Rebuilding unions

Former ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons delivers a sorrowful indictment on the state of unions today in his essay, “The Labour Movement: My Part in Its Downfall”, published in Meanjin.

The focus on political campaigning has “effectively excluded core industrial and organising issues”, Lyons asserts.

“The most effective way to influence politics and win sustainable gains for workers is to build a social movement that is permanent and independent of the electoral calendar.”

He says, “There is no future for trade unionism if people experience it as internet memes and random issue phone calling and door-knocking about how every election is very likely the end of the world. At best, this is palliative care for the union movement: It might make you more comfortable for the end or a miracle but it’s no cure for the underlying disease. It’s not about rebuilding the power of working people”.

“Each time there is an electoral fight of the sort we saw this year or in 2007, the union movement emerges weaker and more vulnerable, whether Labor wins or loses,” Lyons adds.

“Industrial relations must be about workers doing better, about rising incomes and better jobs. And the labour movement somehow managed to have very little to say about this. Which left us opposing cuts, loving Medicare and being committed to funding someone called Gonski.”

While our staffing agreement delivered important gains, ongoing job losses in TAFE, prisons, increased workload, non-teaching councillors and the 2.5 per cent wage cap illustrates our failure to deliver.

Active unionism around wages, conditions and cuts must take priority over political campaigning if we are to rebuild our power and influence. This will produce the permanent social movement that delivers our full Gonski.

John Gauci
Taverners Hill Infants

Federation’s policy on marriage?

As a retired and irrelevant but still interested member of Federation I would like to make a comment or two about the article “Plebiscite ‘will harm’” (Education, September 19). The article begins, “Federation is strongly in favour of seeing marriage equality legalised in Australia”.

In the first place, the use of the term “marriage equality” is begging the question, because the question of the acceptance of same-sex marriage being a matter of equality is part of a hotly-contested debate. One expects better from teachers.

What disturbs me most, however, is the idea that Federation has an official position of supporting a radical change in the definition of marriage. No doubt many members support the idea, and many no doubt do not, but the subject is completely outside the role that a trade union should have.

Finally, why Federation spokespeople should be against the federal government keeping its election promise by having a plebiscite, if a bit later than promised, is beyond me. The only valid objection is the cost, and that is greatly exaggerated by some interested parties. But it was a major election promise, and giving people a vote is hardly something to cause objection. There may be a few extremists on both sides, but surely most of us will be civil while having a robust debate.

David Morrison

President Maurie Mulheron replies: Federation has a long and proud history of supporting progressive social change. Over the decades, this has included support for nuclear disarmament, Aboriginal land rights, gender equality, equal pay, multiculturalism, refugees, protection of the environment, opposition to the Vietnam War and conscription and opposition to apartheid. Federation was the first union to support the NSW BLF Green Bans in the 1970s that saved so much of historical Sydney.

Many of the issues that the Federation championed at the time are now accepted as mainstream political positions even though they were regarded then, by some, as radical. Such is the nature of social change.

All policy positions taken over the years have been determined by the representative democratic decision-making bodies of the union.

Federation has also supported the rights of people regarding gender identity, sexual orientation and intersex status. This includes support for marriage equality legislation to allow consenting adults to marry.

Daily in our schools, many teachers are subjected to homophobia. This is unacceptable but it is also directed at vulnerable young people who are often without access to support within their community or family. For many students who might be grappling with personal issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, their daily lives can be miserable as they suffer abuse, insults, isolation and even violence.

The reality is that the plebiscite was a political construct designed to avert a factional war within the federal Coalition parties.

No minority in our society should ever have to endure a public debate about their human rights, nor should anybody else believe they can, through a plebiscite, extinguish those rights.

Teachers in our public schools play a significant role in creating a more cohesive community where difference is not merely tolerated but celebrated.

Fee payment strategy

It is of note that the advertising of the new Ambassador Card has received prominence in Education (September 19).

Is there a subtle hint here about members who are to receive their cards from late November?

Are the members who pay their dues by other means than those listed in the article about the Ambassador Card being urged surreptitiously to change their payment method, to suit an end?

Bill Barwood

Membership Officer Nicole Calnan responds: Federation is very excited about the role of the Ambassador Card and the associated benefits for our members. With the introduction of this new “member benefit” Federation was very keen to ensure that members were aware of its existence.

It has long been the practice that members who pay by direct debit, auto credit and payroll deduction receive their membership cards for the following year towards the end of November. Members who receive an invoice (“cash payers”) and who pay by the due date in the new year receive their cards in the first card run of the new year, which usually occurs in late January/early February. Given the rollout of the Ambassador Card member benefits program from 2017, it was important that we explained when members could expect to receive their cards.

Federation has for a long time now encouraged members to switch to direct debit or auto credit. At any one time, the majority of unfinancial members are those who receive an invoice and pay by “cash”. It is important that we continue to encourage members to remain financial, and the best way members can do this is by switching to direct debit or auto credit.

25pc is reasonable

It seems reasonable that donations to public schools are tax-free to encourage greater philanthropy from various quarters. If, however, governments use it as an excuse to underfund the public system, that is unacceptable. The suggestion that government contributions to private schools be about 25 per cent appears reasonable. If a school cannot operate on that plus parental fees perhaps it should not exist.

Augusta Monro
Life Member

Dancing around obligations

As usual, Jane Caro has got it right (Commentary, Sydney Morning Herald, September 23). Gonski is vital; yes, Labor, burned by Latham, was craven and naive in proclaiming that “no school would be worse off” but to watch federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham mouthing the standard political response to a fundamental education policy initiative is dispiriting.

He resorts to the weasel words of the various state governments, including the then newly-elected Labor government in Victoria, as they danced around their obligations. The standout exception in this field is the NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli and the NSW government. Schools of all stripes have responded positively to the encouragement of Gonski and the disadvantaged students have done likewise. When will we learn?

Gus Plater
Life Member

Aboriginal land — always will be

Wilsons Creek Public School recently installed a significant plaque recognising the Aboriginal history of our school site. If every public school installed a plaque of recognition, imagine the great step forward toward reconciliation!

Learning about the history of the land is a vital part of our school culture. With the installation of the new plaque, our students participated in a five-week learning program that explored the diversity of Aboriginal culture, celebrating this learning with some dancing and singing. Towards the end of the term, students will feast upon a Kuppa Murri prepared by the local community. Our Small School proudly stands and learns on the lands of the Awarknal Nation on the land of the great Bundjalung Nation.

Wil Constable
Wilsons Creek PS