Jack Merkx – who represented the union on the construction of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital – is campaigning to unseat Cartledge, who has held the role since 2012.
It is the first time in the history of the SA Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) that a candidate has nominated to challenge a state secretary, Cartledge says. In each election since the union was formed in 1992, the candidate nominated by the union’s committee of management has been elected as secretary, unopposed.
The contest comes at a critical time for the union, which has been financially battered by repeated fines and has suffered a fall in membership numbers over the past several years.
The union has this year reportedly been fined more than $1 million for breaches of industrial law.
Merkx told InDaily he believed the union was in trouble and needed new leadership to ensure its future in South Australia.
“The union has lost touch with the rank and file,” he said.
“I think there’s a lack of enthusiasm to get out there and defend workers’ rights.
“With a new direction and new leadership, they might get back on board.
“I bring youth – I bring enthusiasm … it’s a union I love.”
But Cartledge claims Merkx is “totally unqualified for the job” and accuses him of “sour grapes” after failing to secure the assistant secretary role earlier this year.
“It takes a lot of time to build up the experience and the contacts … to do this job well,” Cartledge said.
“It’s not something that you can just walk into.
“It’s not an easy gig.
“In my view, he’s totally unqualified for the job.”
Cartledge said Merkx had “struggled” during his time representing workers at the new Royal Adelaide Hospital site, and said it was a shame he had not been more patient.
“If [Merkx] had just waited his time and just learned from other officials he would have had a leadership … role down the track,” said Cartledge.
He added that he believed his challenger wanted to “escalate up the ranks too fast than what his experience demonstrated”.
But Merkx rejects the accusations outright, saying he won SA Unions Delegate of the Year while he was working on the nRAH site, and that members were satisfied with his performance there.
He said he believed his employment as a CFMEU branch organiser immediately after he had completed work at on the hospital build was an endorsement of his performance.
But he said Cartledge sacked him as a branch organiser earlier this year, after Merkx launched an unsuccessful bid to become assistant secretary.
He said Cartledge offered him the job back recently, when he discovered Merkx was campaigning for secretary.
“I declined [the latest offer] because I honestly believe the branch needs change,” said Merkx.
“I believe if we don’t do something now the union will decline.
“It’s about getting the union back on track.”
Merkx conceded he did not have Cartledge’s level of experience, but: “I don’t think that experience has served him well”.
“I have got eight years in the executive [of the union],” said Merkx.
“I believe I have got the best experience of what the rank and file need, and how the members need to be served.”
Merkx added that not only union membership, but working conditions on construction sites had been deteriorating during Cartledge’s tenure, and that the union needed to maintain a stronger presence on worksites to fight back.
He claimed some workers have been asked to work 23-hour days on some builds, and that poor conditions been responsible for losses in union membership.
“There’s been a slow decline [in membership during] the last four years.
“I’d put it down to a lack of union activity [and] union presence onsite.
“A lot of the membership is looking for a change in direction.
“The union’s based on democracy I believe that everyone should have a say.
“I’d like to put myself out there to find our whether there is an option for change.”
Merkx said figures from Australian Electoral Commission showed the union’s financial members now number just over 1600, adding that the figure was half what it was when Cartledge became state secretary.
“People are losing faith in what it means to be in a union – they’re losing faith in people in the union turning up.”
But Cartledge claimed different figures – that the union had 2500 members and that the decline over the past three or four years had been in the order of 500 or 600 members.
He defended his performance as secretary, arguing that declining membership was the result of South Australia’s economic slowdown, and listing several achievements during his term.
He said he was instrumental in brokering a guarantee of local procurement from the State Government, that he secured consistent wages for construction workers across the state by bringing each of the state’s major construction companies to the negotiating table, that he had modernised the union by implementing new technologies and that he had secured a local organiser for CFMEU members in the Upper Spencer Gulf, where they had formerly been represented in the CBD.
He conceded that membership numbers “have been a struggle” but he puts that down to job losses in the defence construction industry and the winding down of the new RAH construction, among other projects that were coming to an end.
“Trying to maintain good wages and conditions has been a challenge, but I think we have done that reasonably well in the circumstances,” said Cartledge.
He said CFMEU membership had been in decline since the Howard era, when unionism became voluntary in the construction industry and organised labour started to become “demonised”, and that appealing to a new generation of workers had been a challenge for the union.
“We’re trying to reinvent ourselves,” Cartledge said.
“There’s a whole new generation that we have to find some relevance with.”
However, he said he had the support of the national branch of the CFMEU, and the support of his team.
He said he was confident he would convince voting members that he was the best candidate.
“I’m going to campaign hard,” he said.
“I think I’ve got the right team and the right backing to do the job well – and to win this election.”
He said postal voting in the CFMEU elections opens next month, on 7 November, and closes on 28 November.
InDaily contacted the office of CFMEU national secretary Dave Noonan for comment.
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