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.
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