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Union war hits ACTU revival

By Brad Norington, Industrial Editor,
Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October 2000

Attempts by the ACTU's new leadership team to unite union ranks and rebuild dwindling memberships are being jeopardised by an unseemly poaching battle between two union heavyweights.

The main powerbroker of the right-wing Australian Workers Union, Queenslander Mr Bill Ludwig, blames the ACTU for allowing open season on his membership by a rival organisation.

But the rival, the left-wing Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, argues that most of the poaching of union members is being conducted by Mr Ludwig with the co-operation of employers.

The fracas is part of a long-running inter-union conflict that has intensified as the AWU and CFMEU compete for coverage rights in the civil construction and mining industries.

Mr Ludwig insists that his union has a historical, constitutional right to represent workers in both industries and that the CFMEU should stop trying to kill his union by invading its territory.

Several recent AWU wins - including blocking the CFMEU from representing Townsville City Council workers and winning coverage rights at the Swanbank power station project - have given Mr Ludwig confidence to continue the fight in his home State.

Meanwhile, the AWU faces battles across several States in iron ore mining, the oil industry and tunnel and power station projects. At a national level the issue hinges on a series of court appeals over coverage rights and freedom of association.

The poaching war is a distraction for the ACTU's new secretary, Mr Greg Combet, as he tries to encourage growth by having union officials focus on expanding new industries, such as services and technology.

All sides agree that fights over representation rights are counterproductive in the face of union decline that has seen memberships fall to less than one in five workers in the private sector.

Mr Combet said he would not do anything contrary to the AWU's interests and there were faults on both sides in the contest.

He had tried to broker an agreement between the two unions in the lead-up to the ACTU's congress in July but, despite progress, the AWU was not willing to accept a settlement.

The national secretary of the CFMEU's construction division, Mr John Sutton, said it was ludicrous for Mr Ludwig to make allegations against his union when Mr Ludwig had made an art form of poaching.

Almost always, according to Mr Sutton, the AWU was able to poach potential CFMEU members by coming to sweetheart arrangements on new projects with employers who preferred the AWU's compliant, militant-free approach and willingness to accept lower wages.

Mr Ludwig disputed the CFMEU's claim, saying his union negotiated the best wage deals possible for workers, and it was pointless for the CFMEU to sign-up members by making promises on pay it could not deliver.

According to Mr Ludwig, the ACTU had failed to spell out the coverage rights of both unions, with the result that workers became frustrated.

He said that the ACTU should encourage unions to grow not by stealing other people's members but by recruiting in new areas or amalgamating with other unions if their membership bases were shrinking.