It’s no secret that unions aren’t in a good place. Strikes are down, wages are down, and union membership is at an all-time low. Unions are getting older, with the membership rate among 20 to 24 year olds at just 7 percent.
The statistics are damning. But if you wandered down to the call centre in Cremorne where I work, you would see something quite different. Most people there are uni students, working to pay the bills. Because the National Union of Workers is good at organising, union density has stayed at a healthy rate for the last few years. For us, being in the union and standing together against oppression and bigotry have become the norm.
Work gives you a pretty good sense of being at the bottom of the pile and having no control. At my work, management know when you use the bathroom, have a smoke, make a coffee or cough during a call. We make calls, read verbatim from a script, get hung up on and repeat.
It’s not the greatest. Especially not when our shifts get cut towards the end of the month because the company has already met its monthly targets. It’s as if the better the work we do, the less likely we are to be able to pay rent because it’s not profitable for the boss to keep us on through the whole month.
To be fair, we can read whatever we like between calls. That makes work a bit easier. And management hasn’t been too confident lately about pulling people up when we don’t stick exactly to our designated break times. And we know that if a boss ever tells someone to use their “sexy” or “gay” voice on a call, they will be made to feel so unwelcome that they have to go home. We know that when we see an issue, we speak up. And we know it’s because we’re unionised.
It hasn’t always been like this. We won the right to read at work after a union meeting voted to demand it. There was a time when the bosses thought it was okay to be openly sexist and homophobic; now they know to keep it to themselves. We used to get just 15 minutes’ break on a whole shift, now we can get away with half an hour.
Management has stayed the same. The company still get $500 for each survey we complete, making it an average of around $58,000 every hour of every weeknight shift. The laws certainly haven’t changed, but our conditions at work are improving.
Over the last year or so, a few socialists have ended up at this workplace, and through the union, with our workmates we’ve been fighting: for a better deal at work and against political injustices more generally. We’ve been fighting the divisions the bosses try to stoke and fighting, not just because we’re in our union, but because we’re left wing.
It’s why – after one of the managers said something homophobic to a workmate – we took the first of many workplace photos with the rainbow NUW flag. It’s why – when the Australian government was sending police on Manus Island into the detention centre and beating refugees with metal poles – we stood outside work and took a protest photo.
And it’s why, when Turnbull and his rich mates kicked off their most recent spate of racist scapegoating about “African gangs”, we already knew what to do, and were outside work taking a photo asserting that solidarity beats fear and that racism will not divide us.
A lot of us went down to the International Women’s Day rally after it was raised in a union meeting the Friday before, which has meant that now at work people are asking the question: “Why don’t we have free pads and tampons in the women’s bathroom? We should do something about that”.
A few photos aren’t going to change the world. But people joining their unions, causing a fuss without waiting for the union officials, taking a stand against the divisions fostered by those at the top – whether it’s your supervisor or the prime minister – and being a bit bolshie, definitely will.