History: Nest of Traitors
Interview: A Nation of Hope
Unions: National Focus
Safety: The Shocking Truth
Tribute: A Comrade Departed
History: Working Bees
Education: The Big Picture
International: Static Labour
Economics: Budget And Fudge It
Technology: Google and Campaigning
Review: Secretary With A Difference
Poetry: The Minimale
Satire: Howard Calls for Senate to be Replaced by Clap-O-Meter
The Locker Room
To the Victors The Spoils
The Story in General
Thinking of America
Criticisms of the ALP, particularly in the Federal Parliament, have recently centred on the Party's connections to the unions, and in particular, the practice of choosing candidates from among union officials. As Federal Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott puts it, "the union link is the soft underbelly of the Labor Party."
In March this year NSW saw the election of five former union officials into the Carr Government - including Angela D'Amore from the Nurses Federation, Tanya Gadiel from the CEPU, Kayee Griffin from the MEU, Paul McLeay from the PSA and myself, an organiser with the Shop Assistants Unions. Is this proof that the Labor Party is getting too close to the unions?
The critics of trade unionists entering Parliament speak as though unionism was an industry, that it places people outside the "real world." Some in the Federal Parliament would argue that utilising a law degree to represent the same workers on the same issues, but charging them $200 an hour to meet in a solicitor's office, would somehow be more "real" than representing the employees through unions.
Trade unions are not an industry. Unionism is a movement; a movement which provides a gateway into every industry.
The new members of Parliament bring experience from the front line of the concerns and aspirations of nurses, electricians, council workers, public servants, fast food workers and shop assistants - areas that cover more than 700,000 NSW employees. It seems bizarre, therefore, to be attacking union officials for being out of touch with workers. A comparison of this day-to-day experience with the daily agenda of the Minister for Workplace Relations would reveal who's really out of touch.
What is clear from the Federal Government is that they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of union officials and what their job actually involves. I can dispute most of their claims through my own experience. As an organiser I didn't have an office. I didn't even have a desk. My meeting rooms were at Coles or Big W and my lunchroom was a shopping centre Food Court.
My days were spent listening to the concerns of checkout operators, of sales assistants, of fast food workers, of clerical employees. It involved listening, explaining their rights, teaching them how to fix the problems with the unfair roster changes, the underpayments, and providing representation.
The front line experience that union officials have brings a perspective that simply cannot be gleaned from statistics. Issues such as casualisation are generally viewed as being a problem in terms of underemployment. However, to take this example, there are other concerns that are not obvious to the public, but are understood and dealt with by union organisers.
In my work with the SDA I realised that some of the people at midnight union meetings of the night fillers, who fill the supermarket shelves while most people sleep, would be the same people working in coffee shops the next day. This trend towards taking multiple jobs to try to compensate for short shifts creates a whole new set of problems that have largely remained hidden in the public debate.
These people will often work overtime hours, but because they do so through multiple jobs will never receive overtime rates. Their total income may reach the superannuation threshold but they will fall below the threshold in one and possibly all jobs. The health and safety principle of a 10-hour break between shifts becomes meaningless. Any roster change doesn't only cause havoc for family responsibilities but also jeopardises the other jobs. And when annual leave requires simultaneous approval from two or three employers it's incredibly difficult for these workers to take a holiday.
Whether it's issues as specific as this or just the general understanding of how meaningless employment conditions become unless they are enforced, trade unionists bring an essential perspective to the Government.
Those who have sarcastically remarked, "just what Labor needs, another union official" don't realise how true the words they utter are.
Tony Burke is a former organiser with the SDA and was recently elected to the NSW Legislative Council.
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