Three Times The Power: NSW Branches join forces in historic merger

Tuesday 06th September 2016 0:00

If good things come in threes, then the merger of the three NSW branches of the AWU into a powerful new force will be a very good thing indeed.

The historic move has been sealed by a vote of the AWU National Executive, paving the way for the Greater NSW Branch; Port Kembla, South Coast and Southern Highlands Branch; and the Newcastle, Central Coast and Northern Regions Branch to finally join forces.

The consolidated branch will be headquartered in Granville, while existing offices in Newcastle and Port Kembla will continue to operate and serve members as they have for decades.

Current Greater NSW Branch Secretary Russ Collison will be the inaugural Secretary of the combined branch, with Wayne Phillips, Tony Callinan and Paul Noack assuming responsibilities as Assistant Secretaries.

Russ Collison says it will be business as usual as the branches transition to the new structure, but members will see a more professional union develop over time.

“The merger will bring a range of benefits – such as more effective recruiting strategies, and unifying the union like it’s never been before,” Russ says.

”We’ll all be under one umbrella, standing to shoulder, worker together for all members across NSW.”


Stronger Together

The new combined Branch will cover workers doing everything from civil construction to manufacturing and hairdressing.

And it will have plenty of opportunities to flex its muscles, with a number of big industrial and political issues on the radar for the new combined administration.

For example, there’s the continuing fight to protect the future of the state’s steel industry, securing affordable gas supplies for NSW manufacturers, and continuing to build union strength in the hard rock mining sector.

Russ Collison also highlights the Baird Government’s attacks on jobs in regional and rural NSW as one policy area where the combined branch will be actively campaigning.

“The impact of decisions like the ban on greyhound racing are having a very, very significant impact on jobs in country towns,” he says.

“The AWU has always stood up for workers in regional NSW, and with our new structure we can better coordinated statewide campaigns to protect regional jobs.”


Bang for Buck

One of the main benefits of the new structure will be the ability of the three geographical branches to pool resources.

Former Acting Secretary of the Newcastle, Central Coast and Northern Region Branch Tony Callinan says that merging operations will allow the combined Branch to focus more on campaigns, growth, training and services – so members will get more bang for their buck

“It will allow us to more efficiently use our resources, and to reduce duplication and triplication across NSW,” Tony says.

“Ultimately this means we’ll be able to focus those resources on better services for our members.”


Retaining Identities

Of course, merging three organisations – each with their own proud histories – is not without its challenges.

AWU National Secretary Scott McDine congratulated each of the three former branches on the way they have managed the process.

“Any decision to merge is obviously very significant and sensitive,” Scott says.

“It is therefore a real mark of our union that this process has been handled with maturity and with a laser focus on what will be in our members’ long-term interests.”

Former Secretary of the Port Kembla, South Coast and Southern Highlands Branch Wayne Phillips says the new structure will still allow the three geographical branches to retain their local presence and, importantly, their historical identities.

Both the Newcastle and Port Kembla Branches trace their history back to the early 20th century and the formation of the powerful Federated Ironworkers of Australia (FIA).

The Newcastle Branch of FIA was formed in 1915 with the establishment of BHP’s Newcastle steelworks, and soon became embroiled in the General Strike of 1917. After being deregistered in the wake of the General Strike, FIA was able to come back bigger and stronger.

The Port Kembla Branch was established in 1925, and by 1938 was creating national waves.  Workers at Port Kembla went out on strike to block to transport of pig iron to aggressive Japanese Government – exports that were supported by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

The episode led to Menzies earning the nickname “Pig Iron Bob”, while the subsequent involvement of Japan in World War 2 vindicated the actions of the Port Kembla workers.

The FIA then merged with the Australasian Society of Engineers to the form the Federation of Industrial, Manufacturing and Engineering Employees (FIMEE) in 1991, and then in 1993 FIMEE merged with the AWU.


Aiming for Growth

The combined Branch puts NSW on equal footing with the other State-based branches of the modern AWU.

One of key goals of the merger will be to underpin membership growth across the State.

Growth and recruitment is critical, because greater union density in workplaces gives workers more power and leverage in their negotiations with bosses.

Wayne Phillips says the challenge for the combined Branch is to grow and become an even more powerful voice for working people.

“There’s no reason why we can’t,” Wayne says.  And given the determination of the all involved to work together through the merger process, the combined Branch is off to a great start in achieving that goal.