It’s no secret unions are in a bad spot: only 7% of young workers are in a union, while, in the private sector, only 9% of employees are union members. To put these statistics into perspective: in the early 1980s one in two workers were in their union; nowadays it is just one in seven, including in the public sector. Unsurprisingly, with the decline of union density, we’ve experienced stagnating wage growth and in some industries, particularly hospitality where a high percentage of young people work, rampant wage theft. There are plenty of reasons as to why this has happened – the reliance on and the belief that the electoral fortunes of the ALP are the vehicle in which pro-worker reforms can be won and the union movement’s lack of desire to hold the ALP to account once elected is a major one – but what I want to talk about here is what we can do now, as workers who may feel otherwise alienated, atomised and unheard.
And I want to use my workplace as an example of winning – of young workers joining a union, becoming confident to advocate for their rights and creating better conditions as a result.
I work at a call centre in Cremorne (in Victoria, between Richmond and South Yarra); it’s a young workplace, with everyone aged 18–25. We are polling workers who cause a political crisis every now and again (for example, the 30th poll Turnbull lost and, more recently, the poll on Company Tax Cuts and The National Energy Guarantee, which saw Turnbull lose his job). Our union, the union for all call centre workers, is the National Union of Workers, which has been organising in the industry since 1998.
I’m one of the delegates in my workplace – I have been so for about a year. In that time, I’m proud to say, we’ve successfully increased union membership from 30% to 96%. How did we do this? By taking up political questions in the workplace that are relevant to broader society such as marriage equality, refugees and the racist demonisation of the South Sudanese community, as well as agitating and campaigning around issues at our workplace to improve our working conditions.
So far, we have:
– prevented at least four unfair sackings;
– won and improved conditions outside of an enterprise bargaining negotiation period, which only occur once every 3–4 years due to Australia’s industrial laws;
– prevented at least $15,000 in wages being stolen, by ensuring that we weren’t being directed to take unpaid breaks, weren’t being unfairly docked wages as a disciplinary measure and that we’d actually receive the pay we were entitled to if our shifts were cancelled within 18 hours as per the EBA;
– revitalised a union culture that one could assume would be quite unique in the current industrial climate.
None of this was easy. To build a winning union culture takes patience. But I and my other workmates know that despite the challenges, a better workplace is by no means impossible.
A key tenant of being a socialist is seeing that unions and workplaces are a place for politics – that all spaces are! So, last year during the Marriage Equality Postal Vote, we thought it’d be a good idea to take a solidarity photo stating that we definitively stand with the LGBTQI community and for equality.
This was particularly relevant to us in our workplace, not only because of individual orientation, but also because this was in the same period of time where we were instructed by a supervisor to use our ‘gay and sexy voices’ because ‘it gets surveys’. When we objected, this got other workers thinking and talking about the union and politics more generally. This one action gave us some much-needed relevance at work; it also made clear that the union stands on the side of the oppressed, and that we don’t just have to simply accept whatever (unreasonable or discriminatory thing) happens at work.
When refugees on Manus Island we’re being moved from one concentration camp on the island to another, while being brutalised by police, straight after work, we union members collectively sat on the steps outside our workplace to take a solidarity photo with the message that refugees should be brought here and released immediately. In our workplace, this established the idea that unions should be political and that we have a collective capacity to voice our political opinions. After another solidarity photo a month or two after the first, we made a statement: that solidarity beats fear and that we are collectively opposed to the racist vilification of the South Sudanese community. One workmate told me something that clearly demonstrated to me the impact we were making: ‘I didn’t know what the union was for,’ he said, ‘but now I can see that it’s the thing that we have to take a collective stand for ourselves and for others. It gives us our voice.’
One of the next most important things delegates need to know about is the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA), the agreement made between the business and the union. Too often at workplaces there is an EBA that is scarcely enforced, and often this is to the detriment of workers. So we put ourselves to studying the EBA and using it to our advantage.
We discovered that our employers couldn’t:
– make us take an unpaid break against our wishes,
– cancel our shifts within 18hours, or
– get away with bypassing union representation in disciplinary meetings.
These days these things don’t happen in our workplace – and if there’s no delegate, there’s no meeting. In a period of just one month, we prevented an unfair sacking and $3,000 in wages from being stolen. It became clear what the union was for, and so people wanted to join the union.
Despite the massive shortcomings of the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign, we could use it to describe the plight of workers and unions more generally in Australia. Just before the rally in May, we had a union meeting of over 40 people where three new delegates were elected (some of them hadn’t even been in the union six months prior!). Post-rally, we increased union density by 10% in three days, simply by asking people if they wanted to join – and because of our history of enforcing the EBA and being publicly political, those we asked wanted to.
So we had relevance, but what changes were we making on the floor? One of the biggest things that we’ve been able to win and establish is our right to read in between calls.
Allow me to explain: our phones automatically dial so we sometimes get a fair bit of downtime in-between talking to respondents. A lot of us are also university students and have plenty of reading to get through. Our centre received a contract for a new job and wanted to prove itself by significantly increasing productivity, meaning they cracked down on our conditions.
One evening a supervisor told a workmate to put her book away. Our workmate refused because we have the right to read, and to put the book down would undermine our collective ability to maintain this condition. Our workmate was the instructed to leave. People were furious: we all read so why the hell are they picking on us now! The next day the floor manager and I had a chat. He told me that the workmate would be getting sacked and that we no longer had the right to read.
How absurd! We knew we had to stand up, so decided to be public with what was going on. We collectively decided that at 5:30 pm, amid the chaos that is a call centre, we would all take a relief break. When the time came, more than 80% of the workplace stopped dialling and filed into the meeting room where we voted that we have the right to read, and that Megan, our workmate, would continue to get shifts.
It was honestly one of the most inspiring and proud moments of my life and the best moment was when workers who had no previous experience with unions joined in with comments like, ‘and credit to Megan because if they undermine one of our rights they undermine all of us’. Classic touch one, touch all. People clapped and we went back to work after 20 minutes. We then all decided to grab a book and put it on our desks as well as passing around a petition stating our demands. Management agreed to our demands pretty much on the spot: Megan got her job back and they conceded that we could continue to read unharassed.
Amazingly, this was the first instance of this sort of action in the call centre industry in Australia.
The feeling of collectively coming together, to defy ‘business-as-usual’, to stand up for our workmate and each other, is the most joyous and energising feeling one could imagine. Walking home that particular night, I couldn’t contain my elation. For us to take a stand and win, to see that we do have the power to make change, and to experience the realities of the age-old union chant that ‘the workers united will never be defeated’ – to experience that even once makes you want more.
Megan was at work the next day and everyone knew it was because we had walked off. I’ve never held my head higher and there was a sense that everyone was walking a foot taller. Joyous laughter erupted in the break-room when that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa leads a student strike came on; it’s a storyline that perfectly sums up the joy of collectively fighting for something that benefits the all. It was easily the most energising, inspiring and educational couple of days of my life, and from what my workmates have said I’m not the only one that feels that way.
The NUW is now taking our reading campaign to other call centres in the industry – which is incredible, and demonstrates that if you do some organising on the floor and the union is willing to share it with other workplaces, one bit of organising can be the fuel to the flame, providing you have the political positions to match it.
Obviously casual and precarious work is still a major issue and people regularly lose shifts. One of the objectives at our workplace is to push for more secure work, and to make sure that everyone doing the same work is getting the same wage (therefore abolishing the lower training rate).
On the night of our reading demands, a workmate said something that rings incredibly true for me: ‘This is what needs to happen at young workplaces everywhere,’ she said. ‘Having a union is so much better than no union.’ I couldn’t agree more, and we’ve proven that it is possible – and that shopfloor rank-and-file organising wins better workplaces for everyone.
Thinking about what it means to be political, knowing our rights, defending our rights and pushing to improve conditions is the way to go if we want to rebuild unions in workplaces young and old.
If you enjoyed this illustrated account, read the companion essay, ‘The humanity and inhumanity of a call centre’, by Polly Bennett