How to build a union

The National Union of Workers, as a trade union, has placed addressing inequality at the heart of its activities.

Forty per cent of all work in Australia is insecure, and there are now 1.2 million Australians living below the poverty line who derive their main income from wages (not welfare). These facts are confronting and the NUW has made the campaign for jobs all workers can count on a priority industrially.

But we know that inequality extends outside the workplace and that workers’ issues are not just industrial issues.

That’s why we’ve launched a community membership program and I am really pleased to be the union’s first community organiser.

The Community Membership is a vehicle for the union to campaign both inside and outside the workplace on an issue that affects our members, their families and their communities.

Our values inform all we do, and we are driven by our members’ needs. We’ve been surveying members about what matters to them, and this has shaped our campaign strategy.

There are a number of ways we are making a difference in communities and workplaces around the country and addressing inequality.

When we began surveying members it became clear that a big issue of economic inequality was the fact that, due to changes introduced by the Howard government, New Zealanders and Pacific Islanders who arrived in Australia after 26 February 2001 have been denied rights to citizenship and services, even though they are taxpayers.

Many of the 240,000 disenfranchised New Zealanders unable to access Centrelink, higher education funding support and NDIS are NUW members. The change to laws has had an enormous impact in areas such as the Gold Coast where 10 per cent of residents are impacted, creating a two-tiered community.

We are now running a national community campaign that aims to reverse the laws and recoup the citizenship rights that were lost in 2001. Members campaigned and won a commitment from the Australian Labor Party to include a statement to change the policy in the national platform, which was passed at the party’s national conference. But there is more work to be done and we are growing our community membership on this issue right around the country to build this campaign.

The NUW’s membership also includes warehouse workers, so when Woolworths recently announced their intention to close the Hume Distribution Centre in the Northern Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, the NUW began a campaign for Secure Jobs in the north.

Woolworths brought in a staggering $62 billion in revenue in the last year alone, yet they threaten to remove the incomes of 680 workers and their families in an area that already has 26.4 per cent unemployment.

It is clear that the closure of the Hume Distribution Centre will not only impact the workers, but the entire community.

On 5 August, the NUW ran a public meeting with Federal MPs Kelvin Thomson and Maria Vamvakinou and workers. Community members in attendance demanded that Woolworths keep the centre open.

This campaign continues – and the networks built between workers and their community demonstrates the power there is in a union. This union power is important for people who are being marginalised in our communities.

On 1 July this year, NUW Community Members supported a rally held by community member-affiliates the Australian Unemployment Union, the Homeless Persons Union and American anti-poverty campaigner Linda Tirado to draw attention to changes to Newstart allowance that would penalise people financially for missing job search appointments.

Even though our community campaigns have different strategies and targets, what underpins all of these is people fighting against inequality, and people working together to make a positive change in Australia.

Evidence confirms that wages growth stops and income inequality grows when unions are in decline. International Monetary Fund economists Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron state that lower unionisation is a ‘key contributor’ to steep increases in income at the top ten per cent, and less redistribution of income between the best off and the worst off.

The way to income equality is through unions. But unions also need to campaign outside the workplace to demonstrate our ability to create social change.

We want anyone who thinks inequality is a problem to be part of our union and help us work together to fight against this enormous enemy.

We want people to join our campaigns and we want people to devise their own campaigns that the union can support them to work on in the community.

Together we are powerful; we’ve already made some great achievements as community members and with your support the potential is endless.


Find out more about NUW community memberships. Or consider taking out a joint NUW membership and Overland subscription.


(Image by Jody Betzien.)

Liz Turner

Liz Turner is the NUW’s first community organiser.

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