Single term radical union leaders: Bob Carnegie loses Queensland MUA election

Submitted by Janet on 5 August, 2019 - 2:27 Author: Janet Burstall
Bob Carnegie May Day 2019

When Bob Carnegie lost the election for Queensland Secretary of the MUA after one term in office, this matched a pattern for successful rank and file challengers to long term incumbents with ALP factional roots. Here are some other examples.

In the NSW Nurses Association, the Nurses Reform held office from 1982 to 1987, with Jenny Haines as Secretary and Bronwyn Ridgway as Assistant Secretary. Irene Bolger was elected Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Royal Australian Nursing Federation in from 1986 “on the basis of her commitment to forging union solidarity and encouraging industrial action” and led a two-month strike at the end of 1986. She narrowly lost office in 1989.

There are other examples of leaders elected to office as rank-and-file or left-wing candidates but who in office became conformist, such as Trevor Deeming, elected NSW secretary of the ACOA (then the federal public service union) in 1985, or Anne Gardiner, elected General Secretary of the PSA in NSW in 2012, who lost office back to the ALP-backed faction in 2016. But even leaders who have remained principled have often only had short terms.

It’s not possible to reduce these experiences to a single lesson, but it’s clear that to achieve fresh and enduring leadership requires many ingredients. They need to aim to win multiple official positions. A network of democratically organised supporters of the candidates’ principles with roots in the delegates' structure and workplaces saves the fresh leaders from isolation, and white-anting by the old guard. The network needs to be able to anticipate the nature of the enemies of the workers’ interests, and plan ahead to keep the membership united and strong during industrial action.

Bob Carnegie has been a principled leader. But I think it’s fair to say he lacked the network of democratically organised supporters of his principles that could outdo the machine that backed his opponent.

From Workers Liberty Newsletter No 71 August 2019

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