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Fenton's departure sparks contested union election

25 June 2006

Fenton's departure sparks contested union election in SFWU

The departure of former Service and Food Workers Union secretary Darien Fenton has provoked a debate on union democracy within the union in the run-up to the election of her successor.

The election is to be held at a special delegates’ conference on 27 July in Auckland.

Labour MP Darien Fenton’s departure from the SFWU last September for a seat in Parliament created the vacancy in the union’s northern region – and the battle lines are drawn between Ovens and Fenton’s anointed successor, Lisa Eldret.

Eldret, a graduate of the UK Trade Union Academy, has been Fenton’s understudy for the past two years in her role as assistant regional secretary.

Ovens, a former education union president, CTU women’s convenor and women’s representative on the CTU National Affiliates Council, has been involved in community and union struggles for more than 30 years.

She was one of the leaders who fought corporatisation of State Coal Mines in Huntly during the late 1980s, led the tutors’ strikes at AUT in the mid-1990s, and last year led industrial action with the Middlemore Hospital security guards and with caregivers and cleaners in rest homes.

Ovens says the key issue is the need for genuine rank and file democracy, where the leaders listen and the members are in charge of their own union.

“The SFWU is an organising union that seeks to empower its members to take control of their workplaces and their own union. Such control can’t be top-down. We have to work to strengthen the democratic structures of the union through the active participation of rank and file members.”

The SFWU is affiliated to the Labour Party and worked hard in 2005 to return the Labour Government.

Nevertheless, Ovens says it is important for the union to hold politicians to account over issues such as outsourcing workers in State-owned companies like Air NZ, and contracting out of public hospital workers – cleaners, kitchen workers and orderlies.

“If we want a world where workers have decent well paid jobs that provide for them and their families, we need unions that are independent and powerful and put their members’ interests first.”

The election for regional secretary should have been held immediately after Fenton was elected to Parliament in September last year. But it has been postponed twice since because of problems with the union’s rules.

The SFWU is one of the few unions to elect its most senior paid officials. Members used to vote for the regional secretary at AGMs open to all members, but under new rules registered in 2005, selected delegates will vote in the new regional secretary at the July delegates’ conference.

The new rules had to be resubmitted to the members at AGMs held throughout the country in April and May because they had not been properly notified when first passed. A majority of members attending the Northern Region AGMs voted against the new method of electing the leadership. But the rules changes were passed across the rest of the union.


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