It is no secret that trade unions face an uncertain future. Membership has declined and in my own work life I have seen unions go from compulsory to largely invisible in some industries. The union movement is challenged in a variety of way: the increasingly precarious nature of labour, dis-incentivising and disempowering legislation and perhaps, in all honesty, some less than strategic planning on the part of the unions themselves in the nineties. If they want to survive they are going to have to come up with innovative ways of going forward. One of the innovation’s at First Union is a Union School.
Now I am keen on unions so when I saw the advertisement for a paid Union School and that the start date coincided with the end of my BA, I was very keen. I was also fairly sure I didn’t have a hope in hell. I envisioned that the successful applicants would all be the younger version of middle aged men that smoked like chimneys and had a BMI in the mid-thirties. Even though I have met and know union organisers that don’t fulfil that stereotype, that’s still the prevailing image in my head. I wondered if I should start smoking again before the interview.
Working for a union was one of the areas of interest when I started my degree. It is why I added politics as a minor. I grew up in a household that was fiercely anti-union. My father worked in shipping. The unions at our dinner table were responsible for all the evil in world. They crippled the country and the economy. My first experience of unions was on Pakatoa Island. We went on strike for the chef who had been unfairly dismissed. I thought they sounded like a great idea. Then I had a succession of shit jobs over the first twenties years of my working life, and the unions became conspicuously absent. When I saw the advertisement for the Union School I jumped. I put the MA on hold, shook of my C.V, dressed in my best Red Cred and applied.
Just quietly, I had some reservations. I wondered how relevant they still were in today’s labour market. I wondered if they were still functioning and what they to offer. Mostly I wondered what they really looked like because in the thirty years I have been working they have been largely invisible. Of course I didn’t say any of this at the interview. I really wanted the job! But let’s be honest, they are hiring a sentient (mostly), politically engaged, highly opinionated, blogger and activist. It would be weird if I hadn’t considered all of these things and more. It would be weird if they didn’t expect some critical analysis or whining. I expressed my fears to a friend and he summed it up like this. If at the end of the twelve weeks, I could convince him to join, then the school was a success.
I thought if they could sell me it would be a good place to start. I’m in week two but it only took one day on the road with an organiser. They didn’t have me at hello, but they had me by day three.
There are five successful applicants. Each of us was to be paired with an organiser for a day on the road. I was paired with an organiser who works primarily in logistics. I didn’t have any steel caps so Bill loaned me a pair of his. They didn’t actually fit, but they were okay. On day three I didn’t really expect to fit Bill Bradford’s boots but I was pretty happy to be able to say I was taking walk in them! The Organiser I was teamed with isn’t overweight. He is more lean like grey hound. He doesn’t smoke and he has been an organiser for around three years. He’s probably a lean non smoker because he doesn’t have time to stop. Not for food or ciggies.
Once we hit the road at 9am we didn’t actually stop for a rest till 3. We visited four different sites dealing with a range of issue. Then we went back to the office at 4pm, did some paper work and went back out to our last two stops. We finished at 8.30pm and I got home at 9.30. The first stop was a large site that stores and distributes frozen product. We were meeting with the membership of around forty members. The meeting had been called to gather the members together to raise the question of them joining another site down the road where they had one-hundred members the proposal was to join the sites in what is called a MECA or Multi Employer Collective Agreement. A secret allot was held a decision was reached, some other questions were raised about the upcoming contract negotiations and the nature of the calms that might be raised. The meting took just over an hour.
At our next stop which was a warehouse full of the merchandise of a couple of my favourite stores we were walking the floor and greeting new members a delegate had signed up. The site is only only newly organised. The contract is up for negotiation in a couple of months.
At the next site we meet with the delegate. A meeting as been organised to Skype with the Australian HR department for the contract. On this site they haven’t had a Union negotiated contract before. They are the first site we have visited where everyone is on minimum wage. The company wold argue that they aren’t, technically they are on ten cents over. That four dollars probably doesn’t have the purchase power to make me change that sentence. The Skype is down so we do it by teleconference. This has been a long negotiation over a period of months. Things are getting close to a settlement. The offer from the company is now two dollars over min wage. That is an extra $80 per week. That’s still not the living wage but it’s a noticeable improvement.
By now I’m wondering how I have managed to work in industry with no Union presence for the last thirty years. Where was my organiser in the Bay of Islands two summers ago when I was working for $14.25?
We left that site and went to another. Then back to the office to do paper work and then back out on the road to catch the night shift where we started and finally a meeting with an ex- Union member that wanted to resign because things had turned to custard.
I returned to my car at 8.30 and was home by 9.15. The day contained so much more but I’m already pushing my word limit.
Everywhere we went the welcome was warm. The organiser wasn’t overtly ingratiating, just sincere and interested. He didn’t try and sell me or anyone else. He didn’t have to. The results were obvious. Work places with a collective agreement and a strong Union membership have better work conditions. It was just that simple. It isn’t all about the hourly rate either. It’s the other stuff, like a night shift allowance, a redundancy clause and the acknowledgement of long service.
People cautioned me about writing anything on the organisation so early on in the process. It’s true that I am sure that there as some views I have or positions I hold that will shift during my time at First Union. The views I formed on this will not shift. I was lucky enough to spend a day seeing the best of the trade union movement. An organiser that is committed to his job, passionate about his work and well informed in his area. He is warmly received, liked and trusted by the members he represents. Nothing seems to make him happier than telling war stories of gains he has made. He works long hours and he works hard. If you are paying a nominal fee to a Union and bing serviced by an organiser like This then you are being wells served by your Union. You are getting true value for money.
I haven’t drunk so much Kool aid that I don’t have other concerns. Concerns like having a crap organiser, or if the currents structure of unions in some way perpetuates the patriarchal and paternal system that allows workers to be exploited but I guess they might address that in week two. For now I’m sold on the basic concept. There is strength in solidarity. Pay your fees.