decision overturned. Members were particularly angered by the shabby treatment of the popular and effective local organiser, Gary Parker, who was pushed into taking a redundancy because he could not simply uproot and move to Sydney.

Unionists from the Australian Tax Office (ATO), Centrelink, Child Support Agency and Telstra formed the CPSU Hunter Alliance to get the decision overturned, and have won support from CPSU members in many other parts of the country.

Alison Thorne, coordinator of the CPSU Workplace Organising Committee at Moorabbin Call Centre  spoke to Steve Tonks, CPSU delegate from the ATO in Newcastle about the campaign.

Thorne: When did you first become aware of plans to close the Newcastle CPSU Office and what was your reaction? Tonks: The delegates became aware of the decision on

5 May — a date now etched in our memory. Our local organiser received a call telling him the office would close on 30 June. The reaction from members was shock. Within 24 hours we were mobilised. We held a delegates’ committee meeting — the biggest we’d ever had. We passed a motion of no-confidence in the NMC for its decision. It all happened very quickly, but the initial reaction was we are not going to let this happen.

How did CPSU members at Newcastle ATO react? Members wondered how could our union do this to our organiser, and what would this mean for us. Gary is a great organiser and members have a lot of loyalty to him.

Within a week we were notified that National Secretary, Adrian O’Connell, and Divisional Secretary, Shane O’Connell, would visit Newcastle for a meeting. We took up a petition calling for the reversal of the NMC decision. We are a heavily unionised office. In a single day we got over 350 signatures on a petition. At short notice, 130 attended this meeting in their own time and we presented the petition. We were told that the reasons for closing the office were finances and the union official’s preference for a centralised organising model. We rejected these arguments. Rent on the Newcastle CPSU office, which is located in the Trades Hall, is just $90 a month. More than 20 members asked the National Secretary questions or contributed to the discussion — many had never even spoken at meetings before!

Newcastle area is heavily unionised, with the CPSU organiser servicing more than 1,400 members. We’d put the case in the past for increased organiser resources. We pointed out that Newcastle membership contributes $500,000 in union dues to the CPSU. We tried to get an agreement that the national officials would go away from the meeting and consider what we had said. They refused!

Can you describe the importance of the Newcastle CPSU office to members in Newcastle? The office was significant because it supported us to organise locally.  The people of Newcastle are also sensitive to the issue of lost services — when a service is centralised, we get a lesser service. Members did not expect their union to behave like this. The loss of the Newcastle CPSU office might ultimately threaten the retention of the public sector jobs in the Newcastle area.

How did the Hunter Alliance get off the ground? After the big meeting with our national officials, we held a delegates’ meeting and decided to form the Alliance to begin lobbying to get the decision of the NMC overturned. We received support from local Members of Parliament as well as from the Secretary of the Newcastle Trades and Labor Council, Gary Kennedy.

The Alliance sent a delegation to meet with Adrian O’Connell. It was comprised of Kennedy, plus a representative of the section delegates’ committee in Tax, Centrelink, and our local MP’s office. They met with O’Connell and others for several hours and outlined all the reasons why the decision should be reversed. This meeting ended in a stalemate.

Why did the Hunter Alliance decide to hold a protest outside the Sydney CPSU office? What happened on the day? How did the CPSU National leadership react? After hearing a report from the delegation, CPSU members were not impressed. We decided we needed to make our opposition to the closure more visible. So we decided to picket. This was a hard decision to take — we didn’t want to damage the union, because we are unionists. But we knew that the union is our union and we couldn’t live with our organiser being treated like this, nor our office being closed.

At 5 am we got on a bus to Sydney to picket the union office. It was an amazing experience. We arrived to find the office had been closed! There were two security guards stationed outside the front door. This was a complete overreaction! We protested for several hours. Then we went to the NSW Labor Council to raise the issue. Thirty local members participated. Everyone had to take the day off to be able to attend. But it was something we had to do. The picket led to a call for an out-of-session vote of the National Council of the union.  

The union structures are very bureaucratic. But by looking at the rules we found that our national councillors could seek a review of the decision. Eighteen national councillors, including those from Members First, put their names forward requesting the decision to be reviewed. The final vote was 46 endorsing the resolution to close the Hunter Office, 19 against and 6 votes not recorded.

Why do you think the decision was made to close the Newcastle CPSU office? What is behind this? The decision is ideological. The national leadership thinks centralising positions is the way to go. That way everything can be kept firmly under its control. I also find it ironic that the union is opposing the centralisation of public service positions, for example within Centrelink, but the union leadership is doing the same thing itself!

Does the regional model of organising assist with building solidarity across agencies? There are real benefits from this way of organising. We’re all unionists. We all work for the government, but unfortunately now work under different agency agreements. Yet we still have common issues because we have the same employer. It’s crucial that we are solid and all stick together. Our Newcastle organiser was excellent at keeping workers in the ATO up-to-date about what was happening in Centrelink and other agencies.

Keeping us separate and isolated in our specific agencies is a very narrow view of unionism which weakens us. Before the Prices and Incomes Accord I remember having mass meetings of all public servants. They were a terrific thing and we felt the power of solidarity.  This kind of cross divisional exchange is now discouraged. We are all kept separate, and it is only when it gets to the National Council level that the different divisions come together.

The Hunter Alliance has campaigned magnificently — what does the Alliance have planned next? We were hoping for a “no” vote in the National Council out-of-session ballot. But that didn’t happen, so everything is up for grabs. We crossed a line when we picketed the union office and we can’t go back. We are now going to the members around the country for support. We are circulating a petition among all CPSU members which calls on the union officials to allow members to democratically control the affairs of our union. The petition is calling for a plebiscite of union members. We want our local organiser position back. What started as a local issue is now also much more because of the way 1,400 members’ views were blatantly disregarded.

How can CPSU members and others unionists from around the country support this struggle? We invite members to get behind our call for plebiscite by circulating our petition. We also want CPSU members to express their views and tell their National Councillors and Divisional leaders what they think. Send e-mails to Adrian.O’Connell@cpsu.org.au or pass motions of support. Let CPSU Hunter Alliance know too. We’d be very grateful for the support.

Naturally, there is disillusionment among some members because of how we have been treated by our union leaders. But there is also strong appreciation at the level of solidarity and support we’ve received from Members First and other union members around the country.

What are your ideas for how CPSU members can reclaim our union and build a democratic and activist culture where solidarity across departments and agencies is actively encouraged? Lots of members are saying that they do not want to pay for these union leaders to travel around the country any more. But I remind them that we are the union! I argue to people that if they get out of the union then they have no union and no say in what happens. Members who are concerned about the actions of the national leadership need to get more involved, not less. We need to ask the hard questions about where our union is heading. We need to get more organised and more active. We have union elections coming up next year. Traditionally there has been a low voter turnout in CPSU elections. Let’s ensure there is a real race next time around. Don’t quit the union — change it!

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