|Issue No 110||07 September 2001|
Getting the Message Out
Caroline Alcorso argues the integration of immigrant workers into the trade union movement has been a central issue in Australia's post-war labor history.
On the one hand, unionists have recognised that the protection and empowerment of immigrant workers is essential to ensuring that they are not cast into the role of a cheap and super-exploitable labour supply. This model, where culturally distinct workers (for example, US blacks and today Hispanic workers) are denied access to primary sector jobs and crowd into jobs with poor conditions and low pay not only undermines the construction of a civilised society, but directly undercuts the pay and conditions of workers in better jobs. Workers who are vulnerable and needy can always be found to fill jobs for low rewards if the existing workforce becomes too demanding. Moreover, the capacity of vulnerable workers to struggle for improved conditions is weakened by their relative insecurity.
On the other hand, the Australian trade union movement has had a history of racism and exclusion that has been an impediment to the effective organisation and incorporation of immigrant workers. It is not necessary here to revisit the history of the White Australia Policy. However, the racist history of the movement meant that considerable hostility to immigrants flourished in parts of the union movement even in the post-war period; as late as 1972, during an economic recession, one union sought to exclude immigrants members by refusing to allow 'newcomers' to join unless special approval was given by an official (Hearn, 1978:119). Despite the equivocation, any project of excluding culturally diverse people from the Australian workforce died with the long boom and today, despite Ruddock's best efforts to keep out 'undesirables', is completely incompatible with the globalising tendencies of modern capitalism.
What then has been the practice of the Australian trade union movement, in the context of its 20th century history? During the period of mass post-war migration, trade unions were in fact relatively successful at enlisting immigrant workers as members. Because migrant workers were employed primarily in semi-skilled and unskilled labouring occupations, they came under the jurisdiction of active and influential union organizations, such as in the building trades, metal industries and in packing and warehousing work. Indeed, union density rates amongst non-English speaking background immigrants have historically been consistently higher than those of Anglo-Australian workers. For example, in 1976, over 60 per cent of Yugoslav, Italian and Greek employees were union members, compared to around 50 per cent of Australian-born employees (Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, 1988:139). NESB workers have remained more likely to be union members until recent times, though the margin has fallen as manufacturing has become a less numerous industrial zone.
The issue has rather been about the nature of migrant membership in unions; or alternatively, how unions have related to their non-English speaking background members. These questions came first to be raised during the 1970s, as migrant workers began organizing in their own right (the Victorian Migrant Workers Conferences, for example, were held in 1973 and 1975). In 1978, a detailed study of immigrant workers and trade unions concluded that unions were only slowly, reluctantly and belatedly willing to grapple with the myriad of problems affecting migrant workers' lives. Comments such as the following abound in accounts of migrant workers' experiences of the time:
At the union meeting I said very little because they would not have listened to what I had to say. For them, I was a second class citizen. At first they would not let me speak. Then they would not listen when I spoke: "Shut up, bloody dago!" they would say (Italian worker, 1970, in Wilton and Bosworth, 1984:97).
Immigrant women have consistently complained about trade union neglect of them and their issues. In the 1970s and 80s, a key demand from immigrant women activists was for recognition within union organisations. One of the most important early pieces of research on migrant women's working lives (But I wouldn't want my wife to work here...) highlighted the women's alienation from 'their' union, and the union's failure to tackle the appalling working conditions confronting them in Australian factories (CURA, 1976). In 1982, the National Migrant and Refugee Women's Speakout on Employment and Health Problems in Australia denounced 'the archaic situation of the unions in Australia, particularly in relation to the lack of participation of women'. The feeling of neglect by unions is still widespread amongst immigrant women, including those interviewed for the current ACIRRT multicultural health and safety project (see below).
However, a survey of unionists in 1990 suggests that it is a passionate minority that holds such views. Overall, the survey found little difference in the NESB and ESB attitudes to their unions or to unions in general, although NESB workers were more likely than ESB workers to say they wanted more involvement in their union. Around 29 per cent of NESB women and 27 per cent of NESB men felt that their union did not treat all members equally at that time (Bertone and Griffin, 1992:81).
There has been a tendency for unions to organise less actively in multiethnic workplaces, prompting some commentators to suggest that many migrant unionists are 'apathetic conscripts' (Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, 1988:150). In 1952, for example, the Railway Workers Union agreed with employers in NSW to deduct union dues automatically from 'new Australian' pay packets. This practice was not extended to 'old Australians' for another ten years (Wilton and Bosworth, 1984:97). Some 40 years later, in 1990, the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey found that 'high NESB workplaces' were still more likely to have compulsory union membership rules than 'low NESB' ones. The relative proportions at that time were 52 per cent and 42 per cent respectively of 20+ workplaces (Callus and Knox, 1993:19).
The lack of active migrant participation in unions was reflected in the difficulty non-English speaking members have had in moving into official positions. In the same way that immigrants have met major barriers to their entry into managerial occupations in the public and private sectors, they have remained significantly under-represented in union leadership roles. In 1974, Hearn found that in Victoria, NESB workers occupied less than 3 per cent of full-time leadership positions - despite their rank and file activity in significant industrial disputes of the period (Foster, Marshall and Williams, 1991:58). At that time, NESB workers made up some 22 per cent of the Victorian workforce, and a much larger percentage of the unionised workforce (Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, 1988:149). Twelve years later, after a decade of official multiculturalism in Australia, a study of the NSW union movement revealed a similar percentage - 3.1 per cent of full-time positions were held by NESB members (Foster, Marshall and Williams, 1991:59). The most recent survey (this time back to Victoria) found significant improvement - nearly 10 per cent of full-time officials were NESB in 1990. However, almost all of these were Italian and Greek at a time when these groups were becoming less significant in the workforce. And most were in appointed, rather than elected, positions (Bertone and Griffin, 1992:42).
So - it is clear that the track record of Australian trade unions has been mixed in relation to organising immigrant workers. On the one hand, there has been mass participation, and as a result of the award system, the avoidance in Australia or ethnic low pay ghettos within the workforce. On the other, there has been a failure by unions to build on immigants' potential strength, or to address in a systematic and thorough manner the particular needs of immigrant workers. As a result, the contribution of immigrants to the union movement has been more limited than their numbers and strategic workforce position offered. Of most concern has been the slowness of immigrants' rise to official union ranks, leading to major problems of the ethnic unrepresentativeness of leaders.
It seems that the most obvious difficulty in the union-migrant relationship has in fact remained the central one - namely, communication. The following all too familiar shop steward's comment exemplifies the problems on both sides:
They'll talk in groups to each other at mass meetings. You ask, "Does everybody understand?" and they'll say 'yes' and then after they've walked out of the meeting, they'll say "What was the meeting about?" Language is definitely a problem (in Bertone and Griffin, 1992:57).
At the same time, many unions have for decades published newsletters and circulars in a range of languages, used interpreters, supported on-the-job English classes, and established training courses for immigrant members. A systematic survey of the frequency of these measures found in 1990 that some 40 per cent of unions used interpreters and a similar proportion published multilingual information (Bertone and Griffin, 1992:31). Clearly, the resources needed to support these good practice measures have become scarcer as union density rates have fallen. What lessons are there for unions in struggling to organise actively amongst immigrant workers today?
With the Workers Health Centre, ACIRRT (University of Sydney) has been examining the effectiveness of a range of multicultural communication strategies used in occupational health and safety. Although the project is in the early stages, interviews with workers and other service providers suggest the following points are important:
ź Integrated approaches to education and information provision are more successful than those relying on a single-pronged approach. Multilingual literature will be more useful if it accompanies and is designed for bilingual officers; educational campaigns utilizing ethnic radio, community television and press will reach many more people than just a leaflet. Getting the distribution strategy right is considered more important than designing the right product.
ź Leading edge government and non-government agencies are today committed adherents of community development approaches in their communication strategies - action research, bilingual educators, workshops and community consultation are now part of the tool box of agencies from waste boards to drug and alcohol services. The ethnic liaison officers network established by the Victorian Trades Hall Council during the 1990s is another example of this approach, modified to the context of the labour movement.
ź Learning English is as major an issue for immigrant Australians as it ever was, and the ability to communicate in English can never be assumed. English language learning is today more severely rationed than in previous decades, and consequently, many immigrants (like those on temporary visas) miss out; most immigrants who can't afford to pay for private classes don't have enough instruction to reach survival English. So unions must be proficient in arranging and using interpreters, or have trained member language aides available at meetings. Workplace English language teaching is a more important demand than ever.
ź Different ethnic groups will have different preferences for receiving information, and different concerns. For example, while Arabic women have very high rates of radio listening, Chinese-Australians are avid newspaper readers. The approach to the topic may also vary across communities (just as it does across the whole population by age and gender). Simply translating materials produced first in English is rarely effective.
ź Use of information technology has facilitated the rationalisation of communication through the use of multilingual web-sites. The NSW Department of Health for example, hosts a web-site with hundreds of continually up-dated fact sheets that can be down loaded in a variety of languages. While this is not necessarily a strategy for reaching members or potential members, it is easy to see how a consolidated multilingual web-site could be useful for union organisers, delegates, union trainers or occupational health and safety representatives. It is basically a means of quickly accessing appropriate translated literature at no extra cost. Similarly, more sophisticated telephone systems are being used by organisations such as local councils to give non-English speaker direct access to someone who speaks their own language, wherever they may be located in the organisation.
Many of these strategies have been taken up by government agencies which see information provision and social education as strategies for social change. Often however, such bodies are faced with the inherent limitations of their strategies. In the occupational health and safety field, for example, immigrant workers have repeatedly told agencies such as WorkCover that information on its own can achieve little if, as workers, they have no power to change their work environment or the work process. Knowing more about your rights can be a relatively lame option if the problem is employer abuse of those rights.
In contrast, trade unions can offer much more - awareness and empowerment. This is an appealing mix to many immigrants feeling increasingly under attack in today's Australia.
Caroline Alcorso, Senior Researcher, ACIRRT, University of Sydney.
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Human Rights: Long Road to Nowhere
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Immigration: Experience Required
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History: Johnny's Naruan Wet Dream
Rowan Cahill looks at how Australia's preferred refugee dumping ground's history is indelibly linked with our own.
Unions: Getting the Message Out
Caroline Alcorso argues the integration of immigrant workers into the trade union movement has been a central issue in Australia’s post-war labor history.
Work/Time/Life: Driven To The Edge
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Review: Whose Party?
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