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A national split in the peak construction and mining union is set to deepen on Friday as a division chief at the powerful CFMMEU rejects a bid to name a new leader amid claims of a dysfunctional culture.
The move challenges a meeting that is expected to anoint Christy Cain as the head of the CFMMEU after the union’s longstanding national secretary, Michael O’Connor, resigned on Thursday night.
CFMMEU national secretary Michael O’Connor is resigning from his role at the “totally dysfunctional” union.Credit:Bradley Kanaris
The CFMMEU, which has more than 110,000 members, is now caught in a stalemate between competing divisions after Mr O’Connor declared it had "failed the test of political maturity" and let down its workers.
The union has been divided since last year, when powerful Victorian construction division secretary John Setka plead guilty to harassing his wife and refused calls from inside and outside the union to stand down.
CFMMEU mining and energy division secretary Tony Maher wrote to national executive members on Thursday to dispute the validity of a meeting called for Friday to agree on a new national secretary.
"I am certain there is not a majority of the members of the executive in favour," he wrote of the meeting.
Mr Maher argued two members of the national executive, Jade Ingham and Nigel Davies, had failed to nominate properly for their positions before the decision was made to hold the meeting.
"That means the resolution was not successful and there can be no valid meeting of the national executive on 6 November," he wrote.
"Accordingly, the mining and energy division will not be in attendance and we will determine our future involvement next Monday."
Mr Maher sent the letter to other division presidents on the national executive including Mr O’Connor, construction chief Dave Noonan and maritime chief Paddy Crumlin.
The letter is another sign of the turmoil within a key union that has been a powerhouse of funding and support for the Labor Party, after a war of attrition led by Mr Setka.
It is not clear whether Mr O’Connor will attend the meeting on Friday, given he retains his position as a national executive member and head of the manufacturing division.
"Sadly, what has been an effective organisation, united in purpose, is now totally dysfunctional," Mr O'Connor said in his resignation statement from the national CFMMEU role.
Mr O'Connor is no longer a vice-president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, where he was a backer of secretary Sally McManus and president Michele O'Neil.
Union sources said Allen Hicks, national secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, which is close to the CFMMEU, put in a bid for the position, but did not formally nominate when it came to a vote.
The position, which helps oversee the union movement's peak body, ultimately went in a unanimous vote on Wednesday to Steve Murphy, national secretary of the left-wing Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. Mr Murphy is not allied with Mr Setka.
Mr Cain, national president and Western Australia branch secretary of the CFMMEU's maritime division, is expected to replace Mr O'Connor as national secretary.
"I’m going to continue to work with Michael and his division to the best of me ability if I’m elected," Mr Cain told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He declined to elaborate on his plans or bid for the national secretary's position, saying he did not want to discuss the union's internal affairs or the vote until it was decided at a meeting tomorrow.
While Mr O'Connor may have been effectively forced out of the ACTU's leadership and his position atop the CFMMEU, he will retain an influential position on the national executive of the Australian Labor Party.
Sources in the party said the executive was finely balanced between the right and left wings of the party, posing the prospect of another factional fight if Mr O'Connor was to resign.
He is up for re-election at the next national conference, which was due to be held next month. However, it has been postponed because of the coronavirus with no new date set yet.
That leaves Mr O'Connor in his position, which several Labor sources are grateful for. They viewed Mr O'Connor as a stabilising presence who had helped turn a fractious union into one of the nation's most politically organisations — a mutually beneficial position for the party and union.
Mr O'Connor, Mr Hicks, Mr Setka, Mr Murphy and Ms McManus all declined to comment.
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