So, what’s that, like, politics?

January 20, 2009 at 1:51 am (Tom) (, , , , )

My job is awful for small talk. But the reasons it’s terrible change, depending on the age of the person you’re talking to.

  • Anyone over about 45 grew up during an era when union membership was an identity-defining variable – you were union, or you were against unions; with seemingly little grey area in-between. So a conversation with your average boomer seems turns into a diatribe about your lot ruining the country, or exhortations to keep fighting the good fight on everyone’s behalf.
  • Between about 45 and 30, they probably experienced compulsory unionism, but during the Accord – so a Union was a club for people they’d never met, who came and took a slice of their pay every week, sometimes made life hard for the boss. They’ll often come up with the things their parents drummed into them about bargaining power and improving the lot of ordinary folk; but generally speaking, even the left-leaning ones will see you as either a naïve do-gooder, or a parasite. I think I prefer the former interpretation.
  • Just about anyone under 30, though, goes blank. They probably know that Unions are affiliated with the ALP (not always true), and that they try and get you higher pay and aren’t big fans of asbestos. If they have a mental image, it’s probably either grimy factory workers in sepia tones, intimidating construction workers running protection rackets or lazy public servants faking compo claims on the front page of the Tele. Oh, and they probably remember the Your Rights @ Work campaign, and distrusted Work Choices. But beyond these (mostly not very contemporary or complimentary) abstractions, there’s so little knowledge about how Unions actually work that the most common reaction is embarrassed silence.

The general consensus is that we’re something like the HR police – call us with your gripe, and we’ll break down the office door and cart your boss away in handcuffs. Or just scare him straight on behalf of the proletariat.

Unfortunately, even when I go for scruffy and dangerous, I’m much more Jesus than Che Guevara – so it’s not surprising that I occasionally fail to meet expectations in the area of physical intimidation. Which is why I’m lucky that my job involves absolutely none of the above.

Aside: I had initially assumed that I would put in a sentence here saying something like “I don’t need to describe what being a union organiser actually involves, because it’s here, here and here.” But I can’t really find anything more than a vaguely worded job description, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. 🙂
As you might assume, a union organiser organises unions. So very lacking in hip irony, I know, but that’s the objective. Not fighting the man, or improving wages, or recruiting more members, or even making life better for the people who are a part of that union. That’s their job; yours is just to put together the machinery they can use to do it.

But the word union is problematic. Because, IMHO, we have Big U Unions in Australia, and small u unions. A Union is a professional organisation in a building, with membership covering vast swathes of industry and the working population, many of whom don’t really have much to do with each other at all. Mine, the CPSU, has about 37,000 members right now, and is continuing to grow and diversify. That’s who actually pays my wage. These are handy – they let workers elect representatives who can wield real political power, make big picture decisions and invest in spreading the union around the place, you can pool resources – like phone banks, financial services, legal advice, etc. etc., you get trained industrial staff to help out members, and support from all over the country when you really need it. But the whole box and dice is really just there to support unions, which are groups of working people who have decided to make industrial decisions collectively to maximise the outcomes of the group.  It would be nice to think that it was possible for 37,000 people to make group decisions, but it’s really not; so Unions, as useful as they are, are really just an enabler for unions.

So what does a union actually involve? Well, it depends. Different groups of people will tend to organise themselves differently. Some groups will gravitate around a, or a group of central figure(s) – workplace leaders, in the parlance – who genuinely speaks for everyone in the workplace. That’s your classic delegate, and it’s not a bad model – definitely makes it easy for the organiser. 🙂 Then there are workplaces – particularly in the public sector, where I work – that will organise themselves by committee; which needs to be managed carefully, so they don’t talk themselves out of actually doing anything. There are some that will refuse to take on any kind of permanent organisation, coalescing around red-hot workplace issues anarchically, and diffusing once the issue is resolved. This is a pain to work with, but surprisingly effective. There are workplaces that set up delegate hierarchies, or split up functions between individuals, or rotate individuals through leadership positions. The only thing that’s crucial to an organised workplace (or union) is that a large enough group of staff members have decided that they will make decisions together, and stick to them. It’s democracy, baby, in microcosm.

So, my job is to get them to that point and keep that group operating and growing if possible. Simple, right?

Well, not really. Notice that I didn’t mention the law, bargaining, or workplace rights once in there? That’s because they’re not my job, but they are the reason my job exists. As much as I’d like to just run around building beautiful people-machines all day, spreading love and puppies and rainbows, unions aren’t really an end in themselves. They key to the system is that once you’re part of a functioning union, you can help make decisions that actually affect your working life – how much you get paid, how you get treated by those higher up the tree, whether the iced vovos in the tearoom are Arnotts or Black and Gold; anything. But that’s not an easy thing to convince people; and moreover, however much I’d like to believe otherwise, simply being united can’t solve every problem. More often than not, if you want to get the machine started and keep the machine running, you’ve got to win some arguments with the inelegant and brute force of law.

I’ll talk about the sources of workplace law another time, because I find them quite interesting; but basically, you’ve got to know your member’s rights under legislation, and under their award or collective agreement; and how to enforce them both if the employer decides to start playing sillybuggers. If you can’t do that, people lose confidence in the union, and the Union, and you’ve got no members, no more union, and a group of cranky ex-members who feel like they’ve been taken for a ride (and are likely to spend the next 30 years of their working life badmouthing unions in general). So industrial kung fu is a pretty important ingredient.

Another key skill is communication. I spend maybe 70% of my talking/typing time on members and potential members; another 20% talking to my colleagues; and maybe 10% talking to the employer. I’m not an elected representative, I can’t really claim to speak for anyone – that’s sort of presumption is the kind of thing that gives unions a bad name. Worse than that, I’m know a whole lot less about my members jobs than they do; so if you stick me alone in a room with the boss, there’s a good chance they won’t be happy with whatever solution we negotiate. So, I’ll talk to the boss if the members ask me to; and if there are genuine reasons they can’t, or don’t feel comfortable doing it; but there’s always a member along to observe.

The communication that’s really important is that 70% – trying to get a foot in the door of workplaces dominated by suspicion and cynicism, trying to persuade the unconvinced that their workplace doesn’t have to be hostile, that being a part of the union is worthwhile, and can achieve things they want; talking persuaded people into believing that they’re smart, confident and competent enough to actually take an active role in the organisation of the union; and trying to persuade the activists to think big and put their brand new machine to work. The first two steps are the hardest; because after that, you’re generally working with friends – which is nice.

The last noteworthy chunk of jorb is more of a big U Union activity – negotiating Collective Agreements. Under current Australian law, employees are covered by either an industrial award or the minimum wage, an individual statutory contract (such as an AWA or ITEA),  or a Collective Agreement (CA). Awards are determined by the AIRC, a judicial body, the minimum wage by the Fair Pay Commission (soon Fair Work Australia); and individual contracts are negotiated with individual employees. So, there’s pretty much nothing you can do about any of these sources of law. But Collective Agreements are one of the things that Unions are very, very good at. When you’re an organisation devoted to building democratic workplaces, any system that ends with a vote of workers should be pretty much home ground.

CAs are normally too big for a small u union to be effective, so it’s up to the big U Union to act on behalf of the dozens or hundreds of unions that it covers. Since you’re dealing with far too many people to effectively make group decisions, the main concern is ensuring that your negotiation team is accurately reflecting the desires of the membership. Organisers are used as the impartial agents sent out to gather information from their various networks – what’s working in the current agreement, what’s not, what people would like to improve, and what, if anything, they’d be prepared to trade away. Step 2 is to negotiate. Good fun, but generally negotiations don’t hinge on what happens in the room – they’re driven by what you can achieve outside, in terms of membership, activism, protest, publicity and pageantry, and basic moral pressure. But after more than a decade of LARPing, I’m not entirely useless at the table either. Step 3 is to take whatever deal you’ve achieved back to the members, to see if it’s OK. Step 4 – if they like it, put it to a vote, and tick all the legal boxes.

CA work is good fun, because you get to work with all your unions at once to push for genuine improvements to their working life. But it’s also a trap. Once you take over leadership of the networks you’ve helped build, it’s really quite difficult to give it back. The danger with CAs is that you spend so much time commanding the troops that everyone forgets that the union, and the Union, belongs to them; or that people think the CA is the whole point, instead of just another tool to get what they actually want. So after a bargain, it’s a good idea to restablish the workplace leaders as quickly as possible – and give them some kind of ownership of the document they’ve helped win.

Anyhow, it’s late, and I’ve got more trampled souls to resuscitate on the morrow. Anything you want to know?



  1. naboolio said,

    Hey Tom, that was really interesting. Thanks for explaining! I feel like I have a much better understanding of what your job is now.

    It’s funny because the most common response I get from people when I tell them I’m studying Physiotherapy is, ‘Oh, massage’. I have had one class so far in which we spent 20 mins on learning massage techniques. I think that’s all we’re gonna get in total. So, yes, it is a TINY part of what Physios do.

    The other response I get is, ‘Wow, that’s a great career. You’ll be a big shot business person making money off people’s sore backs and sports injuries.’ Now, I understand this a little more, because some Physios do want to be Sports Physios or run a Private Practice dealing with work/sports/life injuries to ankles, knees, backs, necks etc.

    I suppose I just find it sad though that people don’t seem to know about the really important role that Physios play in the Public Hospital System helping people recover from Neurological or Cardiopulmonary conditions, and working with the elderly. This is the type of Physio work I’ve always been interested in.

  2. danoot said,

    Thanks for writing this up, Tom, it’s good to hear what you do (and also how it looks from your end – I have only ever been involved in unions as a number, due to, probably, laziness).

  3. chromefist said,

    Well, it’s not really laziness if no-one’s ever asked you to. Union members aren’t psychic.

    The sad fact of the matter is that surprisingly few union members in Australia ever see a union organiser. Some unions spend all their time on recruitment to stay afloat in industries with ungodly churn (like the SDA or NUW), some concentrate all their resources on legal fights in industries with particularly aggressive management cultures (like the AMWU or the old MEU), and very few have the time, or the hippy-trippy leftie ideology for grassroots workplace organising.

    One of the things I like about my union, and the reason I don’t go get a better-paid org or public sector job elsewhere, is that we’re actually doing a lot of work to train up, protect and develop our delegates and active members. If unions are going to survive and stay relevant in the 21st century, it won’t be because we took bad bosses to the AIRC or won a minimum wage case or two – even though those are important. It’ll be because we actually engaged with workers in our industries and helped them recover the confidence, comradeship and self-respect not to put up with bad behaviour from their employers against them or their workmates.

    If what people really want is to have a white knight ride in and save them from their nasty old boss, and not move a muscle to help the guy in the next cubicle along, then we’re probably better off with a massive government regulator like the the AIRC or the future Fair Work Australia looking over everyone’s shoulders. But I’m not yet convinced society is so far gone that we can’t take responsibility and make decisions for our own workplaces.
    Ah well, we’ll see in 5 years or so.

  4. chromefist said,

    Also: my main exposure to physios was when my mum got hit by a car, causing theoretically irreperable whiplash, in my early teens. At the time, I became pretty well convinced that they were a bunch of charlatans, mainly because my mum always came home in much more pain than she left. However, a few years later, when she had recovered all movement in her neck, I had to rethink that slightly.

    But yeah. Professions, much more than jobs, do seem to have all these memes attached to them, completely divorced from reality. So when you bring one up, you instantly get painted with all the attendant baggage, and it’s generally kinda difficult to move people on from their first impressions.

    How do you move into that area of rehab physio, anyhow? Do you just apply for a job with the hospital, or is there a professional association you have to be a part of, or some kind of apprenticeship?

  5. andrewcrisp said,

    Thanks for explaining your job, Tom. You have inspired me to seek out and join whatever union caters to lecturers and tutors – to google!

  6. chromefist said,

    NTEU, I expect – National Tertiary Education Union.

  7. Danoot said,

    Percy, they’ll be sending you like six hundred emails a week!
    or maybe that only starts when you join.

    You probably googled this right up, but here’s their webpage:
    Andrew Rivett is the guy on campus you want to talk to for to join.

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