Several members have written and/or called over the last week to protest the State Committee’s stance against the looming war on Iraq. Reflecting most of the objecting members’ concerns was this line from one: “It disturbs me that the union has taken the time and FUNDS of the union to promote a demonstration that has not been endorsed by the majority of members.” And another member wrote “I do not want you to use the FBEU name in public to support issues beyond your mandate to support firies. If you think it is important enough – get a vote on it from the members.”
Do the Union’s officials have the authority to adopt such positions without the approval of a General Meeting? Rule 13 makes it clear that the Union’s State Committee of Management is the “governing, controlling, managing and policy-making body of the Union” and that its “resolutions shall bind the Union Executive, Officers, Sub-Branches and all members of the Union.” There is of course one body which over-rides the State Committee – a General Meeting of members.
So why wasn’t it put to the members? Firstly, there were only 15 days between the SCOM’s decision of 31 January and last Sunday’s march. And consistent with the concerns expressed by the two members above, arranging and holding a statewide SGM takes considerable time and money to organise. But these practical considerations aside, the Union’s elected officials firmly believe that as trade unionists and firefighters our opposition to this war is entirely appropriate.
At the risk of inflaming the critics, I’d ask that all members put this question of democracy in its proper perspective. After all, the Union’s officials merely recorded our concern at the prospect of war and approved some $600 of the Union’s funds in support of last Sunday’s march. By comparison, our Prime Minister has expended hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars deploying Australian forces overseas without holding a referendum – or even a Parliamentary debate.
And so to the Union “getting involved in politics”. Trade unions are political organisations which have traditionally operated to achieve far more than just advancing their members’ wages and conditions of employment. The FBEU is no exception, and has a proud history of social and political activism for which we are well respected throughout the wider trade union movement. As early as 1916 our Union voted funds in support of the “No Conscription” lobby, and since that time has publicly campaigned on wider social/political issues as varied as apartheid, indigenous rights, women’s rights, nuclear disarmament, the environment, the Vietnam War (to which we declared our opposition in 1964, well before it was “fashionable” to do so) and world peace.
Further to the above, the FBEU’s Registered Rules list some 41 objectives by and for which our Union officially operates. There are some obvious objects, such as 5(2) “improving the working conditions and the general welfare of its members” and 5(4) “upholding the rights of organised labour”. But there are also others, such as 5(7) “preserving and advancing civil liberties”, 41 (28) “to determine actions on matters of concern to members in relation to international affairs” and 5(40) “to advance the cause of peace and friendship throughout the world”. If nothing else, it’s hoped that all members will accept that your officials’ stance is within the scope of such Rules.
It was not my intention to re-enter the debate on Iraq again here – there’s been enough written on the subject already. Rather, I‘ve attempted to explain the State Committee’s powers under our Rules, our Union’s long history of involvement in political debate and the background to our decision to oppose this war. That said, I remain an unapologetic (as one member put it) “anti-war monger”, and will continue to hope along with what I believe to be the vast bulk of our Union’s membership and our nation that this war may yet be avoided. Stay United!