Why I’m not a union member

I believe fundamentally in the importance of the unions. But I’m not a union member.

In my first week as a fifteen year old check-out chick, I signed up as a member of the SDA. As a casual working the registers at Christmas time, it was only because of the the union presence in the store that we worked fair and reasonable hours.

I joined the MEAA at twenty-one when I worked in a gallery. They were wonderfully flexible around adjusting my membership payments when my paycheques were on the small side, and they were sensitive to the implications of their actions in a very small arts industry.

When I finished my degree, I started work in a non-union workplace. After nine months of working under an employer greenfields agreement, a dose of workplace bullying, and an unpursued case of constructive dismissal, I escaped to the protective bosom of the public service.

I arrived in the job just as management was trying to figure out how to quanitify elements of performance that were fundamentally about quality. How do you quantify listening skills or empathy? But they wanted to create something concrete against which to mark us, so that they could confidently and without bias say who was doing well and who needed to improve.

I spent a few weeks catching up on bills and getting my life in order before turning my attention to union membership. I had watched our union rep rail against this new performance regime. The management were undertaking lengthy consultation with the staff. It seemed to me to make sense that they’d want to address this. Of course, I didn’t want to my performance to be measured against arbitrary or irrelevant criteria. But I’d managed staff before; I knew how hard it was to address staff problems when there was nothing set out to help you identify what those problems were. In a meeting where management posed that supervisors would listen into phone calls, the union rep stormed out.

I started to think that I didn’t fit in this union. I wanted to work hard in my job and do well. I didn’t want to be unreasonable or unbending. I didn’t want to be part of a union that posed workers against management for the sake of it. I had come from industries where getting paid was hard enough some times. It was like watching someone snub caviar when all I’d been eating was bread.

So I didn’t join. I paid off my credit card bill, I reinstated my monthly donations to Amnesty and MSF, I brought my mum some flowers.

But I returned to my missing union membership. I was working in industrial relations, and spent my days listening to horror stories from cleaners without English as a first language, single mums in country towns, uni students doing night shift at convenience stores. None of them were union members. All were vulnerable. More than ever, I realised that unions were not just about buying yourself a safety net in case things went pear-shaped, but about funding a movement designed to protect those most in need of protection. I started to feel that I was no longer part of that tier of workers most in need of protection, and more that I was part of the tier that could help to do the protecting.

But, again, I didn’t join the union.

Instead, I began sending what I would have spent on my monthly union fees to APHEDA Union Aid Abroad, the humanitarian aid branch of the ACTU that works with marginalised and impoverished workers internationally. A colleague of mine sends hers to the Sex Workers Union, not because she’s ever worked a day in her life as a sex worker, but because by sending her membership dollars (and by adding her number to the number of people that they union can say they represent in an industry with a very low union membership) she knows she is contributing practically to the bettering of workers’ rights.

I have a new job these days, and we’re currently negotiating a collective agreement. I sit at work drinks on Friday evenings and listen to the union members bitch about the non-union staff scavenging the benefits brought to them by paying members. I take an interest in the work that the union is doing, and I put up with the barbed remarks from union colleagues who will happily point out that I’m ‘not one of them’. I don’t ask what they’re doing to protect truly vulnerable workers, those working poor who live in countries where this no safety net at all, because that would assume that I think they don’t care. I’m fortunate that I also have union colleagues who recognise the multitude of reasons why a person may not be, or may not be in a position to be, a union member.

One of the things I love most about Australia is our refusal to settle. We get a pay rise? We want a bonus. We get a travel allowance? Where’s the meal allowance to go with it? But at the moment, in my workplace, there are enough people fighting for that extra chunk in our annual salary. My contribution won’t be missed. But a few hundred dollars each year to help a sweatshop full of marginalised women on insufficient incomes, in unsafe conditions, with no job security in Manila – well, that might just help make a difference.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Hmm …
    The whole point of a trade union is that it’s more than simply another charity or pressure group, not only because it provides a mechanism for ordinary people to make joint decisions in a way that’s far more democratic than most NGOs but because by facilitating collective control at the point of production it’s able to exert much more political clout than a pressure group or a political organisation.
    Put simply, an industrial dispute matters, in a way that a petition or even a demonstration simply doesn’t.
    OK, I get that some unions are not necessarily inspiring but surely the point then is to get involved to change them rather than pulling out.
    This is not simply a theoretical point. I suspect industrial relations ‘reform’ is going to be a major priority for this new rightwing administration and so what happens within unions will matter more than ever.

  2. Unions don’t always work well. They’re often not particularly welcoming to those in management roles, which is a great shame. It’s also great you’re supporting those who are much worse off than we are. However, I would caution against presuming a moral highground over those who are ‘selfish’ enough to want to support their own working conditions (even though they are sometimes insufferable).

    For one thing, you have no way of knowing if they also support others less well off than themselves. They may support Amnesty or Oxfam or any of other thousands of such organisations.

    Also, I don’t feel that ‘someone, somewhere has it worse off than us’ is a reason in itself NOT to try and improve our own society. I don’t see why we can’t try to do both.

  3. All I’m saying here is that I’ve made a decision here in line with my own values and beliefs. I only have so much money to spare, and I think that others need protection and support more than I do. I’m not telling other people to do the same – I’m not suggesting people can’t be both a union member and also engage in activities that help others outside of their own workplace, industry or country.

    Alice, I’m not presuming a moral high ground and I’m not suggesting those who want to better their own conditions are selfish – I’m making decisions about how I spend my money (and I do also support a number of other organisations who play a variety of roles) in line with my own values. What I’m trying to explain is that, for me, unions should be about empowering those that are vulnerable in the labour market – and I’m not one of those people. Sex workers, shopkeepers, cleaners, textiles workers – these people need unions more than I do.

    Jeff, I work in IR so I understand the value of an industrial dispute. I understand the role of unions in the ousting of the Howard government, and I understand the importance of the wider political role of unions. I could have chosen to invest in a local trade union rather than one with its focus abroad – and perhaps I should do that as well.

    1. (Sorry Jeff, I’ve just reread your post – I see that you’re saying that the membership in itself is important, rather than the money spent on it (which has been my focus). And yes, you’re right, so I may well need to revisit how I’m reponding.)

  4. I’ve seen similar problems before. I believe part of the issue is poor management of conflicts of interest.

    If a union member in a management position is beginning to deploy some of the kind of measurement process you’ve identified and the union becomes involved, it seems that more often than not, the union will side with the non-management staff… even though management staff may well be union members themselves. This possess a problem, since the union will fail to provide support to a section of it’s membership simply out of ideological presumptions.

    What I think some unions miss is that there are bad workers, and that they cause problems for all workers in a workplace, union members or otherwise.

    I’m not sure what the solution is.

  5. Hi Isy,interesting post about unions. I’ve always belonged to a union, even unions that I’ve considered right-wing and only too eager to bargain away worker’s rights especially during the 90s. However, no matter how ineffective or conservative a union, a worker is better off belonging to one than not. There’s also the collective good to consider. The issues facing people in developing countries warrant our dollars and our attention but should not be justification for not contributing to and participating in a union. Brave of you to raise this as a topic for discussion.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.