Accusations fly as TWU election turns nasty

The Queensland branch of the TWU has descended into bitter infighting ahead of tomorrow’s branch secretary election

Accusations fly as TWU election turns nasty
Accusations fly as TWU election turns nasty
By Brad Gardner | November 25, 2010

The Queensland branch of the Transport Workers Union has descended into bitter infighting and threats of legal action ahead of tomorrow’s branch secretary election.

As TWU members prepare to cast their ballots on who they want to represent them, incumbent secretary Hughie Williams (pictured) has accused his challengers of defaming him in campaign material sent to voters.

The New Transport Worker Team, led by long-time unionist Peter Biagini, is trying to oust Williams over claims he has overseen a worrying decline in membership and is failing to represent the TWU’s best interests.

"My good name and that of the proud TWU has been smeared and tarnished by a string of lies and allegations," Williams claims, adding that he will take the issue to court to seek unspecified damages.

"I’ve been accused of being corrupt, of using members’ money inappropriately and doing cosy deals with bosses and the government."

Biagini, who is running for branch secretary, has refuted the allegations and says a lot of members he has spoken to on the campaign trail have expressed frustration over Williams’ running of the union.

"It’s a broad statement coming from the membership," he says.

Biagini has accused Williams of running a malicious campaign against the New Transport Worker Team and has vowed legal action of his own.

"It’s a bit rich of Hughie Williams to accuse me of underhanded tactics when his sole strategy for winning this election was to use rumour and innuendo to sling mud at our rank and file candidates," he says.

Williams has challenged his opponents to substantiate allegations he has made deals with government and business and is using union funds to pay for "boozy lunches".

He says he does not drink alcohol and has run the union professionally since taking over as branch secretary in 1992.

"I ask them to put it in writing what cosy deals have I put to business and government," Williams says.

"I’m not going to sit back and have a person put out a smear campaign against me. I’m going to fight it all the way to my last cent."

If elected, Biagini has pledged to reform the union. He says there are not enough organisers and delegates to represent sector-by-sector needs and that a small number of officials are being forced to cover wide geographical areas.

He plans on appointing separate coordinators for the airline, passenger, general transport, armoured, waste and oil industries.

"Our federal office has industry-based officials and we are going to flow that into the state [branch]," he says.

"We believe by handing responsibility to other people within industry spreads the responsibility out, which means more things can be done and people get represented better which means you’ll grow the union."

Biagini says it is important geographic organisers are also appointed to cope with the fast-growing regions in North Queensland and to represent the specific needs of each area.

He says organisers are currently struggling to meet member needs because of the large areas they must cover. The situation has led to a backlog of issues such as unresolved enterprise bargaining agreements, according to Biagini.

Williams has rubbished the claims and says the Queensland TWU has more organisers in the field than other unions.

"We have more organisers per member than we’ve ever had before," he says.

Williams says the current team of organisers is representing member interests and that the branch is the only union to have secured a pay increase for members every year since 1992.

"No other union can boast that. That’s a great record I’m proud of," he says.

If re-elected, Williams says he will keep growing the union. The veteran unionist has also rejected criticism over the financial running of the Queensland branch.

Biagini claims not enough resources are being invested back into securing greater returns for members.

Williams says the TWU was almost broke when he took over and he has restored its finances. The TWU’s 2009 financial statement lists income of $4.12 million for the end of the year and $9.82 million in assets.

"The Queensland branch is a very rich union. We’ve got this mountain of money, we’ve got lack of resources out there and the members are leaving," Biagini says.

"We need to put that money back into the people that put the money there and that’s members."

Biagini says he has witnessed a gradual erosion of the union’s membership base from close to 20,000 in 1981 to 8,300 financial members today due to a lack of representation.

Williams has rejected the assertion he has allowed membership to decline. He says there are 10,034 financial and 16,349 non-paying members.

Some financial members will not be able to vote in tomorrow’s election because of unpaid fees, Williams says.

Wiliams claims "there’s no doubt" rival unions are bankrolling the campaign against him.

"They’re speaking through the mouth of other unions," he says of the New Transport Worker Team.

But with less than a day until votes are cast, Biagini is hopeful of securing the numbers to replace Williams.

"There’s a real mood out there for change," he says.

The ballot will close at noon tomorrow and a result is expected by late afternoon or early next week. The next branch secretary will take power in January 2011.

"I’m really disappointed that it’s come to this but I’m putting the members first," Biagini says.

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