27 December 2007

Australian unions and democracy

If Australian unions want to be taken seriously then internal reform is a necessary evil. Unions cannot take the high ground on being the representatives of Australian workers if they do not allow workers to participate fully in the way they operate. To put it bluntly, some unions are incredibly anti-democratic and this has been done on purpose to stimy opposition and ensure the incumbent regime can never be ousted.

The best example of this would have to be the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA). This union is not notorious for its socially conservative agenda and cosy relationship with employers. It is referred to as a "bosses union" by most other unions.

The SDA entrenches the power of its executive at the national level by cleverly having a collegiate system for the voting. So for a rival group to take over the union they would have to win most of the elections run at a state level. Without a concerted national campaign and probably hundreds of thousands of dollars a rival group could never take over the union.

But it must be said that most unions are not crash hot at running democratic elections at all. Whilst all meet the letter of the law, virtually none take the question of being democratic seriously. This author has worked at two unions that went through elections recently. On both occasions the union advertised the election in the capital city newspaper in the Public Notices section, as required by law. The Public Notices section is a part of the paper that virtually no one reads!

Neither union decided to inform its members in its regular journal that an election was upcoming. Neither sent out letters to members or made any other attempt at communicating that its members could participate in democracy; a right of being a member. After the "election" was over the incumbents were quite proud that they "won" without having to do anything at all. A brief mention was made in a journal after the election was over that the incumbents' team had "won".

This author has spoken to at least one person in an elected union council position who was rather bemused at the "democracy" of the union. When a position came up mid-term he was not informed it was up for election, even though fairly high up in the union. Someone else was appointed by the Branch Secretary and approved by the executive. So much for openness. This is only small example, but it goes to highlight the hypocrisy of some unions when they talk about democracy and being the workers representatives.

At the very minimum unions should have to properly inform their own members that an election is coming up! This should be done by a prominent information notice in a union publication sent to all members or a letter sent to all members. This would be a start.

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