What does it mean when you are, or you become a union member?

By Don Sutherland, 23rd March 2018

How does a non-member join their union?

One convenient way to do it is to use the ACTU’s on line joining up tool: https://www.australianunions.org.au/join .

Why are these questions relevant right now? (If not directly for you but certainly for people you know.)

There are several reasons.

In no particular order of significance they include: every Australian worker is exploited during their hours at work and they experience that as low or downward pressure on their pay, and pressure to work harder, to do more in less time; the progress of the case for an annual wage increase for at least 2.3 million workers on low wage rates; the overlapping ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) publicity campaign against the broken rules of the unFair Work Act 2009 (FWA09); the revelation of dodgy and very low pay rates for Uber drivers and others in “gig jobs”, and the collapse of enterprise bargaining as a vehicle for solid wage increases (See below for a little bit more on each of these reasons.)

In a broader sense bigger and more member-driven unions will make a difference in the campaign to reverse rising inequality and poverty by winning better pay increases and establishing new rights.

So, what might your (new) union membership mean?

Well, it might mean nothing at all. You are a passive member who simply holds your union “ticket”, maybe with some idea that it is an insurance policy that you hope you won’t need in the future.

Two questions arise, “Should you stay a passive member?”  And, “What might be being an active member actually mean?” (Especially if your employer is hostile to union members.)

If your employer is hostile to union members (familiar to most workers) you can bring your membership to life to your own advantage without the employer knowing you are doing so.

Clandestine membership is sensible, even recommended, until you and your work mates judge you have the strength in your workplace to make it unnecessary.

Being informed as the basis of being an active member

The first thing that can bring your union membership to life is to become informed, including from your own initiative.

You can pay attention to union news and read the material that is available at your union’s web site or Facebook page or is sent to you through your letter box.

You are an informed member through your own action. And your boss does not know.

Being informed: the next step

You can take “being informed” to a higher level by learning about your workplace minimum entitlements (and those of your workmates). Non-members can do this also.

The legally minimum standards on pay, conditions and rights are described in the FWA09, your relevant industrial Award, and your Enterprise Agreement (if you are covered by one). There are also minimum rights in Health and Safety and Equal Opportunity laws, but these will be discussed in a separate, future post.

As a member or non-member, you can obtain a copy of the minimum pay and conditions of employment for your job that are described in the National Employment Standards and in your relevant Award, and in your enterprise agreement if you are employed under one. All of these are public documents. (Remember your boss can provide better than the minimum “voluntarily” or through an enterprise agreement. A “voluntary” better deal can be taken away whenever your boss decides to.

You can read the National Employment Standards as defined in the FWA09 here, and you can access your relevant award here.

(If you want some help to find the Award that is relevant for you then contact your union or the ACTU, or even write to me at workersradio2017@gmail.com .)

Guess what? Being well informed about your minimum rights at work will make you feel good. Given the importance of work (even when we hate it) in our lives, the amount of time we spend trying to get there, and just being there, it’s a great feeling to become more intelligent and confident than you already are.

Becoming informed together – feeling even better

You do not have to be a trained lawyer to understand the information identified above.

For decades workers have learned how to read and understand awards and another standards a) by doing it, and then b) by doing it together. (Often without the boss knowing … at least until it was agreed that it was time to “come out”.)

Once you have informed yourself about the NES, your Award, and your Agreement (if one applies to you), you can work out who among your work mates and friends you want to share your knowledge with.

You will know who it is, but, and you already know it should be someone you trust. It might be just one other work mate, or you might be in a situation where you can start with several or even more than that.

Then, you sit down with your trusted workmate(s) and show them the document (the Award, the NES or the Agreement) and, together, look closely at the bits that are relevant to your workplace.

You make your own judgement about how strong your case might be to FIRST get more support from other workers and eventually to discuss the issues with your boss, or with a paid union organiser.

You are in command of your knowledge and your case. You can also decide whether you want advice from a paid union official.

Conflict with your employer?

This is a real issue, because conflict is embedded in the employer – worker relationship. It all depends when and how it rises to the surface. Your boss employs you and your mates because your work effort delivers the total income, and within that the profit, that he or she is in business to make. The lower the price of your labour or the harder you work the better for the profit objective.

One thing is for sure, every employer has some way of discussing with their peers, even if they are in competition with each other, what the price of your labour is, and any new ideas around to push it lower, and get away with it. So, when they learn as they do from a competitor about how they can pay lower, including below the legal minimum, or dodge a health and safety requirement, they will do so. (Honourable exceptions there might be, but’s all they are.)

If your boss disappears to the golf or bowls club once a week to catch up with other employers you know what they will be talking about, and it won’t just be the state of the greens.

Getting even more informed – feeling even better but pretty sober also

Sooner or later every boss uses the “competition threat” to push back your wages, conditions and rights.

Smart workers who want to protect and improve their wages and conditions need to know who the competitor company is for the one they are employed by. There might be several.

Once you know, the next step is to work out what the pay rates and other important standards are in the competitor(s). There are lots of ways to get this information but starting with word of mouth and private conversations is a good start. (Again, we can cover this separately.)

This is where a competent and committed paid union official can be really helpful. In fact, its one of the main reasons why paid union officials were created in the first place … to share good quality information around lots of workplaces in an industry in order to deal with the problem of the “competition threat”.

There is an important discussion point here: who is the “competition threat”? Is it the workers employed by the competitor company? Or, is it the owner of the competitive company?

Almost certainly you will “be informed:” that the workers in the competitive company are having (or already have had) the same experiences that you are going through. They might already have “insights” that will help you and, almost certainly you will have insights that help them.

By being informed you are watering the seeds of solidarity and, that is an extra good feeling.

Here is a bit more on the reasons for “getting involved”.

First, Australia’s Annual Wage Review (AWR18) run by the Fair Work Commission (FWC), is well under way. The employer organisations (for all employers) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions have lodged their submissions about what the 2018 increase should be.

At least 2.3 million workers are directly affected because they are paid at or marginally above the statutory minimum rates as defined by the FWC and by the 120 odd awards that set minimum standards including the minimum rates for a range of jobs within each industry. There are also at least hundreds of thousands paid at above the minimum, but who are not covered by enterprise agreements, who are also affected by the decision one way or another.

One behalf of workers the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has proposed an increase of $50 per week, about 7%. (For more information click here and here.) The credible employer claims are to permit an increase of only about 1.9%.

The ACTU claim is unique because it is lodged on behalf of all workers affected, whether or not they are members of their union. It is the only claim that will seek to challenge the poverty that workers on the minimum rates are subjected to.

This claim might lead to pay increases that benefit union and non-union worker alike. Should low paid workers who are not members enjoy a “benefit” enabled by their union member work mates who are in much the same or exactly the same shoes as they are?

The second reason, is the escalation of the ACTU’s “Change the Rules Campaign” (CTR) with a 6-week advertising campaign, followed in May by days of workers’ action.  Click here for more information.

The purpose of the ACTU campaign is to “Change the Rules” in the current Fair Work Act so that there are new and more powerful laws for workers, especially so that workers have more power to improve their take home pay and establish more secure employment.

On Wednesday March 22 the ACTU National Secretary, Sally McManus, delivered an important speech to the National Press Club in Canberra that outlined the purpose, aims and focal points of the CTR campaign.

One focal point is the broken rules for the Annual Wage Review process, that right now make it very hard for workers and their unions to use effective power to support their claims.

She concluded her speech by urging workers to “Join Your Union”. It will make a big difference to the CTR if there is membership growth across the board, as is now happening in some unions.

The third reason is because of what we now know about earnings in the “new economy”, or in “gig economy jobs”.

The latest research from the Centre for the Future of Work in the Australia Institute focused on Uber Drivers and was summed as follows:

The Centre for Future Work recently simulated the net incomes received by drivers working for the Uber-X service – which has come to symbolise the gig economy.  And our findings ratify the public concern.  On average across 6 Australian capital cities, we estimated that Uber-X drivers take home less than $15 per hour after paying Uber’s various fees, taxes, and the full costs of running their vehicle.  That’s well below the statutory minimum wage ($18.29 per hour), and less than half the weighted-average full minimum (adjusted for casual loading, evening, and weekend work) that waged workers in this industry should be receiving.  Underpayment of its drivers is the crucial source of Uber’s price advantage, that in turn has been crucial to its growing market share.  The report called on Australian policy-makers to reform current laws (in particular by clarifying that the concept of “employee” should indeed apply to workers in this sort of undertaking) to ensure the Uber-X drivers – and other “gig” workers – are entitled to the same basic protections as other workers in Australia.

Overwhelmingly “gig workers” tend not to be members of unions. One of the reasons for this is that they have fallen for the nonsense that they are their own boss because they can work when they like. This leaves a simple question: “How do they negotiate for a raise if they are comfy with their status as a self-employed person and work according to an “app”?”

The final reason is that enterprise bargaining, as the mechanism that was meant to enable pay and conditions above the minimum standards, has collapsed. (Please click here.) What happens in AWR’s is now even more important for most Australian workers.

Member or not? Passive or Active?

There are other reasons why becoming an active member of your union can make you a more intelligent, confident and happy worker. We have discussed these previously, along with many others, and we will return to them in future posts.

Also, we have not yet discussed the problems that do exist in our current unions. We can come back to that. Our starting point in that discussion is: as a member you have rights that make unions more democratic than any workplace and any other social organisations.

Unions are not a spectator sport.

How to join: https://www.australianunions.org.au/join

Author: Don Sutherland

I am a retired left wing and labour movement activist. Before that I worked for a long time in the Australian union movement in union education, Australian and international solidarity and organising. I am also active in Cuban solidarity, the SEARCH FOUNDATION, and promoting discussion, debate and action about green socialism based on workers control and social ownership.