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CFMEU heavyweights muscle in on SA

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South Australia’s embattled construction branch of the CFMEU will be effectively put under the control of a board of national union heavyweights with a brief to bolster its financial, organising and political strength in the state, InDaily can reveal.

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This month’s national conference of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union’s construction division carried several motions relating to the SA branch, after receiving a detailed report on its operations by incoming national president Dean Hall and Queensland state secretary Michael Ravbar.

Hall, the union’s ACT secretary, will join Ravbar and National Secretary Dave Noonan on a newly-created “Strategic Direction Committee” formed “to help the [SA] branch achieve its goals”.

Dean Hall at a protest outside Parliament House in 2015. Photo: Richard Tuffin / NewZulu via AAP

According to minutes of the conference resolutions, seen by InDaily, the committee will have oversight over a range of key union operations, including “implementing and managing the finances of the union in conjunction with the Branch Secretary”, Aaron Cartledge.

It will also “set budgets, dues, levies and other charges, approve expenditure and manage financial and physical assets of the union as may be required from time to time to achieve the goals of the union”, as well as setting rates of pay and “other employment conditions”, and “employing and terminating the employment of members of staff”.

The document states the heavyweight committee will also have the power to “direct the branch secretary and executive to implement such other measures as may be necessary and expedient to achieve the goals of the union”.

But Cartledge insists the move is not a push to oust him, telling InDaily: “(The) conference put no pressure on me to step aside.”

“Mostly the conversation was about how the national office would be in a position to best assist us with out resourcing, and our ability to run more effective campaigns,” he said.

The SA branch of the CFMEU has been hit with several court-imposed fines totalling around $2.5 million in recent years, stemming from an industrial campaign in late 2013 and early 2014 that Cartledge later conceded had seriously damaged the union’s reputation and distanced it from potential new members.

The last auditor’s report on the SA branch, for the year to December 2016, revealed members’ submissions had dropped to $1.2 million, down from $1.4 million the previous year, with the union posting a loss of $384,258.

Cartledge and his assistant secretary Michael McDermott were personally sanctioned earlier this year for threatening industrial action during a meeting at the new RAH site after two cranes collided in November 2013.

A failed challenge to Cartledge in last year’s union leadership election has been linked with a bid by the Victorian branch to exert more influence over the SA branch, while rumours circulated ahead of the conference that there would be a concerted push to take over SA’s operations.

Queensland CFMEU state secretary Michael Ravbar leaves the Federal Court in Brisbane this month, defending allegations he breached the Fair Work Act by putting pressure on Universal Cranes to sign a union Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. Photo: Dan Peled / AAP

At the time, a spokesman for the Victorian branch told InDaily there were “no plans” to do so, and that the suggestion was completely false.

Cartledge conceded there were political games at play, saying: “Unions are full of politics, so there’s no surprise about that.”

“You’re never 100 per cent sure in this game [but] we’re very accountable – we have elections every four years,” he said.

“If you’re not doing a good job you’ll soon know it.”

But he insisted the committee oversight could benefit the state branch, saying: “If this is implemented right – and I’m sure that’s the intention – South Australian members will be better off.”

“My first and only real concern is making sure that whatever happens in this branch, SA members actually benefit from it,” he said.

“We welcome some genuine assistance… we’re a small branch, with six officials and a couple of admin people, so we struggle to be able to run the campaigns… we just don’t have the same resources and personnel available that other states have.”

CFMEU SA secretary Aaron Cartledge. Photo: Supplied

Cartledge said questions about the committee’s agenda, “how it’s going to work and how it fits into the autonomy of the SA branch” should be directed to Noonan. The national secretary did not respond to inquiries.

The conference minutes state that the national union “commits itself to bringing the SA branch back to a sustainable position as a large, strong, effective and autonomous branch within the CFMEU”.

The branch has been directed “to develop a two-year strategic plan… under the supervision [of] the Strategic Direction Committee”, which is to be presented the Divisional Executive by December 6.

“The plan should go to all aspects of an effective union, including membership, delegates and organising strength, legal and bargaining strength, political and community strength [and] financial and internal organisational strength,” the motion reads.

The oversight committee will offer “advice, support and direction on the delivery of the strategic plan”.

A “strategic co-ordinator” – as yet unnamed, to be funded by national office – will also be appointed “to assist the branch with the day to day operation and implementation of the strategic plan and the development of long-term leadership capacity at every level within the branch”.

The conference also called on the SA branch “to raise wage levels of elected officials and organisers… in order to attract and retain high quality officials”.

Conference also called for the provision of specialist digital communications services to the SA branch, “particularly in the lead-up to the South Australian election”.

The State Government did not wish to comment.

State members will continue to be charged a $10 annual levy above their membership fees “to support the organising and campaigning work of the SA divisional branch… provided that these funds be provided only for specific initiatives in accordance with the strategic plan”.

The union will also look at relocating its South Tce CBD office to co-locate with its Regency Park Training Centre.

Cartledge said he hoped the changes would result in “better resourced campaigns” – which could sound an ominous tone for the state’s construction industry.

“It’s not all just about people on the ground, but the back-room support and campaign experience [of the national office],” Cartledge said.

“They’ve recognised we’re a little branch… we’ve had numerous court costs and hard economic times, and the branch needs to be able to take full advantage of the uplift in construction.”

CFMEU militancy has been a running headache for the Labor Party nationally, with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd telling The Australian this week the ALP should expel the union.

“If you have an industrial organisation that systematically breaches the laws, then there is a question that arises as to what role they should have in a political party,” Rudd said.

“I’ve always been pro-union… what I cannot abide is an industrial and political structure which, through the affiliation system of the Labor Party, gives trade union-based factions majority control of the party either on policy or on personnel – because the nature of the Australian economy, the workforce and society, has changed.”

Rudd’s view echoed that of another former Labor PM, Bob Hawke, who had previously told the paper his party should cut ties with the CFMEU.

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