Why I'm proud to be part of the union
At one point in my life I was a member of three unions. The NSW Teacher’s Federation, Actor’s Equity and the Australian Writer’s Guild*. It would be stretching the bounds of credulity to suggest that any of these organisations needed to be “reined in” or that the membership of any of them could be called “union thugs”.
To those who are so hell bent on “union busting” and who ludicrously tried to lump all members of a union in with the more “unsavoury” members of the CFMEU I say, take a deep breath and look at what unions actually do for its members and what fights they have famously fought.
The first union I joined was the NSW Teacher’s Federation. I was a first year out teacher in a small country town and, before I knew it, I had become the union rep at the ripe old age of 22. The issues Federation were fighting for were all about improving conditions for students and the teachers who were charged with education them. The first one was class sizes. When I started teaching (it was a long time ago) it was not uncommon to have 38/40 students in a class. This made giving each student the kind of personal care and tuition they deserved virtually impossible. Unified by a cause that struck at the very heart of educational opportunity, Federation waged a campaign to reduce class sizes. We won and nowadays most class are in the mid 20’s which is clearly preferable to what I encountered when I first started teaching.
Years later, when Federation was campaigning for better wages and conditions the media, in particular the Murdoch press, characterised the teachers who were taking part in the campaign as being wild radicals intent on destroying the fabric of Australian society as we knew it. Teacher bashing was a favourite sport amongst some journalists and commentators. Standing outside the then Department of Education, I looked around at my “co-conspirators”. The majority were middle aged, grey haired women. Far from being revolutionaries intent on tearing down the system, they were dedicated teachers with years of teaching experience who, exasperated by the intransigence of the government of the day, had sacrificed a day’s pay to express their concern at the erosion of teaching conditions. They were fighting the fight for better wages which every analyst of contemporary education has identified as being the root cause for the inability of the profession to attract out best and brightest university graduates.
Years before, when I took a break from teaching to pursue my dream of being an actor, I naturally joined Actor’s Equity. Equity’s big battle in those days was fighting for Australian content on our screens and stages. They fought producers against importing overseas “stars” at the expense of home grown talent. The international success of actors like Cate Blanchett and Russel Crowe can be directly related to the opportunities afforded them by a flourishing local industry. As an untrained, ex-teacher trying my luck, I was also the beneficiary of Equity’s campaign to “keep it Australian”. As I tell my drama students today, those opportunities have disappeared as local content laws have been watered down and young actors are forced to learn American accents if they are to have any hope of a career. I distinctly remember marching down George Street with a bunch of actors, directors, designers and writers waving banners about saving an industry that spoke to Australians about Australians. We may have been able to play “union thugs” but none of us was anything like one. We were, by and large, middle class Australian artists campaigning for Australian culture. Not very threatening, I would have thought.
When I started writing plays I joined the Writers Guild. Like Equity, the Guild were engaged in promoting and defending Australian content. The success of writers from David Williamson to Nakkiah Lui can be directly traced to the Guild’s campaigns. The Playwright’s Conference promoted Australian plays and playwrights. Theatre Companies like Griffin, the APG and La Mama produced Australian plays and their success led to major companies, like the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company, producing Australian work. It is hard to imagine our stages and screens devoid of an Australian voice but that is exactly how it was before the Writer’s Guild and Equity inspired industrial campaigns to fight for our identity.
It goes without saying that many other unions, like the Nurses and Fire Fighters, fight campaigns for conditions that will enable them to serve the country not tear it down.
The governments Ensuring Integrity Bill was an attempt to stymie the democratic right of unionists to fight for better conditions for their members. It was about “busting” the very unions that serve everyday Australians. It had nothing to do with ensuring integrity but everything to do with destroying it.
*strictly speaking the Writers Guid isn’t a union but in many ways functions as one