Brisbane Casino: The union officials and the strike that never happened

It was so close. There were just eight votes in the decision at Brisbane’s Treasury Casino to accept the company deal (see story p 22).  There are two main reasons the Casino dispute went the bosses’ way—the laws and the union officials.

Under Howard’s WorkChoices laws all employees got a vote, not just union members. The company could “stack” the vote by encouraging non-union employees to vote for the company’s deal. Andrew, a Casino steward, told Solidarity, “ I was actually approached by one of my supervisors who told me to ‘vote yes [to the company deal], or we don’t get a pay rise this year. Do the right thing…’ ”
The company was also able to draw out negotiations and try to wear workers down. The Casino’s enterprise agreement ended in November last year, so workers went for months without a wage increase. A further ballot of union members was needed to get the right to strike.
Enterprise bargaining has also shifted influence from the shop floor to the union officials, undermining union democracy and rank and file participation. Currently, Casino delegates are appointed by the union officials. Although delegates made up the negotiating team, in practice, it was the lead Casinos’ union organiser, Don Brown, who had the authority.
At the Casino, however, the legal hurdles were not the biggest problem. Union membership had almost trebled. Key departments had over 80 per cent union membership—more than enough support for a strike to shut down the Casino. Confidence was running high. Votes for industrial action were close to 100 per cent. The bosses were worried, as The Real Deal bulletin argued for strike action. One day, as the manager, Geoff Hogg, ran around collecting copies, he stood over one worker expecting her to hand over her copy. “You don’t need to read those,” he said, “all you need to know about is the offer.”

The union officials
What really got in the way of a successful strike was the LHMU union officials. When it came to the crunch, they stood alongside Hogg, at the company’s information meetings. At every key point in the dispute, when the choice was to go forward or go back, the union officials retreated.
When the company rejected the union wage demands, the union officials insisted that the wage claims be lowered further. Sometimes they managed to take the delegates’ negotiating team with them. At others times, both the negotiating team and the members were simply ignored.
When it seemed finally that a strike was going to happen, the union called it off—saying that strike action wasn’t legal if the company had made an offer.
This wasn’t true, but it was a blow to the momentum of the campaign. It also showed the company that the union officials were unwilling to mobilise the only real strength workers have—the collective power of industrial action to hit the bosses’ profits.
How do we explain the role of the officials? Some workers concluded that the officials were being “bought off” by the company. But it is not personal corruption that is the problem.
The LHMU officials are part of the union bureaucracy, a layer of full time officials, between the bosses and the workers. Their social position makes them conservative. They get used to talking to the bosses, bargaining and compromising, on behalf of workers rather then organising struggle. Consequently, they start to see unionism as being about lawyers and their own negotiating skills rather than the militancy of the union membership. When there is no pressure for action from an organised rank and file, they get even more conservative.
Secondly, their material circumstances separate them from the rank and file. They do not share the same conditions of the people they represent. Don Brown might be the LHMU’s lead Casinos’ organiser but his wages are not determined by whether or not there is a successful strike at the Casino. The deal at the Treasury Casino has cut the loading on sick pay, but the LHMU officials’ sick pay is unaffected.
Nor does the full time official have to put up with the daily harassment of the managers or be told when they can or can’t come into work. The officials accept the politics of enterprise bargaining, and that pay increases are tied to productivity and profitability, not to the real cost of living. At different points in the Casino campaign, officials even raised the idea that because of the recession, workers might have to accept wage restraint. Accepting the limits of the system leads to them to limit the struggle against it.
Thirdly, they are worried about the bosses threatening legal action, because for them the union becomes equated with the apparatus—the offices, the building, the car, the mobile phone, the money to pay for lawyers—and fines threaten all these.  For this reason, union officials get worried about disputes going too far or getting out of their control—even when there is strong members’ support for taking action.
All these things were at work in the Casino dispute. Understanding the role of the officials is key to understanding how we can build even stronger workplace organisation.

Some workers are disgusted. “I feel as though I was ripped off by the union, paying for more than six months membership which in the end resulted in nothing,” said one of the stewards. But leaving the union is no solution. The answer to the conservatism of the officials is more rank and file organisation, with more union members, not less—organisation that can fight on, even when the officials won’t.
Stronger organisation can mean that delegates are elected and accountable rather than being appointed by the officials who expect the delegates to defer to them.
Key to building union strength at the Casino has been The Real Deal bulletin that consistently answered the bosses’ lies and argued for strike action.
With more Casino workers involved with The Real Deal, we can build on the job for the fights ahead. The bullying and the harassment isn’t going to stop now that the enterprise agreement has been settled. Indeed, there is a risk that the bosses will think they can get away with more now.

We need to be active about other issues too—supporting the campaign to change Labor’s laws that still shackle our right to strike (see construction workers story, p4), and against the Queensland government’s privatisation plans.

By Ian Rintoul

Contact The Real Deal: email [email protected] phone 0421 464 597


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  1. A few questions.

    Apart from the 3.5% what were the other problems with the new agreement?

    If union membership was 80% why would the non members have been able to influence the ballot? If 25% of union members had voted they would have outnumbered non members.

    Hasn’t Enterprise bargaining shifted power to workers away from officials and lawyers rather than the other way round? Under an award system ‘paper’ disputes are the way Union’s try to get pay rises. In Enterprise Bargaining at a minimum rank and file members need to organise in the workplace.

  2. The first formal offer made was a one-year 3% offer. The company also wanted to get rid of the loading (17%) we had on our sick pay. This was rejected by workers in the first ballot. The second offer was almost the same (2.5%, 3%, 3%, 4%) except it was over three-and-a-half years.

    The membership was 80% or higher in key departments like dealers, security, stewarding, cleaners and engineering. The over all membership was slightly below 50%. We had enough strength to stop the money coming in through the gaming floors and the larger restaurants.

    With regard to the voting. Voting is not compulsary. There were many union members who simply didn’t vote after they saw the union officials standing up next to the Managing Director in comapny information sessions trying to sell us the rotten deal. Many workers felt betrayed by this, especially after we had built ourselves into a position of genuine strength. Also, the company put a great deal of effort in to geting non-unionised sections to vote in large numbers. If we had the support of our union we would have won the second company ballot easily.

    Enterprise bargaining didn’t deliver us any greater ability to bypass the influence of the conservative union officials. The LHMU officials did their best to restrict the dispute to the negotiating room. When they realised that the calls from the rank and file to strike (for 24 hours) were getting stronger, they did their best to end the dispute. They lowered our demands and cancelled the strikes we had twice voted for.

    Disagreements over the need to activiate the membership were repeated mant times in the delegates committee meetings. The officials used their influence to override these calls.

  3. Thanks for the clear and factual reply.
    I hope in future that any articles you write have the same tone rather than the ‘The Union officials will always sell out’ of the original article.

    Firstly the two offers are not the same. The 3% roll over (with your sick leave loading stripped) and a 3+ year new (I assume FWA) agreement are to me different.

    For starters the pay (which I just worked out on my calculator) is a little over 3.5% a year. Depending on whether it is front or back loaded it could be a little better or worse than that.

    Was your last agreement workchoices or pre workchoices? There will be automatic changes in either of these scenarios.

    Were there any trade offs? Any other wins? How did your other claims go? Or did you just want a payrise?

    Assuming that pay was the only issue I think that I would have agreed with you and voted no in the ballot for the new agreement.

    Accepting low payrises is a mistake and a big one. In general 4% has become the hard number not to go below (there are a number of reasons that this has become the soft floor for wage growth)

    I do have to ask though in a climate where unfortuantely many unions are accepting less; did you really think you were going to get much more than 4%?

    It sounds to me that there was a substantial gap between what you wanted and what the officials thought was an acceptable win. That is a problem. I am concerned though that the first response of Solidarity is to publish articles that rant about the betrayls of Union officialdom.

    Secondly I don’t know that I would agree that it was the non union voters who voted yes and the union members who just didn’t turn out. I think you will find plenty of union members who were confused and as split over what was a win as the officials.

    Thirdly and finally, Was the tone of your ‘rank and file’ newsletter in anyway similar to the articles that have appeared here? Remove the last few lines of this article where Ian argues to join the Union and then the article is a complete anti union rant and a bad one at that.

    The article is right up there with the SEP and other groups that are too left wing for Unions. You can’t build a Union when what you really want is to expose the conservtism and true class origin’s of the Union officials.

    If you want to look at a better approach I recommend you start with articles like “Labor Organizing A Battle for Labor’s Future” By Dan Clawson in the June issue of Zmag.

    It contrasts local democracy with the SEIU’s proffessional unionism. Should successful officials like the SEIU still be allowed to ignore local democracy? Or do they undermine what they really want to construct?

    My advice to you is that you need to start a real dialogue with your officials. You will need to work with them over the next 3 1/2 years one way or the other. You will need resourcing and support from them even when they make mistakes and don’t agree with you.
    They will need you to recruit your colleagues and to build a union.

    Not listening to each other doesn’t help.

  4. It’s certainly true that leftwing union delegates and activists need to work with their officials, despite any weaknesses they may have. But to accuse Ian’s article of being an anti-union rant (and to infer that Solidarity is not committed to building the union movement) is simply wrong.

    It was a Solidarity member who cohered the activists in the Casino and built up membership numbers. It was the officials who went out of their way to derail the members’ willingness to fight.

    To make that point during the dispute could be counter-productive and demobilising. But to make it as part of an analysis once the dispute is over is surely appropriate. Otherwise, when should it be said? Can poor leadership from officials never be called to account for fearing of harming the movement?

    Surely it was the actions of the officials in this instance which hurt the movement, leading to resignations which Solidarity is resolutely arguing against.

  5. David,

    You, Ian and I don’t work at the Casino. So I am happy to preface my comments with a willingness to be corrected by workers from the Casino. Bearing that in mind here is what I think.

    Firstly. I don’t believe that your member cohered a camapaign around themselves. If they organised a campaign to recruit hundreds of members they have achieved something that no other member of Solidarity has managed.

    If you want to argue that you have so much power in the workplace I can’t help, but think that you are over exagerating the importance and power of your member.

    You have members working in a variety of sectors has anyone of them ever led a recruitment campaign that has recruited over 100 new members? In the PSA? CPSU? Teachers Federation? other unions?

    Could you not admit that perhaps the Union officials had some impact in building Union power in the workplace? Perhaps some people who thought your member was a mad socialist still signed up their comrades? Did the Union not provide training? Did they not provide resources?
    At the very least they clearly spent a lot of money running the strike ballot. Or are you suggesting that you forced their hand so to speak?

    I can name you several campaigns led by the Union officials that have resulted in mass growth. I can take your word that your member led the growth or I can tell you that you might be wrong. On the basis that I find it unlikely an isolated Solidarity member could do so much by themsleves I am going to go with the latter option.

    Secondly. If your member led the growth and cohered a group to sign up so many members. How did they then fail to campaign against the last vote?
    This is a Union membership that had substantially grown in size. Surely the new members would listen to the ‘real deal’ who signed them up?
    Could I not suggest that the reason the vote was so low was because the people who had signed up the new members (the officials) were not arguing one way or the other?

    I believe the implication behind you argument is that the Union officials sat on their collective behinds while your hard working member signed up the hundreds of new members. I don’t believe you for a second.

    Public sector unions have recently grown on campaigns led by the officials. Clearly officials and organisers are building their Unions. Why then not in the LHMU?

    If you want to have a serious debate about Union politics then lets have it. For starters get some of your Union members to write articles about their work over the last year and let’s see what worked and what didn’t.

    If you want to claim that Union officials always call off strikes and socialists always sign up new members then lets call it a day and agree to disagree.

  6. “If you want to claim that Union officials always call off strikes and socialists always sign up new members then lets call it a day and agree to disagree.”

    Sorry, but what a poor way to conduct an argument. Where has Solidarity ever argued that officials *always* call off strikes? Where have we said that we *always* sign up new members?

    We’re not talking about heroes and villains. The simple question is, what helps us explain why the officials at the Brisbane Casino went out of their way to fritter away the chance for a significant fight and a possible victory?

    The Solidarity position is that full-time union officials and organisers are a layer between the workers and the bosses. From time to time they need to lead a fight, in order to maintain their support among the members. From time to time, they need to call off a fight to show employers they are worth dealing with.

    Which tendency prevails at any given point depends on a series of factors, principally the politics of the union officials and the level of rank-and-file self-confidence.

    The activists lost the ballot at the Casino because many of the new members who were up for a fight with management did not have the experience or confidence to punch on when the officials (literally) stood with management.

    So, whoever you are, deal with that, not the straw man Solidarity that you’ve just invented.

    For the record, I’m on the branch committee for a union branch of nearly 1500. That branch has grown by more than 100 over the past year, overwhelmingly recruited by delegates and activists. (My contribution is, from memory, three.)

  7. In response to your post from 11-8-09. Yes, we did expect that we could get a pay rise higher than 4%. The attitude of the members before the negotiation even started was that we would accept “nothing less than 5%” (roughly the level of inflation in South East Queensland at the time).

    Also, I agree that many unions are accepting less in the current economic climate. But we work for a casino that rakes in massive profits. The general state of the economy can’t be used as an excuse by a casino not to pay workers properly. The vast majority of the workers recognised this. It was another reason why we believed we could win a rise of above 5%

    The gap between what we wanted and what the union officials thought would be acceptable changed over the course of the campaign. When we (the negotiating committee) put forward our original claim (7%) the organisers agreed that nothing below 5% would be acceptable. When the officials realised that we would need 24-hour strikes to win that demand their opinions about what was acceptable changed for the worse.

    It is wrong to say that “the first response of Solidarity is to publish articles that rant about the betrayals of union officialdom”. The first response of Solidarity was to discuss the best ways to encourage more people to join the union. We produced a newsletter (The Real Deal) that criticised the union just once in the first seven issues. Rather than attacking the union, we repeatedly made arguments to encourage members to sign up their non-union workmates.

    Around issue 8 we were highly critical of the union after they lowered our wage demands and then declared themselves “neutral” in the second company ballot. But it was from this point that I got the strongest support from the members across the different departments. They recognised the LHMU sell-out for what it was and recognised the Real Deal as the rank and file voice. The members were calling for a 24-hour strike and so was Solidarity.

    When Solidarity were critical of the union officials it was to help build confidence among the rank and file. We argued that the members could organise for ourselves even in the face of the LHMU cave in. It was necessary to show that the interests of the officials and interests of the rank and file don’t always match up.

    After the officials had thrown in the towel, Solidarity organised a meeting under the name of the Real Deal to discuss ways to move the campaign forward. We got 15 activists there with just half a days notice. The LHMU never once got 15 people to any of their organising meetings. We gave some of the more active members the confidence to argue for a NO vote when many workers had said they would not be bothered voting after what they saw as a betrayal by the LHMU.

    Your second post from 14-8-09: No one is claiming that I recruited all the members by myself. The union officials were very keen to see the delegates recruit as many workers as we could. We had a committee of ten leading delegates and maybe another 15 or 20 delegates/activists who were active in recruiting also.

    My own face-to-face sign-ups amounted to about 75 people. Beyond that, Solidarity produced written material calling for greater numbers in the union. Some of the material we produced had membership forms printed on the back. The union officials themselves were impressed when workers signed up using Solidarity-printed membership forms!

    Our newsletter was distributed by a handful of activists in to lockers and around the lunchroom etc. We produced stickers and flyers for the mass meeting/rally and the strikes that were distributed by a number of activists as well. These activists also recruited members themselves. No one in Solidarity has claimed it was just me doing this by myself.

    At no point have we claimed that the LHMU was not interested in recruiting members. They did good work in this regard. On several occasions officials and delegates held bbqs outside the casino to get more people to join. The LHMU also had a full time organiser who signed workers up during site visits. Although, the numbers he recruited were not close to the numbers the leading delegates got.

    We should be clear, however, that high membership and an organised membership are not necessarily the same thing. In the delegate committee meetings I frequently argued for the need to activate the membership and it was the officials who argued against this repeatedly. They did not want the strike campaign that the members were calling for but were more than happy to have more people join the union.

    As for forcing the hand of the union to pursue strike action. Solidarity had an impact here. A sizable section of members were calling for strike action since the agreement expired on 1 January. But the union were reluctant. It was only when the company made a formal offer so low (3%) several months into the negotiation that the union’s hand was forced. Even then they would only agree to a 4-hour stoppage. Solidarity argued for the 24-hour strike in the newsletter and I made the same argument to members and to the delegate committee. The call from the members to go to the 24-hour strike after the 4-hour strike was cancelled had grown enough to force the hand of the union and they put in a 24-hour strike notice.

    It was the militant sentiment among the stronger sections of the membership that Solidarity cohered in the last weeks of the dispute through our newsletter and my own conversations with workers in the lunchroom. Many workers viewed the LHMU as gutless by this point and a minority of them wanted to do something about it. As David points out, however, the over all level of confidence among the members was not high. There were not enough confident members to make the difference in the limited time we had.

    I agree that many people did not vote because the union had declared themselves neutral. But the officials DID NOT do the majority of the recruiting. The lead organiser, Don Brown, is an unknown face to the workers at the casino.

    Union officials don’t “always” call off strikes. I challenge you to find a statement like this written in any Solidarity material. But the officials DID call off two strikes at the casino. This was after the members had twice voted to strike. Our magazine has explained why this happened by arguing that officials and rank and file members can often by swayed by different material and political factors.


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