Kath Haddon

About this interview

Kath Haddon talks about her time as a union activist, supporting the rights of cleaners and attending marches and protests.

Transcript: Kath Haddon interview.

Facilitator:                Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me.

Interviewee:             Not at all.

Facilitator:                So I guess we want to get a sense of your experience in your union.

Interviewee:             Yes.

Facilitator:                Perhaps we could start at the very beginning, so how you got involved, types of things you've done.

Interviewee:             I was a cleaner for 38 years.  I've just retired in September.  I took cleaning because my husband would come home from work and I'd take the car and go to work.  It was the only thing we could do with the kids and we needed the money.  I started work - they'd just opened a new state office block in Wollongong and I started there and seven out of the 11 women were - English was their second language.

                                 They were very intimidated by the supervisor.  He was a typical male chauvinist pig.  He called them wogs; he told me that I could work faster if I lost weight.  He would just say inappropriate things and constantly threaten us that if we didn't do a good job contractors would come in.  I'm not stupid.  It was a government cleaning building and it was government cleaning and there's no way contractors - we'd had a couple of toe-to-toe arguments about it.

                                 So I called in the union.  I'd never done that before.  I also called in his boss.  So we had a roundtable discussion and the ethnic women lost it.  They were just so intimidated by him sitting there and the big boss sitting there that they were too scared to say anything.  So the wash-up was at the end of it I was the only one doing the talking, and the organiser who was pretty new in the area at the time said to me, well you can be the delegate.  That's how it started. 

                                 I didn't know what a delegate was.  I'd been in unions but I'd never played an active role.  Then you would have the ethnic women particularly coming to you with little problems.  I don't think I'm getting the right additions to my wages - they could get a toilet allowance and things like that.  So we would look into it.  Sometimes it would be purely the supervisor, oh, I can't be bothered, she does that many jobs, I can't - no, that's not good enough.

                                 We need to have - and I thought you're taking advantage of these women because you think that they're not educated enough to know what they should be getting. So that became my role and then that was in the late '80s.  In the early '90s, government cleaning was sold off.  I think it was '93 we started to hear about it and it was sold off to contractors.  So I was quite involved in mounting the campaign and working on the campaign to stop the sale.  It didn’t work.  We were under Nick Greiner and then John Fahey at the time and, no, they wanted to get rid of us.

                                 But we were able to negotiate not too bad a contract.  From that we then had to fight to get redundancy and we were only paid a pittance but we got redundancy.  I always felt it's because we were mainly a women minority.  Women - the majority of cleaners are women, very few men.  We weren't allowed to join the superannuation, women were deemed to be just part-time workers, not really allowed to join it, it's only for men. 

                                 That was SASS, the government [union].  So we did a little campaign and eventually the government decided, okay, we'll let them join.  I think there was probably a law passed but we were campaigning down here saying, this isn't right, we have the right to join and to contribute.  Because it was contributory then, it wasn't compulsory.  So we won that right and it really inspires you what you can do when you band together and say, this is unfair, we know we're being taken advantage of and you're a bunch of idiots if you think we're going to put up with it.  So there were lots of little campaigns like that that we fought.

Facilitator:                Can I ask because you've already said - I mean just in the couple of minutes, packing in a whole lot, you've done that.

Interviewee:             Yes.

Facilitator:                You've already mentioned several campaigns and I wonder if we could go back to the sell-off, the government sell-off and you said you were part of the campaign.  Could you maybe explain a bit what that campaign looked like and what you did?

Interviewee:             My husband was involved in this.  We sent out - because it had to go to parliament.  Fred Nile got out of his sick bed to vote against us.  We decided we'd send faxes in those days to every parliamentarian we could find.  We didn't have a fax machine or access to one but my husband did and he was on night shift.  So when he went into the office, he was a supervisor, and when he went into the office on night shift he would fax all these MPs for me. 

                                 We actually clogged up one MP's machine, all these cleaners faxing.  So [Ken] would fax in my letter and several other people's letter to this parliamentarian.  So we faxed them all.  We had a protest and went to John Fahey's office in - he was [over the hill] in Mittagong or Bowral at that stage because that was his electorate.  We held a protest there and said, they're selling off government cleaning.

                                 We approached all the principals and all the teachers and they signed petitions saying they wanted to keep it the way it was.  We had many and varied attempts at getting media attention, a lot which worked, and our local ABC I ran in one day and they like to chat to people at seven in the morning.  Saying, this is what's happening, this isn't fair, and we're going to be contracted now, we're as good as the contract and then we're out of a job.  This isn't - we're not doing this because we like it, it's our job.  He invited me to ring in every week with an update.

Facilitator:                Wow, that's fantastic.

Interviewee:             So every week I would ring [Peter] and we'd chat and it was going on air and that was really good.  Months later I was introduced to our local parliamentarian at that time and he said, oh, yes, I've heard you on the radio.  I thought wow, I didn't think people knew - listen to cleaners on the radio.  We also wrote to The Mercury, our local paper.  So we were doing that locally but hoping it was going state wide. 

                                 I wasn't the only one.  The women in Goulburn were fantastic; they were doing the same thing, ringing their local radio stations every week.  They were in the local papers, the free handout papers, they were in school papers, like if you're high school had a little paper, we got into that.  So we were infiltrating on a grass roots level but trying to take it further.  That's I suppose when I first started to see how you put together a campaign, what you do, what the things - you approach people in a human manner.

                                 They need to see you and hear that you're now paying 17.5 per cent interest on your mortgage, that you're not rich, you're driving a car that's 10 years old.  These are real people and we have no guarantee that when this contract comes up again how long are the contracts for?  It was all clouded in secrecy, that we would have a job at the end of the contract.  It could be just gone and that was the fear.

                                 They did start to put together - the government ran a campaign where it was only really large companies that could contract for these sites.  They would have to take an area like the Illawarra, so you only had one contractor in Illawarra. They divided the state up into five or seven areas and each contractor could only own a minimum of two or three areas, I can't remember which and that's how they let the contracts.

                                 So we did get some input in that, they did take some notice of us because we kept saying, we need to have security.  They made the contractor's contracts five years with an option of two that the company could take up.  Those have always - and that's been 24 years, they've always gone for the options because the government can't be buggered writing the contract and having it in place on time.  So they always go to the options.  So that means you had seven years security.  You could buy a home, you could buy a car.      

Facilitator:                Can I ask you a little bit more because you said that the campaigns were really local and you said they went to local groups in different places.  So there was - you took on a particular role, did you…

Interviewee:             Not officially.

Facilitator:                Not officially, okay.

Interviewee:             Not officially but I worked with - and we had fantastic organisers, I worked with them.  They would say, if you can get in touch with - an example of that and it's where I got my idea for a phone tree came from.  If you can get touch with Dapto High there's seven cleaners there.  Three of them do a second job, so you've got into the third school, the third and fourth school.  So if go to Dapto High, talk to the cleaners, we've covered three sites in one, maybe more because their sister-in-law might be a cleaner at another site.

                                 So that's when we thought, yes, that's what we need.  So in those days people didn't have mobile phones, it was all ringing their homes after hours and that's what we did.  We would either go to that site or we would ring the cleaner after hours.  I worked a straight - in the government cleaning I worked an afternoon shift so I had my mornings.  So I would be out five o'clock to go and see some cleaners on a site, then back home to get the kids off, the teenagers off to school.

                                 Then try and ring a couple of people illegally from work at night time.  Because that was how I was getting through.  So with the organisers we divided up the areas and we know we're doing a far reach down at Bega and up near Sydney.  I was doing local and that's how we covered as many people in a shorter time.  We also had stop work meetings where we went on strike.  We had rallies, we marched on parliamentarian's offices and said, this isn't fair.

                                 It got a lot of publicity.  One of the parliamentarians - who was it at that time, I've forgotten now - he heard that we were coming or seen us coming and went out the back door.  So on the radio next time I reported I said we're going to call him back door Bob because he was going out the back door.  That really took off.  Wow, an offhanded comment, because he didn't want to face us and he never denied it, yes.

Facilitator:                So again, lots and lots in there.  So you said you developed a phone tree and you would get in touch with people that way.  Then you started mentioning types of actions that you would take, so just stop work meetings and strikes.  Is there any that stick out as being particularly significant?  I mean it's always significant when you go on strike or stop work but were there any?

Interviewee:             Well there was one where we went to Sydney and we marched on Parliament House there.  The Labor leaders of course at that time came out and fully supported us.  We never saw the Liberals or any of the others.  We tried to get Fred Nile to come out because we knew his vote was going to be important.  Wouldn’t meet with us.  But it was heartening to see how many people turned up.  We took buses from the Illawarra that were full, a lot caught trains up and we filled the street in front of Parliament House.

                                 There was thousands; we marched down from the park.  There were thousands of us there and it was amazing to see and feel the camaraderie there, hear the songs, listen to the speeches, and see the parliamentarians clapping us on.  That was really, really heartening, so that's probably the pinnacle of it.

Facilitator:                That was during the sell-off campaign or that was one of the other…

Interviewee:             Sell-off, the sell-off.  There was a minister for education, a lady, can't think of her name now.  God, see that's why I should have kept it all.  Once I've heard the name I'd remember it.  We tried to see her, there was under no circumstances, and she actually doubled her security because she would not speak or meet with any of us.  But she was in an electorate in Sydney somewhere and I know the cleaners got to see here, they ambushed her at something social.  They dressed up and went to it and said, we're really cleaners and you're getting rid of our jobs. 

                                 Of course, they always pass the buck and it wasn't us, it wasn't us, it's a budgetary decision.  But we wanted them to see real people and I think that's what's always stayed with me - it's real peoples' stories that win parliamentarians. They can't deny if you're telling them the story, they can't tell you anything other than listen to your story because it's just your story.  So, yes, that stayed with me.

Facilitator:                So with your activities down in this area, so you had the contacts with other cleaners, you had organised everyone, you also had the organisers who did their part.  Were there other rank and filers that you had a network with that you…

Interviewee:             Yes, yes, and still today we're friends.  We're all retired but we still see each other around and sometimes joke about the good old days.  Even one lady, I don't see or hear from her but I know she's well in Goulburn, we still network.  Well we did network quite strongly over that time, so you knew that by calling say, [Ruth] at Kanahooka High, I could get four schools there or those four lots of teachers, the cleaners would be told in a matter of hours.

                                 We got a lot of support from teachers.  Teachers who loved their cleaners at the school, they thought they were part of the school community and they were.  We got a lot of support from them and they would do things underhandedly.  In the big strikes a fella rang me up and he used to live next to us, I haven't seen him for 10 years, 15 years, he got married and moved on.  We moved from that house and we bought this house, and he rang me and he said, I just want to let you know that they've got scabs cleaning at our school. 

                                 I said, really, how do you know that?  Thank you for going to that much trouble, you've had to look up my address.  He said, I've heard you on the radio, seen you on TV, and I just want to let you know that they're cleaning our school because the missus went up to pick the kids up and there's cleaners there.  She asked around and she got their names.  Oh, that's so good, thank you so much.  So the next time we knew the cleaners would be on there we were there with our pickets sitting at the fence waiting for them to cross the line.      We said, cross this line and you'll never work again and they didn't.

Facilitator:                They didn't cross.

Interviewee:             No.

Facilitator:                So that's a pretty - there's not many people with that experience these days as a unionist.

Interviewee:             No.  One day the organiser and I who were quite good friends, we were friends with him and his wife, he rang me and he said - and this is nothing to do with my job - they had contract cleaners at the department of housing in Wollongong.  They're going to sack them all because they were bringing in a new contractor and he refused to pick them up.  These ladies had worked there for 20 years with five different contractors and he said, I just need a few bums on seats, can you spare a couple of hours.  Yes, yes, I'll come.  I went in there and they called the police.  He was arrested and carried off and we thought, what do we do?

Facilitator:                The organiser was or…

Interviewee:             The organiser was carried off, he was arrested, because we sat in the foyer and said, we want to speak to somebody.  No, you can't.  Well we'll stay here until you find somebody.  They called the police and he was carted off.  They took him to the police station and let him go but we said, what do we do?  He said, just go home.  So we went home.  I thought, oh, we're all going to be carted off.

Facilitator:                Yes, right.

Interviewee:             Yes.  Ken always says, I'll bail you out love; I'm not cooking tea for those kids.


Facilitator:                Well that's a good motivation.  I mean all of that is quite intense union activity.  You said to begin with that you had been a member of the union before but you hadn't been active.         

Interviewee:             No.

Facilitator:                So what was your background knowledge of unions and where did that come from?

Interviewee:             You know when you get your first job as a child and I was 15 and mum and dad said, oh, you've got to join the union.  A lot of the unions - well particularly government cleaning was closed shop.  You joined the union before you got a job.  Although I wouldn't have said mum and dad were staunch unionists, they believed in the union.  They believed in the Labor party and they had very strong beliefs that the unions were going to make the country great and the unions would give us a fair deal.

                                 One of the possessions I kept when my father died was he had a key ring full of union badges going back years.  I thought I have to keep those.

Facilitator:                What did he do?

Interviewee:             That was Transport Workers' Union.

Facilitator:                Okay.

Interviewee:             Yes, so the union thing was always there.  I lost mum and then my father remarried but dad and I a lot of our conversations would be about politics and union.  He was not an educated man, he was a very simple man, but he took a real interest in it.  It was one of the binding things because dad and I didn't have a lot in common but unionism.  Years later, dad lived in Cooma, we marched on Parliament House [over Peter Rees]. 

                                 Anyway there was a big thing, people got knocked over and dad knew I was there too.  Dad knew I was on the bus and I was going to it and he had joked to me and said, if I was younger I'd meet you there love.  The first thing I had to do when I got home was ring dad and say, I'm all right dad, it was fine dad, because again no mobile phones in those days.  I'm fine dad.  He was so proud of himself; he sent me the little clipping.  They had a protest in Cooma years later when they shut the jail because it was deemed to be not necessary but it was a big employer of the town.  The prisoners used to do the [gardens] and stuff.  I mean I'd seen them around all my life, they were always there.  Dad and my stepmother went to the protest and he said, my first protest.

Facilitator:                Oh, his first protest, there you go, yes, okay.

Interviewee:             Yes, and I thought that's because you and I have talked about it so much and we bonded over protest.

Facilitator:                So it kind of worked both ways.

Interviewee:             I thought it did.

Facilitator:                He started, yes.

Interviewee:             Because he would then talk about things that were happening locally that he was disappointed in and there should be a protest about that, they should be on strike.  Of course, in his day in his own way, he was a staunch Labor unionist.  My two brothers, one is dead now, they were both unionists too in their own union.  Yes, so they were activists in their own unions.  So I suppose it - I don't know where it came from, probably just mum and dad talking.

                                 I remember I was brought up in the Menzies' era; they never had a good word to say about that man or about his wife.  My mother particularly hated his wife.  I don't know what that was about.

Facilitator:                That's really interesting, so there was this background there that came to the fore.

Interviewee:             Yes, just kind of laying dormant until I started to make waves.  I know mum and dad were both disappointed that I didn't do better, I was a cleaner.  But they came to accept that it was just a fact of life and this is what I was going to do.  I was too lazy to change and do anything else. I was just making a living and rearing kids.

Facilitator:                I have to say it doesn't sound very lazy there [unclear]. [Laughs].

Interviewee:             Too un-activated to do something else with my life and they were disappointed with that.  But when I became so involved in the union by then mum had gone.  Dad was quite proud of it and he would tell his friends, oh, she's on some picket line somewhere.

Facilitator:                Which leads to me a question of - so you're involvement started as a delegate out of that first situation with the supervisor.

Interviewee:             Yes.

Facilitator:                What then was your attachment to the actual union?  So you've started to paint a picture here of the local activism with the cleaners, what about with the actual union?

Interviewee:             Well because I was involved down here, again the organiser at the time said, I'd like you to apply for state council and go on that.  I thought, I wonder what that's about.  He told me bits and pieces about it and by then the girls were getting a little bit more independent and Ken said, yes, I think we can cope with that, once a month in Sydney, you'll be fine.  So I would go but I'd have to work all day and then come home and go up and we had night meetings so we went late in the afternoon, seven o'clock at night and we wouldn’t get home until midnight.

                                 It was very hard but I enjoyed it so much because I could see not just cleaning, which is where my passion is, but other industries, child care, security.  At the time, we had a very big manufacturing industry, Coca-Cola and Kodak, they're all gone now.  But I was really interested in how they dealt with things and from that after being on the state council for maybe 10 years, I think it was Chris Roper] was running the union, then he said to me, I think you're ready for brank executive.

                                 I went, oh.  So you're still only up here once - you just go to two meetings and you can have half a day off work.  This is good.  So I started to go to branch executive.  We actually had the right to guide the union in things we thought were important.  I thought this is where I want to be. I want to have my say before they pass laws or they make suggestions, I want to be able to have my say.  It was encouraged and fostered. 

                                 If you said something and they didn't have time to flesh it out with you, they would quite often ring you afterwards and say, I know you were getting at this, what do you actually mean or how would you like that worded?  Then we're doing award negotiations, do you think you could come and sit on that?  That was just - yes, I'm going to be there.  I want to tell those owners of the companies that - by this time we were contractors - that if I clean a toilet I deserve a toilet allowance.  Whether it's one executive toilet or a block of toilets at the high school, I'm subject to the same conditions, it might be a prettier toilet but it's the same impact on my health - could be. 

                                 Because they've always tried to do away with that, oh, you're only cleaning executives' ensuites, you're not cleaning [unclear] toilets.  Yep, we are.  Then they talked about one of the other sticking points and I was so glad I was there.  They talked about giving us a higher rate of pay and taking away the RDOs.  Immediately I knew if they took away the RDOs, the school closed for two weeks.  They're not going to pay us two weeks to clean that school, they're only going to pay us a week, I'm going to be stood down for a week because you've got no RDOs.

                                 A lot of people live week to week and even though they might be getting a higher pay they're not going to save it for that week that they're stood down and there is a stand down clause.  No, no, we can't wear that under any circumstances.  They have it in commercial cleaning but we've never kept it in government cleaning or schools as they call it now.  We've always been able to negotiate so that we're on a lower wage but we get paid for the RDOs, we're paid RDOs, and we accumulate those and we take them through the school holidays.  But that is such a saving grace.

Facilitator:                That was during award negotiations.

Interviewee:             Yes.

Facilitator:                Okay.

Interviewee:             That was before we all had to go to EBAs.  But I thought that was true democracy because it was actually the union, like Chris Roper, and the people that ran the union asking us, well how will that affect you?  Bloody hell, it'll affect me and everybody else.  So I could see how being a branch exec was very important because it gave me a voice to say, this is what's going to happen to every cleaner in New South Wales if you do that.

                                 Well, yes, that would be a good thing.  It also gave me a chance to say what I wanted in the contract, what I thought we needed in the contract when the contracts were up for renewal and what we would lobby the government to get.  I have been involved in those lobbying's where we've gone to ministers and said, this is what we need.  They might not have been big wins but they were wins that we needed.  I suppose from there I was on the branch exec and branch council for some time.

                                 Then again, Chris Roper said to me I think you could be on the national council.  I thought wow, what does that mean?  What do you do there?  He said, we actually pass the laws and nothing can be passed without the national council voting on it.  So I went on the national council and that was about - I was on that for about 18 years before I retired.  I loved that. I made friends.  I don't know, maybe it's just cleaners but when you meet people from the other states - I'd find out who the cleaners were and we would have a little get together and I met some amazing women and I had some amazing experiences.

                                 It was great to hear what was happening in their state and what was happening in my state.  I mean Victoria was then sold off and given away by Jeff Kennett and it just went on and on.  So it was really interesting to be on national council and even if the first council or so -you just networked with the other people, you soon got the gist of what was happening and you were able to say things and bring points up or call them on points you didn't agree with.

Facilitator:                Which is what I wanted to ask next is, so what do you think you particularly brought to those different - so the state council, state exec, national council, what do you think you brought that was uniquely you?

Interviewee:             Probably just the life experiences of a cleaner.  Nothing great, I didn't make any great changes but they would hear my perspective on things and how it would affect me.  So I think we did have some input, we had a voice.  We're quite a large part of - the community services is quite a large group of people in the union, in New South Wales particularly.  So I thought we were - I was their voice and it rested on me to make sure they got a fair go. 

                                 They got a fair hearing and our voice in the decision making, whether it was about fee rises or whether it was about buying new cars for the union.  We got to have a say in that.  But I don't think I brought anything personally, I think it was just you’re a cleaner and it's your job to put across how it will affect your work mates.

Facilitator:                It's interesting because it's clear from what you've been saying that you're a natural leader.  Did you see yourself as that at the time?

Interviewee:             No, no, I didn't.  I really don't see myself as a leader, I just - I think I'm a person that doesn’t like unfairness.  Where I see unfairness I want to change it, whether it's the way ladies with English as a second language are being treated or whether it's - it could be anything.  I just hate unfairness.  So I think that's where it comes from.  I don't think I'm a leader and I don't think I've ever led, I've just been part of the body that represents the cleaners.

Facilitator:                Okay, and there may be some who beg to differ on that.  What do you think - so you've given some highlights, what do you think the greatest achievement was of the campaign that you were involved in?

Interviewee:             Bob Carr as Premier.  Annie Owens was secretary, and we'd been lobbying the education minister and yes, yes, yes, he was saying all the right things.  The next contract is going to have this, the next contract is going to have that, yes, yes, yes.  We got a briefing on what the contract was going to contain and basically it said everybody would be terminated on that day.  If the new contractor came in and chose to pick you up on the next day, good luck.  There was no guarantee of ever having a job.  So you were as good as the end of that contract and you didn't have to be picked up by the next contractor.

                                 In 93 days we turned that around.  In 93 days we had a contract which said, every cleaner in New South Wales owns their hours.  So by that time I was a 40 hour a week, eight hours a day cleaner.  I owned that until the day I retired unless I choose to take less hours.  So if they - and it did happen.  The TAFE I was leading hand at closed; they had to send me somewhere else with eight hours.  That was my biggest win.  What we didn't do - and I hope we do next time is also site hours.  Because they can come in - and when I retire they can cut my hours and the next cleaner only gets six hours.

                                 We're saying now, I own my hours but the site owns those hours too, don't mess with them anymore.  So I think that was our biggest win, 93 days we convinced Bob Carr.  Again, that culminated with a rally in Sydney.  We marched down to their offices in - is it Macquarie Street where they go?

Facilitator:                Yes.

Interviewee:             Yes, we marched from the park down past Parliament House, down to their offices.  I remember standing in the back of the UTE and telling the other cleaners that we weren't going to stand for this, we were real people, we did a real job, we could shut the schools.  We did shut the schools for three days.  We could win this, we just needed to stand together and be strong and we won it.  I was over the moon.  I couldn't wipe the smile - Annie Owens rang me and there were tears in her voice and she said, we've done it, they've backed down, we're getting it.  Oh, Annie.

Facilitator:                Fantastic.

Interviewee:             Yes, yes.

Facilitator:                So, on the back of a ute, giving a speech.  [It’s not leading]?

Interviewee:             Yes, I know you think that.  The thing is I'm just well-known because I've always been involved in community things too and the cleaners around here just know me.  I wouldn't say - I think they'd give me the courtesy of thinking, oh, well she knows what she's talking about so we'll just listen to her, but, no.

Facilitator:                So interesting, so you're also involved in a lot of community activities in the community, so was union work an extension of that?

Interviewee:             I didn't get into that until after the union.

Facilitator:                Right.

Interviewee:             I heard about this campaign and they're going to put a telephone pole up where my grandson, who is now 22, had just started school, a mixed pre-school.  All the parents were there saying, oh, it's terrible, terrible, but what are we going to do about it.  They can't just do this; they can't do that without consultation.  Quietly the pre-school said to my daughter, we really need to get some community input.

                                 So again, we started and what I'd learned from the union, let's ring the papers, let's write to the papers, let's get a petition going, if we don't make 10,000 signatures it doesn't matter.  We just want them to know there's one going, let's ring Telecom and tell them that - this was Telecom then - that this is what we're going to do and we totally disagree with it and we want to see proof that it's not going to hurt our darlings.  They moved the tower.

Facilitator:                Okay.

Interviewee:             It was really lovely because I occasionally picked up my grandson because I did mornings and I could pick him up in the afternoon and bring him home, pop and I would mind him.  When I went in there the first day after they got the word all the teachers are clapping me in and they're making the kids clap, it's nana.  I thought oh, God.

Facilitator:                Fantastic.

Interviewee:             That was probably one of the highlights.  These little kids calling me nana and clapping me in.

Facilitator:                That's fantastic.

Interviewee:             That was just lovely but it wasn't me it was just gearing up the other parents, this is what we've got to do and if you could ring ABC tomorrow morning and say you've got a child here, because I actually don't have a child, it's a grandchild, so just giving them the tools to know what to do.  Then of course there was other protests over the years when they tried to take our library out of Dapto TAFE, we had a big protest all out the front. 

                                 Taking - ripping the guts out of TAFE and of course then just before I retired the protest which went on for about two years to try and stop Dapto TAFE from being shut.  We had every minister we could get down - both Liberal, Labor, and Greens.  The liberals never come but I made good friends with the Green, and John Kaye died, he was such a lovely man.  He came down.  [Rhiannon] came, they all came and said, we shouldn't do this.  We wrote to the Mercury, we had petitions, we did the whole thing but at the end of the day they gave them a shop in Dapto and they shut the TAFE which is sad.

                                 But from that, when they decided to shut the TAFE I was moved to Shellharbour TAFE  and I only had a couple of months before I retired.  Before the shop was going to be opened in Dapto, the Connector shop, we had a little preview the day before with the minister, the shadow minister for education and our local members here.  Our Teachers' Fed rep I love, Rob Long of the TAFE teachers.  He rang me and said, can you come?  Yes, I'll be there.  So I carefully put a jacket on in the middle of the heat, put a jacket over my uniform and I went to it.

                                 A couple of days later, my boss rang me here at home and said, we've just had a directive from TAFE, you're not allowed on their sites, any of their sites, you're not allowed to go there.  I said, what's it about, I'm very honest, I don't nick stuff, what's it about?  I'm good with my hours?  She said, I don't know, we're going to investigate tomorrow.  When they went to see the head of TAFE she said well she was protesting against the opening of Connect and she was in work hours in her uniform.

                                 I'd taken half a day roster to go over there and I had a jacket on.  When they told me that I said, no, that's a lie.  I took half a day roster, it's all documented and I had my jacket on and at no time did I speak to the media, I was just there and she recognised me because I'd been protesting all along.  They said, well you're not allowed on any other sites.  By that time it was so close to when I retired, that was very late April, early May and I was leaving in May going on long service until September. 

                                 Because I knew so many people I kept saying, come to the TAFE, we're going to have morning tea at eight o'clock when everybody knocks off.  I had Ken all lined up, we were bringing all this food down, we were going to have a cup of tea and anybody who could was going to call in.  That's all I wanted, a very simple - didn't want any fanfare but I wanted to see the real workers, my friends, from all the schools.  Everybody and their dog was coming.

                                 Eventually Menzies, my employer got to speak to this director of TAFE and she said, well she can come back and she can stay for three weeks until she retires but I don't want her here and it's under sufferance.  In the meantime, I also brought up some very outstanding health and safety issues I'd seen and that didn't impress her.  Anyway, they said well you can't have your party there and they knew about it.  You can't have your party - I said, I don't want it, I really don't want it.  I just want to leave with dignity but I want to leave from TAFE, I don't want to be shunted off to a school for three weeks.

                                 They even said to me, you can home and we'll pay you.  I said, no, I'm going back and I'm going to clean her windows every day so she knows I'm there and I did.  My mate and I, [Noel], he worked there too, we would go and hose around there and clean around there every day so she knew I was there.  At something, I can't even remember what it was I ran into Rob Long of the Teacher's Fed and he said, how is it going?

                                 I said, oh mate, they suspended me and they did this and they did that.  He said, I don't believe it.  So he went to something with the director of TAFE and he said, I think it's disgusting what you've done to the cleaner there.  I know she's not an employee of [you] but the way you've treated her - and she said, I don't know anything about it.  He says, well this is what's happened.  He said, 15 minutes later she rang me back and he said, tell that lady she can stay there as long as she likes and she can have whatever she wants. 

                                 So I thought that was just the [powers] but by then I was over it and I'd said to all the cleaners, no, look please, nothing.  I just want to go.  Well the ladies I worked with there gave me a morning tea but I guarantee every cleaner called in that day.  It was just lovely to see and they were very, very kind.  But I thought that's just such a shit way to leave.  I just wanted to leave with dignity.  Of course, in the meantime the union were very - working in the background saying, really this is going to happen.

                                 Do you know what's going to happen to you and the publicity you're going to get and you will get it. They're suspending her and saying she can't work on TAFE because she protested against a community issue.  As I said, in the press and on the radio many times before, all my grandchildren won't make it to uni, all of them need TAFE.  You're taking the heart out of the community by taking away a really good asset.  But I was there for 26 years, I watched them downgrade that asset over 26 years and it was all budgetary.  No one wanted to pay for anything.  

Facilitator:                I mean quite an ending but I suspect that wasn't the only time that you'd come up against employer resistance to your efforts.

Interviewee:             Oh no, I got suspended years ago for three days; I'd just bought a new car.  We don't buy new cars and Ken always had a work vehicle that they supplied so for us to buy a new car is pretty pricey.  Sixteen years ago it was; the car is 16 years old.  Then we had a building put on the TAFE and they kept saying, oh, we'll work it out, we'll work it out. I said, you need a couple of hours to clean that, it was a new building, yes. 

                                 Anyway they came in and they said, we're not going to put any hours in, all we want you to do is change around the girls’ working hours so they don't know they're absorbing that.  Oh come on, those women aren't stupid, they know they're getting it because they were taking a demountable but putting up a building.  [They know] come on, no, I'm not doing it.  They said, all right, you clean it, you clean the lot.  You’re the…

[Over speaking]

Facilitator:                Because you were the leading hand?

Interviewee:             Yes.

Facilitator:                Right, okay.

Interviewee:             You clean the lot, you do the toilets, you do everything.  I'll do the toilets because I'm paid the toilet allowance but I'm not doing the rest.  They said, are you refusing to work?  I said, no, I'm refusing extra work. They said, all right, you're suspended.  I had to come home and say to Ken, maybe we shouldn't have bought the car.

Facilitator:                Gosh.

Interviewee:             He said, no, we'll be all right love.  So they suspended me for three days, Menzies did.  In that time, the union just worked behind the scenes, things I didn't know was going - but they were always ringing me and saying - Annie Owens and [Sonia Mentelli] saying it will be all right, we can prove they're lying.  Because they're saying, oh, we're only getting $200 for cleaning it.  That's bullshit.  After three days I had to meet with them in there one morning.

                                 Sonia, who was the assistant secretary, and my organiser, were there with me and they flew up this bloke from Melbourne with the two Menzies bosses and my supervisor so we were greatly outnumbered.  But I'll never forget, oh, Sonia you're so good.  they said, oh, we're not getting paid anything and the boss down here said, I just want her sacked, I want her gone, she's a trouble maker, I just want her gone.  He said that in front of them.

                                 Sonia had done her homework and through the Freedom of Information she got the figures that they were actually being paid.  She threw them on the table and he said, I'll have you for that, that's privileged information.  No, under Freedom I'm entitled to get that and when it impacts on the worker's life and dah, dah.  The boss from Melbourne - you know I'm sitting there watching this thinking oh, Sonia that's so good, how did you do that?

                                 I'd had three very stressful days and the girls I worked with constantly are ringing me and crying and saying, what happens if you don’t come back?  Other people too were calling in and saying, what's going to happen, we've heard about it?  I remember the boss from Melbourne leant across the table and he said to me, what do you want?  I said, what I want is half an hour for each of the girls to clean that there and I'm sitting here in a shirt that's six years old.  The minute I send in an order it's gone, I never get what I want, I'm not given any respect.  When I order something I expect to get it.  I'm not playing games with you.

                                 We all got new uniforms the next day.  The girls got their time.  I had to pick up the toilets, no great harm there.  But it was probably - I think Menzies after that just thought back off, leave her alone.  She will do what's she's going to do and she knows a lot of people.  So that was a real eye opener to me that Sonia had gone to all this trouble to actually get the facts and figures and put them on the table and said, don't lie anymore.  That's great, how did you that Sonia?           

Facilitator:                Was there ever a time when you thought, oh, this is way too much trouble than it's worth in terms of your union activity?

Interviewee:             Oh, yes, loads of times.  I mean you've got to remember that you know it's wrong and you think just do your bloody work love.  It's what you're getting paid for.  It's not an easy job, it's not a thankful job, but if you take it on and you want the money you do the work.  You think - I've been on inspections where I've thought yes, I wouldn’t use that toilet and still to the boss you've got to say, oh, but they just need re-training.  You know that's a lie, you know that they are lazy but yes, you think this is too hard, I don't want to do this.

                                 I was lucky enough that most of the organisers and most of the Menzies bosses I had to work with were kind enough to know that I was fair dinkum and that if I said it, well maybe we could give them some more training, I'm happy to come and work with them.  That they knew that I would have a go and we'd get round it but, yes, many times I have thought, oh, it's too hard.  In the middle of a campaign, always in the middle you think, we're not going to win it. 

                                 You self-doubt and you think I've asked all these people to do all this and if we don't win it I will feel like I've let them down.  That's in both community and union campaigns.  You want to know that you've done as much as you can and you're going to win it because you've told them, we're going to win this, we can do this.  Yes, but always self-doubt, you always doubt yourself.  I don't think you always think you're Donald Trump, you can do amazing. I can't.  I'm just an average person.

Facilitator:                What about in terms of managing when you had a job, at the union, which was a lot of time and family as well, what impact - how did you manage that?

Interviewee:             Luckily Ken was always happy to have fish and chips if I was busy.  I think family support is a big thing.  The girls knew this was mum's only hobby, mum doesn't knit or sew. I was always there for everything they were involved in and always played a role in their life, a big role, the biggest.  They never felt deprived because of mum's union work.  My eldest daughter told me once she was embarrassed a couple of times when people said, was that your mum on TV?  Yes, okay.  Yes, I know, she's okay.

                                 But you have to be very time management - you have to realise what's important and get that done and move on because you haven't got time to linger.  So, yes, it does have an impact and I think that's why a lot of women don't take it up because it is an impact and you have to be very time - manage your time.  Yes, so it's all about time management but I've always been good at that.

Facilitator:                So you do think that for some women…

Interviewee:             Too much, too hard.  They can't be doing that, going to Sydney every month.  That was my day out.  No, that sounds silly but that was your passion and I enjoyed that.  I used to drive up and back and then I thought I'm too old for this, I'd be tired coming home and a couple of times I was held up because of traffic or accidents and Ken would worry, again, no mobile phone.  So I started to catch the train and, yes, the train journeys sometimes were a bit tedious, things would happen and you'd be late.

                                 But I don't think you can do it without family support and with a family even though you might embarrass them they know you're doing it for good.  You're not an evil person; you're doing it because you believe in what you're doing.  Luckily, all the girls, all our daughters, the four of them, have all been the same type of people.  They've been - they believe in what they're doing or they wouldn't do it.  I know our eldest one with the baby, when she left uni she was involved in finance. 

                                 But she said once, I can't stand letting people get into financial difficulties when I know they shouldn't be doing it, I can't do this anymore.  She left and went teaching.  Now she's leaving that to go counselling.  Every 10 years she changes jobs.  It was her wedding anniversary yesterday.

Facilitator:                A general question now, based on your involvement and your - the extent of time you've been involved with the unions and you would have seen a lot.  So what do you think comparing when you first got involved and now, what do you think the biggest challenges are for unions?

Interviewee:             Membership, definitely.  I said to Mel once and the look on her face, I said, Mel I used to read these reports and it'd be 42,000 members and now we're down to 18,000 or 19,000.  She said, oh my God, really.  I said, yes, in my lifetime Mel, in my lifetime.  You know we were a strong - and if you had a strike you knew you could 90 per cent of the cleaners out.  If we had a strike tomorrow we'd get 20 per cent of the cleaners out. 

                                 That's my big thing, apathy, they think oh, just - oh, that's okay.  They don't realise that they're giving up conditions that women before them, and mainly women, fought for in our industry.  Things like the allowances they get, things like the 40 hour week, things like four weeks’ holiday, 17.5 per cent leave loading, maternity leave.  In the last EBA we asked for domestic violence leave, we're not going to get it but we need to start having that conversation. 

                                 We need to get that out there and talked about.  I just think that's wonderful that the union is taking that kind of community approach to our EBAs.  But not everyone sees that, they just want a payroll, they just want to go to work.  I don't know how to say this; the people that work in our industry aren't terribly well educated.  So this is as good as it's going to get for them and they can't see that by being strong they can make things better for themselves.

                                 It's been good to see the campaign against the penalty rates, weekend penalty rates, because that will affect our industry.  We're paid at a higher rate because we start at five in the morning.  You start at 7:30 and there are cleaners, they get a lower rate.  So we used to call that early morning start allowances, built into our rate.  So when you go out and you say to cleaner now, well eventually that could affect us because it's about penalty rates and we have got a built in penalty rate.  They're amazed.  I think how can you not know that? 

                                 You've all got the pay rates and see that half past seven gets less per hour than you.  We think well that's right, they wouldn't look at that, they just look at their pay doc.  So you have to think of that when you're talking to people and be aware that they're not always as interested or clued up.  When I get anything I read it all, not everybody does that.

Facilitator:                Yes.  So do you think you've seen a big shift from when you were first involved?

Interviewee:             Yes, apathy.  As I say, when I first started it was a closed shop.  If you weren't a union member you couldn't work for government cleaning.  I know that's not always a good thing but I think in some ways I could see it being a good thing because it made people become part of something, and part of something that's working better for them.  When I've said that to other people they say, you sound like a communist. Really, do I? 

                                 It's like compulsory vaccination; I would see that as a good thing.  Other people see it as a - taking away their liberties.  I don't know, I'm not smart enough to work that out but I don't think closed shops were a bad idea.  My father always thought, until he retired, I think he thought everybody had a closed shop.  You couldn't work if you weren't in the union.


Facilitator:                So having retired relatively recently, what do you miss, union involvement or - and if you do what about it?

Interviewee:             Yes, I miss the day-to-day running.  You went to Sydney every month, you knew what was happening, you don't now.  You knew about the campaigns that were coming up, not always in your industry.  They did a fantastic one with HomeCare over a year and child care Big Steps. You knew about those things, terribly interesting, not as good as cleaning but very interesting.  You're never going to get child care to be as militant as cleaners.  I miss that.  I miss the day-to-day contact of my workmates but I'm doing a voluntary thing for the union.

                                 I go and visit some sites and so once every term I visit these schools and I talk to the cleaners and hopefully sign some members.  I think it's the old thing, you lead by example.  If you show them at the end of your working life you are still passionate about, you believe it's the right thing.  Tt might make them think well there must be something in it because she never shuts up about it.  So there must be something in it.  I wouldn't say I was the right person. 

                                 Once Mel joked and said, do you want to be an organiser?  No, hung around with too many to know I don't have the patience with some people that they have.  I'd go onto one site and there's a non-unionist who has refused to join the union for years but he always wants to hear what I've had to say.  I'd say, sorry mate, union members only, you want to join - now our organiser would go and have a chat to him.  I'm just cutting him off enough, mate you're wasting members' money.  I don't want to talk to you. 

                                 I do it as nicely as possible but, no, I'm not playing his game where he's got all the information to spread around without any input.  An organiser would do that differently, I know they would, I just have no tolerance for it.  Because I've been a union member, paying the fees, well you're getting the pay rises and everything I've got and you've never put a penny in.  It's not just about the money, it's the involvement.  I like people to be active too.

Facilitator:                All right, well that's been absolutely fascinating, really impressive and fascinating.  Is there anything else that you reflect on about your time?

Interviewee:             We lost an organiser here that I was very good friends with, he died of bone cancer.  I'm still friendly with his wife.  I pick these people up and they're my friends forever.  The secretary at the time, Mark Boyd, came down to the funeral and he came and had a cup of tea after the funeral.  He said to me, we were moving - and I thought this was very sad, we were moving from a paid official president to an honorary because of the numbers, purely about the numbers.

                                 He said, I'd like you to fill that role.  I was really honoured but upset at the time that we couldn't afford to have a president.  I did fulfil that role for about 18 months before I retired and it was lovely.  Mel asked me who are we going to have to take your place?  At the same time, both of us said Amy, so we knew, we're on the one wavelength.  Amy is young and a childcare worker and this is going to be great, she will be fine. 

                                 But the sadness is to see the union have to condense down.  Like the organiser down here we had, he resigned and they're not going to replace him.  The regional organisers are gone.  The regional organisers were like the lifeline.  If you had a problem they would come and see you and talk to you and now we ring Member Service and they're good but you don't have that same relationship.  As an activist, I think it was important to have a relationship with every one of those organisers. 

                                 There was only two out of many of them that I didn’t really get on with.  One of them went on to be a Member of Parliament, Noreen Hay, I forgot about that, and the other one just recently retired.  I think I just - we didn't click and I think he thought I was a know it all and knew too much, I don't know, but we never really clicked.  But I worked with him and I still put a good front forward for the union because you don’t want people to think that you don't like them because that's not a good look.

                                 You've got to pretend you have confidence in them when you don’t.  But, no, I think that regional organisers are - now that they've gone I think that's a sad thing for the union.  I hope and I know Mel is working hard with limited resources, I hope we can grow it enough to reinstate them.  But when I first became a delegate, we had a sub-branch secretary and an organiser down here and a girl in the office full time.  When [Stephen] resigned, the last one, there was just Stephen and no support.

                                 Of course, technology has changed.  I mean they have iPads and stuff now, they never had and mobile phones.  Everybody has those now.  So I know things have to move with the times.  I just think it's very sad that we had to get rid of regional organisers and I'm sure - I know it wasn't a decision that Mel made lightly.  When Mel had rang me to talk about it and she said - I said I could see it happening Mel and maybe if we did a blitz every few months with half a dozen organisers come down and visit sites and try and sign members.

                                 She said, I'm glad to hear you say that because I was dreading telling you.  But, yes, you don't like it any more than me but it's what has to be done for the bottom line.  They employed two fellas, one of them I actually knew, [Troy], to do a - well I don't know him personally, I know who he is, yes, I've seen him at things.  They said that this is what had to happen to survive or we're just not viable.  I remember years ago somebody saying, yes, when you get to under 20,000 members you're not viable. I thought we're there, we're there.

                                 So luckily, previous presidents and secretaries were able to make good investments and we have some money.  But when we need to run on members fees I understand that  and I probably wouldn't understand that if I wasn't on all those things all those years and subcommittees, and other committees, and I can't even remember them all.  Somebody asked me once to write down the protests I'd been on.  I thought I don't know.  Again, I never kept anything.

Facilitator:                Were you ever delegate to [South Unclear] Council or…

Interviewee:             No, not really, I did go to some of them but, no, not really.

Facilitator:                Just thought I'd ask that.

Interviewee:             I do know [Arthur] and I've done things for Arthur and he has for us.

Facilitator:                All right, well look, thank you, that's absolutely fantastic and if, as I said, there are photos and things that come to hand or that you're happy to…

Interviewee:             I'm happy to show you one now that the union gave me.

Facilitator:                Great.

Interviewee:             A little brag book and it's just some of the protests we were on.  That was when I was opening a delegate's conference.  That's meeting with Julie Owens in Parliament House, one of the MPs.  Again with Julie, this is the National Council with [Louise].  We went door knocking in Nowra last year over the weekend penalty rates and they took photos of me talking to some of the people.

                                 Oh, my hero.  I had a girl crush on Penny, I want it for my daughter and just with Bill, and another delegate, we've been friends for 20 years, she's from Tasmania.  Peter with Bill.  Penny came over and said, I want to meet that woman, I love her, and Bill Shorten said, bring them over here.  Yeah, right. Isn't it terrible?  One of my last protests, they were cutting the hours on this site and this was about two years ago.  We did our picket line at the school, Lakelands, one of the schools over here.

                                 The cleaner had been moved, he was an eight hour cleaner, moving him to another site and they were just bringing in six hours then.  Yes, so that was one of the last protests.  They’re just - my mate has left and he now works for [Tanya] and of course Mark is with - he rang me to say goodbye which was lovely.  I can't remember but I think that was when we were marching for the worker's rights in Sydney because Annie and Sonia were still with us then.

                                 That's one of the rallies; I can never remember which one.  Again, rallies, and that was a Keep our School Clean rally and that was against cutting hours.  One of the ones where they said we had less hours.  They're just people - Mr Sherry from Tasmania, he was lovely Senator Sherry.  Yes, and Peter's gone now [he was lovely] [unclear]. Oh, [Beck], we loved Beck, haven't seen him in years.  This is a campaign we ran down here, I love it.

                                 It's a school - a clean school campaign, so we went there and said, if you don't want this school any dirtier than it is now, in the next contract we need to say you're not allowed to cut hours in this site.  So all the teachers and the principal would sign it and then we could give them a sign and put it on the outside of the school.

Facilitator:                Ah, right.

Interviewee:             We did it at as many as we could before the - was that the state election?  No, Stephen Jones, Federal election, because I was down here handing out tickets for Stephen's - and we tried to get one on every site so that when people were coming up to vote, what's this about?  Oh, they're trying to cut hours here, so vote for Labor, but they're trying to cut hours.  So trying to kill two birds with the one stone, yes, that's actually a good campaign, it's still ongoing.  So they're just lovely people I've met through the years.

Facilitator:                Fantastic.

Interviewee:             Again, I said to Mel, I'm out of here at half past three, I'm on the train, I don't want any fuss.  I had a magnificent cake and [George Fong] who I've been friends with for many years, he now works with the union, he was made redundant from Monorail.  He's just in the office there, he applied for it and got it properly, he didn't get anything given to him.  But we were on national council and branch exec and everything for 20 years and George helped me carry all my stuff up to the tram, so that was lovely.

Facilitator:                Fantastic, great, and so it was Sierra at the office who - she'd probably have copies.  Would you be okay if I got some of those?

Interviewee:             Yes, yes.

Facilitator:                It would help me, that's fantastic.

Interviewee:             Sierra would have all the photos, I'm not sure, yes.  She also did a picture plaque too but it's pretty much what's there, but it's in a plaque.

Facilitator:                All right.




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women unions activism Australia