One of the best features of the plebiscite campaign has been the wholehearted endorsement of a Yes vote from almost the entire union movement. Official endorsement and a supportive Facebook meme are a big step, especially for many blue collar unions, but the aim has to be to push Yes activity along at a workplace level.
For socialists and many others involved in this activity, this means starting off small. A sticker. A badge. A conversation. That’s sometimes where things stay – one or two workmates have a political discussion sparked by a sticker on a construction site hard hat, or a couple of workmates wear a badge in public for the first time, or enrol to vote. But in some workplaces, as the reports below indicate, more is possible.
The first report comes from Liam Ward, a union activist at RMIT University in Melbourne. The second is from a large Melbourne workplace with a combination of blue collar and white collar workers.
Swamped by support at RMIT
Two weeks ago I started a push to sell Yes badges, and have now sold more than I can count. In 14 years at RMIT, this is far and away the most popular thing I’ve ever done in this workplace. Nobody has refused, and a “bad” response is when someone buys only a single badge rather than two or more.
This week I also started more extensive postering, leafleting and office door-knocking. I’ve done this on a roster with three other unionised workmates who have been previously frustrated by the lack of things to do. This has been fantastic. The four of us have been pushing two vote Yes campaigns simultaneously – one for an industrial action ballot, and one for marriage equality. We’re expecting the two ballots may happen in the same week in mid-September.
It turns out we work with an anonymous bigot who has been tearing down the marriage equality posters from staff-only areas. This has polarised things towards our side. Other members we spoke to all made a point of noting how good it is to see the union digging in on this issue against the lone homophobe.
Encouraged by this response, on Tuesday afternoon I emailed the entire school demanding that the homophobe back off and leave our posters alone, and offering to deliver posters to anyone who wants some. This was a bit of a test given we’ve been postering in “unofficial” spaces. It was also about stamping the union’s authority as the front line of the marriage equality battle, which is important because the vice-chancellor recently emailed all staff and students encouraging a Yes vote.
Anyway, I have now been swamped with messages of support and requests for posters. Publicly calling out the bigot has prompted others to feel they have to take a side. By the end of this week, I expect the school to be covered in posters.
Out of it all, we’ve so far recruited two (possibly three) new union members.
It’s worth noting that the overlapping of a political campaign and the EBA campaign is a positive dynamic. Many in the NTEU argue that everything is a distraction from bargaining. In fact, though, the issues feed into each other very nicely. We’re about to ask members to take industrial action, and it’s useful to be heading there with staff already seeing the union as fighters against injustice.
No-one should let their union branch say it is “too busy” for marriage equality activities.
Taking a stand can get results
I’ve set up a little marriage equality campaign group of me and four workmates. They’ve all been selling badges and showing people how to enrol. I’m hoping to get them all to the next rally; the union will be sending a couple of officials with flags.
Our first activity was a morning tea at which we had rainbow cakes, badges and Yes material in the tea room, and encouraged workmates to take a “solidarity selfie” for the Yes campaign.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t super popular – most of the straight men wouldn’t participate. And they were loudly making smartarse casual homophobic comments so they just goaded each other out of supporting it. Although it’s worth saying they all said they’d vote Yes.
There was one straight guy who wanted to stand alongside a gay work mate for a “solidarity selfie”, which was nice. And when management said they were going to take down Yes campaign material from the tea room, these same workmates objected, and insisted the Yes material stay up.
When we repeated all this on afternoon shift, it went much better. A younger and more female crowd to start with made for much better vibes. Lots of people bought badges and are wearing them on their uniform.
A young woman who had to enrol did so on my phone and asked about the origins of the ban. That led to a general political discussion in the tea room about John Howard, WorkChoices, and the way he used homophobia and racism, and ended up talking about the Tampa election, refugees, Donald Trump and the Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, along with a bit of a debate about whether there should be anti-fascist counter-rallies. Five workmates bought copies of Red Flag.
So far management has not told anyone off for the badges and hasn’t made any open moves to discipline me or anyone else, though there is some feeling that they’re not happy.