Despite a resurged visibility, trade unions in Oz remain as misunderstood and vilified as ever in both politics and the workplace. Ella Fabry busts open a few myths surrounding them.
According to the Liberal Party, a union is a gang of bikies/thugs/cage fighters/Daniel Andrews and John Setka holding hands, who beat up poor, defenceless business owners like Joe Schiavello and Lindsay Fox so that they can steal money and buy lots of cocaine/hookers/motorbikes/cage fights/desal plants.
In reality, a trade union is a collection of people in similar fields of employment who work collectively to achieve common goals against what would otherwise be a much larger enemy (the bosses).
A union builds strength on a worksite by empowering members to solve their own issues. Say you have a cotton factory where the machines are incredibly loud, and workers aren’t given adequate ear protection.
One day, one of the workers heads into the lunch room only to discover they can’t hear a thing*. The workers are fed up with management ignoring their concerns about safety, and they all take a vote to not leave the lunch room until the company goes out and buys them better ear muffs.
Eventually the company gets frustrated and gives into the workers, so they can keep production going for the day. The important part of this action was that the workers took matters into their own hands and they all decided together what action they should take.
That’s what a union is, it’s not about an official coming in and telling people what they care about and what they should do, but about regular people drawing strength from being in a collective.
Victoria is very much at the heart of union history, not just in Australia but throughout the world. In 1856, Victoria was the first place in the world to win the eight hour day (NSW contests this but we have a monument to it so whatever guys).
After this victory, capitalists did what capitalists do best, claim that allowing people legitimate time for recreation would destroy the economy and the very fabric of society itself, surely rates of drunkenness, prostitution, domestic violence, crime and general debauchery would skyrocket now that the masses had so much time on their hands?
As a result, the unions were granted a plot of land on Victoria St conveniently located behind the gallows of the Melbourne Gaol, as a means of keeping the workers occupied with constructive pastimes such as learning to read and write, thus the Victorian Trades Hall was born and is still the oldest workers’ Parliament in the world.
The power of unions grew throughout the 1880s and workers became more militant, by 1891 the QLD and NSW Labour Party branches were established as the political arm of the Labour movement, the toilets on the second floor of Trades Hall are actually the first offices of the Victorian Labor Party.
Nowadays most smaller unions have been amalgamated into large ‘super unions’ that represent a much broader range of workers than in times past. These unions exist to represent workers from site to site, but also to influence government policy through wide spread community campaigns.
At the last Victorian election different unions campaigned to “put the Liberals last” on issues of emergency services, health, education and employment. The actions of the ambos’ union in particular was a perfect example of the two-tiered approach that unions take to representing their workers. After taking industrial action on site against Ambulance Victoria for two years, ambos took their fight to the wider community, had face to face conversations with voters about their issues and contributed significantly to the downfall of the Liberal government. The change in government brought about an end to the pay dispute and a two year hard fought campaign.
In short, unions are the parents of the Labor Party and every condition you now benefit from at work has been fought for and won by the union movement. Don’t be a scab, join your union.
*Story partially stolen from Norma Rae, which you should all go watch.
Ella is Unions Convenor of Young Labor Left Victoria.