Interview: As They Say In The Bible ...
Industrial: Just Doing It
Unions: Breaking Into the Boys Club
Activists: Making the Hard Yards
Bad Boss: In the Pooh
Unions: National Focus
Economics: Pop Will Eat Itself
Technology: Dean for President
International: Rangoon Rumble
Education: Blackboard Jungle
Review: From Weakness to Strength
The Locker Room
A Recipe for Conflict
After the Accident
Cuba - the Debate Continues
Greetings from Japan
Breaking Into the Boys Club
But for Karen Iles, the CFMEU's apprentice officer, being young and female has advantages.
A woman in the construction industry is such a rarity that Karen's arrival at a TAFE campus causes a buzz of interest. Unfortunately for her, it's not always because there is trouble at work.
"I've copped a little bit of sexual harassment. Nothing major, but they're 16, 17 and 18 year old boys - testosterone is on overload."
But she does say that being young helps her do the job. The perception that union officials are a bunch of "boofy blokes" is being broken down, through work like hers.
Results vary depending on which TAFE she's talking to, how unionised their workplaces are and their employers' attitudes towards the union.
In a class of 13 second year Lidcombe TAFE students, six are already members of the union. This is higher than average as most work on highly unionised sites.
Their knowledge of entitlements and the way unions work is varied. Some don't know whether they are part of the union or not, and one student doesn't know he isn't getting paid enough until he looks at the award.
"What's the difference?" asks Jamie, "between being in the union and not?" Karen doesn't have to answer. Darren and Manning - already members - pipe up, "who's going to look after you mate, when you're in trouble at work? Who's going to fight for you?" The two have already been involved in industrial action.
These are the leaders that Karen looks out for. "A lot of it comes down to classroom dynamics", she says. "If you've got one or two people who start to say 'yeah, this rocks', then the rest come on board... it's really important to get them to speak up a bit."
She lets the class air their views on the recent Royal Commission.
"Why isn't John Howard under fire for spending a million bucks on a judge that didn't do anything?" asks Xav. "Why are we under fire for not doing anything wrong? People still doubt the credibility of the construction industry and the union, but nobody says anything to John Howard."
Despite the impassioned outburst, the union has copped a bad name amongst some young workers. "You can't trust the union... they scam you", says one.
Karen challenges them on where they get their information. "Of course your employers are going to tell you that", she says.
She encourages them to organise themselves on campus. "You guys see each other more often than I do" she says, "so you need to decide who your points of contact here are going to be."
The class elects Xav and Darren as their delegates. They will be responsible for making sure any work-related issues amongst their classmates are dealt with through the union. There is also talk about campaigning around apprentice-specific issues.
Although there are advantages if they join as apprentices, Karen says "I try not to sell it on that point, but try to get them to really commit to the idea of unionism."
It's a successful day. Five new members join on the spot.
A good result, considering as a woman, it can be difficult for Karen to earn their respect.
"If I'm ever asked 'what would you know?' I respond with 'I'm not here to tell you how to build a house, I'm here to tell you how to organise yourselves and what your rights are."
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