Being A Union Member Saved My LIfe

I’ve been out enjoying the freedom that can only come with the successful end to a seven year Hell.  I’ve wanted to post about that because it actually IS bloody amazing.  I had no idea just how much this pain weighed me down until I was able to end it.  Sometimes this new feeling is so amazing that I almost cry.  Tears of relief and pride.  Life still does its thing, throws some curveballs and takes you on a merry dance, but I’ve been able to deal with that stuff in a completely new way lately.  Oh, this is why I haven’t written since I won, because I don’t even want to cry about being happy…ah well.  The memories come up like an approaching tidal wave.  Hello, old friend.  Now do fuck off. 

In Australia at the moment, we have a neo-liberal government of nightmares.  One of their many plans of social attack is decrying workers unions.  They have latched onto the corrupt actions of a few high profile union bosses in order to generalise horrifically about the nature of unions.  This suits their economic and policy agendas as they strive to divide and conquer. Who benefits from an individualised workforce without a collective voice?  Only the rich boss.  Who suffers, directly and potentially in the future?  My friends, we ALL do.  Unions represent workers in a variety of ways.  It may be popular to bandy about terms like ‘slush fund’ and ‘fraud’ (though less so when it is a Government minister who lines his pockets, hmmm?) but again that is paying attention simply to the loudest voices.  What do unions do that we don’t hear about in the news?  That a destructive Prime Minster doesn’t want you to think about? (Don’t worry – I can criticise him because I’m UNEMPLOYED)  What a Labor leader is devaluing when he questions union membership like today?

I could dig up some gutsy, coal-face worker stories to demonstrate the struggle of the lowly worker to fight slave conditions and dangerous practice.  I could remind you of the lives lost in protest, in desperate battles to be treated as human beings by tyrants and corporations simply for needing to earn money to feed yourself.  Perhaps a look at conditions in the sweat shops in Bangladesh that we shake our heads at from our relatively safe haven?  Or ask a tradie apprentice if it’s ever mattered to his/her workplace safety that a union member had a voice?  I can only tell you what union membership did for me.

I’m here because I was a member of the Education Union.  

It is as simple as that.

I wish we lived in a world where simply “knowing the truth” meant anything to anyone.  I knew the truth of what happened to me at work and I repeated that phrase as a mantra for many a year.  Because it was *all* I had.  That and an ache in my soul that led me to believe not being alive was the only way out of this.  The kindest thing to do for myself when every other option was cut off.  Knowing the truth is pretty much bollocks.  You have to have a voice to tell it.  An employee union is that voice.  

I assumed that my voice was enough.  I assumed that brazen criminal actions were enough to get some assistance.  So I forgive you if you also think that ‘right wins in the end’ and that ‘strong people can stand up for themselves to negotiate’.  But you’re wrong.  And not because there are not brave people standing alone.  Because powerful people with vested interests do not allow individuals to negotiate or influence a goddamn thing.  If you think Gina makes time to discuss workplace safety when Tom has a concern from inside the shitty mine, you are kidding yourself.  If you think a principal gives a young female teacher as valid a voice as the middle aged ass he went to school with and who is his deputy, you are kidding yourself.  If you think that a small building site manager is as interested in Sean the apprentice’s physical and emotional safety at the hands of his peers as he is in getting the project finished and making his cash…you get the picture.

A union is a collective which needs members to have any influence on workplace or social policy debate.  Though every worker benefits after we strike and go without pay to seek wage parity (and are very quiet on those days about unionism) they usually mock and repeat tired stereotypes that indicate at the very least that the Underbelly franchise has permeated deeply into their psyches.  

The day to day work of a union?  It’s a bit more boring than that.

I telephoned my union when I had another day off work, at home, wanting to die to escape my workplace/abusers.  I loved my job.  But my colleagues were killing me.  Read back for the details of sexual violence and stalking.  I’m leaving them for today.  But the only place that could help me have a louder voice (and I’m pretty loud on my own)?  The union.

We didn’t get any fancy boozy lunches.  I paid for my own coffee at a local place when they met with me.  They heard my tearful story.  They took notes, consulted relevant law, researched other similar issues.  I researched the process myself but I couldn’t guide myself through it in the midst of being victimised.  I needed a calm voice to repeat and remind me of the process ahead.  I needed to be able to cry and swear.  They could remember the protocols.  I had shit on my mind.

They reviewed my stream of consciousness notes and helped formulate official documents.  They found me counselling and Victims of Crime help.  

They always called me back.

At one point, as the managers made things even harder, the union reps asked me why I wouldn’t just give up.  I thought, well, we’re ALL beaten now.  I’ve come this far.  We have done it together.  I got angry and suggested that they were letting me flail alone, too.  What does an individual have to fight the system if their collective says it’s too hard?  Just an echo.  Of their own tears.

So they stuck with me.

The Education union were a literal and metaphorical support for me at the Worst Time In My Life.  They didn’t help me because I had something to offer them.  I’m pretty sure I was hard work, to be honest.  The case was.  The union helped me because they know that one voice can be ignored.  One person can be squashed.  Damn, they almost got me to the point of thinking that the union voice was not enough, either. But I pushed them and they pushed me.  We stayed.  Kept fighting.

We fucking did it.  We bloody got there.  We pushed so hard and so long that those bastards know that not everyone can be squashed.  Not everyone will be sent away.  Not everyone can be ground down.  

So maybe they watch themselves a bit more, huh?  Maybe they remember this, the fear of being exposed publicly, if someone else ever comes to them for help.  Maybe they just remember that one little voice has a group to call on.

That’s powerful.  That’s important.  That’s Absolutely Compulsory for any chance of a just and fair society.

And then the union collected my legal fees and paid them.  Because they believe a single worker should not be $50, 000 out of pocket when they’ve been the victim of obscene behaviour in the workplace and subsequently lost their ability to earn a wage at all.  Because they believe a worker’s voice matters.  Because they heard me.  

That is what unions do.  That is why they matter.  That is why they need members.  My $5 a week saved my life and my home.  My mental health.  And maybe a little something for the next person who feels that one voice is not enough.

I feel this ability is under threat when the discourse is politically motivated to undermine the union movement.

The union movement is the heart of Labor and rights of the common man and woman to be safe when they toil for a living.

Please don’t let Labor forget, or the government we have to bury, this very important part of our democracy.  Unions are us.  We are voices that deserve to be heard.  I will always fight for the right for one person’s voice to be made louder with the help of a union network.  Always. I hope other people realise this too, before they find themselves needing help.  What if it is taken away?


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