About this interview
Michelle Robertson reflects on her 30 years of activism in the Australian union movement.
Transcript: Michelle Robertson interview.
Facilitator: Okay, so interview with Michelle Robertson, ASU Queensland.
Facilitator: So thank you so much for agreeing to the interview and as I've sort of mentioned to you, we're looking at capturing and preserving stories of women activists in unions. So really we're just after your story in your words.
Interviewee: Okay, good.
Facilitator: So starting at the beginning.
Interviewee: Starting at the beginning.
Interviewee: Oh well thank you for supplying me with some sample questions so I could get my head around it. But you've sort of got here about when did you first get involved in the union and that's a long time ago, 1982 is when I first got involved. I'd been involved in student politics at Griffith University, so certainly had that background. But when I started my first sort of real job, it was at the University of Queensland Student Union and they had a number of jobs there like welfare officer, education officer, postgraduate officer and I was women's rights officer, because I'd had that history in feminism. So I started there in 1982 and after about, I don’t know, a few weeks, I found out that I was getting paid approximately half of what the other organisers was getting paid.
Facilitator: Oh my.
Interviewee: That was on the basis of my feminist commitment, with what was meant to have brought me there rather than…
Facilitator: Having good feelings.
Interviewee: That's right, didn’t work at Coles when I was getting the groceries, but anyway.
Facilitator: No, exactly.
Interviewee: So I was shocked at that and I talked to my other colleagues and mainly they were like new friends, new work friends. But it turned out that pretty much even though we worked for a student union, nobody was in our union. We contacted the Australian Social Welfare Union and got them to come out and talk to us. That was really interesting because that was at a time when primarily the ASWU's membership were social workers and none of us were social workers. So the community sector was just starting to develop and the ASWU thought would be jolly nice if they could get about eight new members.
So we all joined the union and then we started a campaign that went for about 18 months to get the wages changed. So that was really interesting because you're having a battle against the student union who think of themselves as progressive students.
Facilitator: That's really fascinating and elected?
Interviewee: Yeah, they were elected, oh yeah, most of - many of them ended up in parliament, in later times. So that's really how we first got involved in the union. Then they must have seen us as - the ASWU must have seen us as pretty ripe and was very much, come along to the AGM, come along to the committee of management. So it was a small union then and most of its membership was in state public service at that stage. So we were very much outside that, but that was - I mean now, you know, we've got basically nobody in the - social workers in the public sector now because the community sector has emerged as the fastest growing industry in the country. So that's…
Facilitator: Would community sector, social workers, still - you still cover it?
Facilitator: Okay, would have been public service union.
Interviewee: No, we cover everybody in the non-government sector, in or in connection with the industry of social work and/or welfare work. That was an exciting time because we were trying to make our first awards in the industry and that was enormously difficult because community services wasn't seen as an industry. That ended up…
Facilitator: Wasn't that a big, big case?
Interviewee: Yeah, Queen v Coldham 1983, yeah.
Facilitator: Okay, so that's in my head as being very significant.
Interviewee: Yeah. So it turned out that the work that we did was more than about nice feelings, it was actual quantifiable work. So that was a very, very interesting time.
Then you ask there about family involvement, none really. Like I've had siblings and my parents have been members of unions, but nobody's ever taken an active role in their union before, so this was all very new to my family.
Facilitator: So what prompted your involvement in politics? I mean you say you were in student politics and then you worked for the student union, what prompted that involvement, political involvement in the first place?
Interviewee: A number of things. One is I grew up in a very poor family and my parents usually had terrible jobs where they weren't treated very well. I wanted to be able to do something about it. Like I didn’t know what that was, but then when I was a teenager and we were living in regional Queensland, having moved here from Victoria, it was at a time when the Bjelke-Petersen Government had banned street marches. So you see these dramatic things on the television news up in Hervey Bay and it was just like, oh I want to be part of that, because it looked like people making change, it just looked like the right thing to do. This was probably about '77, '78, but it was like, oh, there are people, there are large groups of people in Brisbane who are doing things and so I think that inspired me to come to Brisbane.
Then going to Griffith University in those days, it was a very new university, so there were opportunities there. So I got involved in the food co-op first and that just sort of segued into the student union. When you've got people who encourage you and say, yeah, you can do that or do you want to come on a poster run, then you give everybody a job and get them involved. We're no strangers to this tactic.
So that’s how it came about really, was wanting to - I wanted to have a different life to what my family had, but I also wanted not just to look after myself, but to make things better for a lot of people. Going to university, again, like I was the first person in my family to finish high school, or to live in a city, let alone go to a university. The amazing resources that you get to see when you're in an environment like that, you know, first year university you get to read Damned Whores and God's Police and it's like, oh my goodness, really sort of started - things started to click into place, there's a structure here and you can be involved and you can do things. So it was pretty exciting.
So that lasted a few years. Then I turned up at a Queensland Uni Student Union, became involved in the ASWU which, as I said, was a very small union. So in terms of becoming an activist, you had to. So as a member of the committee, I think we had a worker for eight hours a week, so you had to learn how to represent members and how to write journal articles and all of that, because it was completely voluntary. So you had to learn things that you didn't know how to do. When you have some people who have been around a few more years than you, who can teach you, that really helps.
Facilitator: So you felt like there were mentors or people within the union or at least the movement?
Interviewee: Yeah, well within the Queensland branch of the ASWU, there were one or two people who really helped me out. Like they'd be going to represent a member in a meeting, so they'd take me along with them. So I wouldn’t have to do anything, I'd just get to watch and that sort of thing. So that was pretty - that was very helpful. Then over the years, as I got more and more and more involved, there were other people like at a national level who I could ask and learn from. In fact one of them, Noeline Rudland now works for the NTEU.
Facilitator: Oh right.
Facilitator: It is a small world.
Interviewee: Oh it is.
Facilitator: So in terms of membership, was the ASWU a feminised union?
Interviewee: Oh yeah, probably about 80 or 90 per cent.
Interviewee: Yeah and that was reflective of the industry as well.
Interviewee: But yeah, it always was. There were certainly men involved in the union, but it was overwhelmingly female.
Facilitator: So the people who you said encouraged you and took you along were - are women?
Facilitator: So if you could - because when we do the edits, we can break it down into sections, but if you could perhaps talk me through sort of a chronology and then we could go back and talk about sort of key moments. So we started the early - at the universities, your early career, you then got a wakening to your life. Then what about official union roles from there?
Interviewee: Oh, well you know, certainly the committee of management of the ASWU for some years, federal executive of that union as well. That all sort of changed when I became a paid employee, because obviously you have to make that sort of departure rather than being elected official.
Facilitator: When was that?
Interviewee: I started working for the union, had enough money for a part-time position in 1989. So that's when I started there and I was part time for a year and then we had enough - had grown the membership enough that we could actually put me on full time. Then in 1992 we amalgamated with the Municipal Officers Association (MOA) to become the Australian Services Union. So I don't think I've had any elected positions in the union since that paid employment time. But definitely in that '82 to '89 period, it was always - I was continually involved at a federal and a state level.
Facilitator: Your paid positions have been varied or you've - it's been industrial officer, organiser, what's the nature of…
Interviewee: Well I came into here - when I was at the ASWU, I was like it, except we did have the part-time admin worker, thank goodness, because that's not my strength. That was Robyn Weatherall, she was fabulous. But when I came into here, I came in - I was called industrial officer, but came in and still had responsibility for the Social and Community Services, SACS, in the non-government sector. I kept up that - I've now - I'm currently the senior industrial officer for local government, but I still have some SACS involvement as well.
Another position that I currently hold at the moment, I'm on the national committee for APHEDA, have you heard of them?
Facilitator: Oh yes.
Interviewee: Yeah, so I'm on the national committee of APHEDA. So that's really interesting and we've got a good APHEDA activist group going up here in Queensland now.
Facilitator: Just a question based on my New South Wales-ness, so in New South Wales the ASU branches are still quite - so local government has its own branch.
Facilitator: It's all - it's properly amalgamated here is it?
Interviewee: Well there's actually two branches of the ASU here as well.
Facilitator: Yeah, I saw that.
Interviewee: So Together, which is diagonally across from us, they're the old State Public Service Union, plus the old Private Sector Clerical.
Facilitator: Okay, the clerks.
Interviewee: The clerks, yeah, in central and southern Queensland. Our union has amalgamated with the North Queensland Clerical, so we've got a little bit of crossover in our industries there and we've got local government and SACS and energy and rail are our main industries.
Interviewee: Yeah and airlines. So we've got a little bit of crossover with Together and ourselves, but we just sort of manage that and we go to each other's meetings and represent each other's interests and that sort of thing. So there's cooperation there but pretty much we're different industries. So the USU in New South Wales has - they have all local government, we have white collar local government. They've got blue and white.
Interviewee: In Queensland, of course, we have the Australian Workers Union, is a major union here.
Facilitator: Has a completely different coverage to the rest of the country in terms of that.
Interviewee: Yes, they like everything.
Facilitator: Yes, Queensland's a whole different ball game.
Facilitator: Okay, so what - so you've spoken about the beginning, you've then sort of gave a mention of the big social workers case, I guess that leads me to ask you what are the pivotal moments do you think of that time? What are the key times that stick out and perhaps what do you feel your biggest contributions have been?
Interviewee: Oh that's not - there's probably three really important things to me and that is we had no awards in the community sector at all. So 1985 we got the Community Youth Support Scheme (CYSS) award and in 1989 we decided to try and get a federal award for the industry. We were beset by - and this is where I learnt so many things with demarcations from other unions, opposition from major employers, opposition from different governments and in Queensland we were able to achieve the first Social and Community Services award in 1996. I'd been able to make a family daycare coordinator award for Family Day Care Coordinators in 1993.
Interviewee: Yeah. So we didn't have - most of the sector didn't have any award until then, so it was all private contract stuff. So that was a fantastic achievement and that was - I mean I'm not going to say I did it myself, I didn't, but for me it's probably one of the most important things, because it finally gave a recognition for the value of the work that was being performed and it gave it legal enforcement as well. So that was fantastic. Then in 1999 we got to follow that up with the refuge workers or supported accommodation, so it's not just refuges, it's homelessness services as well.
So I think that was mammoth because we were probably one of the last industries in the country to get award regulation, so everybody else in the ASU and every other union, like from the early '90s, they were focused on enterprise bargaining, but we didn't even have a base to start from, so it was a great thing. Then probably what started happening, from about 1992 and this was really important for me, was involvement in vocational skills development and the development of training packages. So the qualifications for workers in the community sector - so we've got this industry that's emerging, so there are all these new jobs that are being created that didn’t exist before.
So we had to get some sort of skills recognition around that, through the Australian Quality framework, so we had social work degrees and we had diplomas of welfare, basically that's what existed. So through what's now the Health and Community Services Workforce Council, of which I'm the chair and also the Community Services and Health Industry Skills Council, which was the federal body, we've been able to - we're in a situation now where we've probably got about over 300 different qualifications for the community sector. So that's anything from Certificate III in Disability through to Advance Diplomas in Alcohol and Other Drugs.
For me, it was really important that we be involved in that, because with the Australian qualifications framework, those qualifications have got a direct industrial outcome. So a Certificate III pretty much equates to here on the award. A Certificate IV means you're here on the award. So it was sort of validating the experience and articulating what the skills were that were needed. So that was a major achievement as well. I've continued my involvement in the Workforce Council to this day. So that's running alongside the development of the award. So we got the award in '96.
Then by 2005, the industry is starting to articulate very clearly that attracting people to come and work in the industry and retaining them was a real struggle. Don't forget we had a mining boom on as well, but this is happening right across the country because in local government and state government, there's been enterprise bargaining since 1993, so their wages compared to the award wages, they've really started to slip. So the union made a decision to utilise the pay equity principles from the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission and run a pay equity case.
That was a fabulous time because in 2006, when Work Choices started - I feel like a broken record. You remember Work Choices? Well we were able to work with Queensland Council of Social Service, which is the major peak, just like NCOSS, to get some funding out of the state government to run a project about the impact of Work Choices on the non-government community sector. I was fortunate enough to get seconded down to QCOSS to run the project. That was great because we got to educate the industry right across the state in the problems with Work Choices and coupling that with attraction and retention, like why would somebody want to come to work for you when - so that was great.
Also, because I was seconded, everybody knew I was from the union, but it was like you're acting in a very non-adversarial way. In 2008, QCOSS and the union decided to - so the union decided to run a pay equity case and QCOSS was very supportive of that, but they knew that we had to get industry on side. So I was actually taken out of the union for another few months to work with industry to get them to see the value of why pay equity, like why the work is undervalued because of gender and what we can do about it.
So we turned that into a massive campaign to get funding out of the the state, relied on organisations doing their own advocacy and getting commitments out of local members of parliament. You probably member Your Rights at Work, it was a similar model to that; everybody has to have a job and everybody has to do it and we have to follow up and that sort of thing. So the union's running the pay equity case, QCOSS is running this Good Work Decent Wages campaign. So by the time it got to the Industrial Commission hearings, not one employer in Queensland opposed the case.
Interviewee: Yeah, I know.
Facilitator: So that started - because you told me - so that was 2008 when that went ahead?
Interviewee: Yeah, so that was - actually do you know Janis Bailey?
Interviewee: Yeah, Janis and I wrote a couple of articles for the JIR about that.
Facilitator: Oh okay, yep, yep.
Interviewee: So if I've got any of my dates wrong, you'll be able to look it up and say, oh she didn't - I don’t know what she's talking about.
Facilitator: No and we can also attach links to the articles.
Interviewee: Oh great.
Interviewee: Oh good.
Facilitator: Janis - yeah, I know Janis well.
Interviewee: Oh she's great. So that was a great thing to be involved in and again, it really changed the industry a lot because they had to - they kept - they had to stop saying, we'd like to pay more, but we're not funded for it. It was about let's go get the funding for it, then you've got no excuse not to pay. Then of course that became a national equal pay case in 2010, which came out with a very similar outcome. So in Queensland, that case had an impact on about 34,000 workers and across the country, the national cases had an impact on about - I think it's about 180,000, predominantly women workers. So they're - so whilst I haven’t - I would never say I did that, being a major person in that was fantastic.
Facilitator: Mm, that's one of the only success stories that we can really look to.
Interviewee: But it's also really good, because involvement in the Health and Community Workforce Council means that you're constantly talking with industry and they always know you are from the union and that sort of stuff, but they talk to you very much about issues around attraction and retention and we were able to get them to give evidence in our case about it. So it was a very nice bringing together of lots of work over the years to get a really good outcome.
Interviewee: So having training packages and making sure that there are those quals there, that this Certificate III is the same as your Certificate III in construction, you know, you should be paid the same.
Facilitator: So what were - I mean there's certainly - the question they've asked, the greatest achievement, that's certainly a very big achievement, but what do you think, you've been involved in unions for a long time and you said earlier that - I don't know whether it was to do with the amalgamation, but you certainly learnt a lot with regard to - oh no, with trying to get the federal award, that you learnt a lot about demarcs, I guess, into union issues.
Facilitator: So I guess what are the things you learnt and also what are other barriers or challenges of things that you've learnt across this time?
Interviewee: Well the issue about the demarcs is really interesting because we had a massive dispute with the AWU during that time and that went on for six years and finally you just had to realise that you had to settle, that you couldn't walk away from your members. So you have to learn how to start talking to people, instead of just hating them. So that was something that we had to learn. The same with - throughout all my time I suppose, is that you have to - you can have fights with people and disputes, but you're still going to have to deal with them again. So you have to always be honest and always have clean hands and not do the dirty on anybody because I've seen people do that, it never works in the long run. So you learn those things.
I learnt lots about getting the industry on side and selling the concept and the ideas to them about - and employers, about why it would be good for employers if they had an award that funding could be based on, so they would have some certainty about how to employ people and how to keep people. But you also have to learn when to not take things personally as well, because you do have a lot of conflict, as well as a lot of collaborative times. You have to get used to conflict and sometimes doesn’t always go your way. I don't feel like I really answered that one terribly well.
Facilitator: No, I think talking about the demarc and that you've got to learn to be able to - so employment relationship, it's ongoing.
Facilitator: You can't burn it, unless you know that it's gone forever.
Interviewee: One thing that I remember is sometimes you'll have a real opposition to somebody, but there's like a point of intersection where you can agree and I'll never forget one time in '98 I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship from Unions New South Wales to do the Harvard Trade Union program. There were three Australians on that at the time and one of them was from the Shop Assistants Union, you probably know Gerard Dwyer.
Interviewee: Pretty much Gerard and I didn't speak to each other for about the first three weeks because it was like, lefty, righty sort of stuff. One time we were - so we're in this, the classroom and there are all of these American unionists and we're talking about health care and they were talking about getting health care into their union contracts. A couple of them said, yeah, that's why we oppose universal health care, because it's not in our interests. That was a moment when Gerard and I both just looked across the room like, we love Medicare.
So even though from that - then the ice started to thaw a little bit, but as I say, even though we came from different industries, different backgrounds, all of that sort of stuff, you could still have some commonality between you. I've never forgotten that when we thought, crazy, this is crazy. Also, I suppose we'd made the assumption that all of those American unionists would also support universal health care, but for them it wasn't in their interests because they use it for bargaining.
Facilitator: That's really interesting, isn't it?
Facilitator: I wonder if that - surely that's shifted.
Interviewee: I think it would have to have shifted with Obama.
Interviewee: Yeah, so those sorts of things were really interesting when you - you know, even today I was in - we've got a dispute with Mareeba Council and the employer rep there, like honestly I think we've been dealing with each other for 25 years and you just have different conversations with them. He's still representing the employer, but he's also saying to you, like it's done in that way, you know? So you know that you can - because you have to keep turning up and dealing with them time and time again and people who burn their bridges don't last long.
Facilitator: That's really interesting. Yes, because you have been involved for a long time.
Interviewee: I have and I used to dye my hair for fun, not to colour the grey.
Facilitator: Let's not go there, I hear you. So were there any barriers, I mean you've said that your industry was a feminised industry, in fact a lot of work you've done and the greatest achievements you can talk about are about supporting women and improving conditions for women. Have you ever felt, apart from the original dispute you were talking about in regards to getting better paid in your university union position, have you felt that you've come up against barriers because you're a woman, can you remember?
Interviewee: Yes, yeah. The union as you see it now is a very different place to what it was in 1992. So I was first - I was the only industrial officer that was a woman and I came from this crazy industry that nobody out there could understand and didn't really see it as real work. So that very much was the case and that took a lot of time, I mean yeah, the union is a very different creature now, a very different creature. So I very much felt like I wasn't valued, but it was also the industry wasn't valued either. A lot of the perception was it was nice ladies having cups of tea and listening with a kind ear sort of stuff; used to make me crazy. That's why the training packages were so important at getting it recognised as proper work.
So yeah, very much, I think that the a sexist attitude here; it was a pretty old-school union at the time, in a way that the ASWU you never had to think about that really because all your colleagues were women in the same situation as you. Certainly sometimes you'd have meetings at the Queensland Council of Unions where you'd seek assistance on particular issues and it was a bit quite dismissive and again, that's a different creature now as well, QCU and that's because there was such a lot of work put in by a lot of women over a long time, lots of different unions to really sort of change that culture.
Facilitator: So if you could think of a - could you think of an example? Because I understand what you're saying in terms of the culture; did that manifest in any particular way that you can think of?
Interviewee: I'll have to think about trying to make that concrete.
Facilitator: Yeah, okay.
Facilitator: No, no, that's okay. I mean the stuff about the culture and the contrasting cultures between ASWU and then coming in, must have been stark.
Interviewee: Yeah and one of the important things that we did when we amalgamated was that we made it a condition that we kept a representational structure, so we still kept the Social and Community Services Industry committee, because we were a very small union and coming into a larger union and I've seen small unions get sucked up into the AMWU or into United Voice and they just don’t exist anymore, they disappeared. I think that that was a smart move on our part to do that, because we've had a major influence on this union now and we're now recognised as where the growth is going.
Facilitator: Okay, in terms of context and you and your work, do you belong - do you see yourself belonging to a network of union women or activists or either within or outside?
Facilitator: So you spoke about the women originally might have mentored, helped you out with the small union, but what about since then?
Interviewee: Yeah, it's an informal network, but it sort of links up through other things. So I think I said before we've rejigged the APHEDA activist network and one of the things that we do every year is we have an International Women's Day function and that just brings union women together, just for a nice time. That's really sort of unstructured and nice and good. The APHEDA network as well is primarily women, there are some men involved in it, so that's sort of like, I suppose, a formal network. It's not a women's network, but it's primarily women.
But the rest of it is your informal - the friendships that you've developed, like my two colleagues from the ETU across the road and Noeline from the NTEU and Holly who's in our office here, you just - it's informal and you build trust over the years so when something's going to pear shaped, you can tell them. So that's really important to me. Of course a lot of people don’t really understand what industrial officers do.
Facilitator: No, that's true, I think, I would echo that. We know we need you, we just don’t know how and why.
Interviewee: That's right.
Facilitator: But we know that you're very important.
Interviewee: Don't you have fights for a living? Yeah.
Facilitator: Well that's another question is you do look forward to the idea of conflict; it's inherent in your job.
Facilitator: You spoke about getting used to it, but I guess how do you manage that because it is an unusual job in that most jobs you do your work and then occasionally there's a conflict.
Facilitator: Your job is about conflict and occasionally you get times when it's focused for a moment. So how have you gotten used to it? How do you manage that?
Interviewee: I suppose the more you get - you just get experienced. At one time, going into the Industrial Commission would have been really daunting. Now it's not so much daunting, it's just that you're focused on doing a really good job, so you still get anxious and nervous and stuff about it, but it's a different sort of anxiety, it's not a fear, it's just like I hope that I am prepared enough or I hope, you know? So the conflict aspect of it, that sort of diminishes; you focus on the case, but not on - so you notify that there's a dispute on, but to you it doesn't feel like - you're trying to get something for your members, rather than focusing on fighting with the employer. So I think that makes a big difference.
But sometimes, yeah, sometimes you do get tired of it and that's when it's nice, for me for example, to have Workforce Council, go over there, it's got industrial outcomes, but it's not about disputes or bargaining or certifying an agreement or anything like that, it's a different bit of work but it's still about the work that's being done.
Facilitator: I guess that segues into one of the questions I had there, is how does your union - has your union work and commitment worked with or against other aspects of your life? So how have you balanced your union activism, your commitment with life outside of the union?
Interviewee: That's an interesting question. I suppose I always had to balance it a bit because from quite a young age, I was involved with raising children and so you have to go, oh well, you know? You have to go to Coles and get the groceries, like you just have to do those things. So that was probably a fortunate in that way, in that it meant that you had to just not be at work sometimes, not be at work on Saturdays. So that was good. But then things sort of changed a little bit in probably about 2012. I looked up and I realised that I had 18 months' worth of leave accrued and I thought, well that's not very healthy.
Facilitator: That's a lot of leave, yeah.
Interviewee: Yes, that's long service leave as well.
Facilitator: Still a lot of leave.
Interviewee: Yeah and I thought, I better do something about that, so - and also - sorry about my nose…
Facilitator: No, it's okay.
Interviewee: In 2010 my partner died and so that was like - that was terrible, but then I remember getting their last pay slip from their work and they had all of this leave, you know, never wanted to take holidays, always wanted to be at work. I said, oh I've got to change that. So once I stopped the deep grief, I thought, oh I better go and have a life. So now I do.
Facilitator: So there's not 18 months accrued anymore?
Interviewee: No, six months.
Facilitator: I was going to go for 12, that was going to be my guess, okay.
Interviewee: No. Because I've got the view now that you're only here once and you could go tomorrow. In 2013, our Secretary, who've I've known here since she was 20 years old, got leukaemia and was dead within a year. It can happen to any of us, so there are things to do outside, so I do them all the time now. So now I learn languages and I travel a lot.
Facilitator: What languages?
Interviewee: Italian and French.
Facilitator: Oh I'm trying - my husband's French and I'm trying to learn.
Interviewee: Oh really?
Facilitator: Not very successfully, I get some tips when I do…
Interviewee: You've got an inside - you're lucky.
Facilitator: Yeah, I know, I should be…
Interviewee: I'd love to have someone to go home to talk French to all night.
Facilitator: Yeah, like straight back from - I won't admit potentially how bad I am. Okay, so I guess you could say that across your career you've had changes in perspective about…
Facilitator: Really made you think about…
Interviewee: Yeah, my first partner was a woman and so there was all of that homophobia that you had to deal with and having children, you know, was very, very difficult.
Facilitator: Gosh, back in any time.
Interviewee: '80s and '90s.
Facilitator: '80s and '90s, yeah, gosh yes.
Interviewee: Yeah, so you had to manage that so that was a difficult thing to negotiate, but finally you've just got to - they've got to get on with it.
Facilitator: Yeah, you get on with what you've got to do with your job and let them to theirs.
Interviewee: So yeah, so culturally it's so different here now.
Facilitator: Would you say it's almost unrecognisable?
Interviewee: Yep. Well the number of women that we've got in leadership positions on our branch executive, for example, is very different and women in leadership positions that we've got within this branch is very, very different. The diversity of people we're employing is also very different.
Facilitator: So when you started, there were then - you were the only woman IO that would have been…
Facilitator: Were there any women on executive?
Interviewee: There was a women's officer and when we amalgamated, obviously the SACS person came in and Lurline was a woman and looked around the room and she's like, oh what have we done? There might have been one other, but definitely not what we have now, where we've got affirmative action rules a few years ago, but we've never had to use them.
Facilitator: Oh okay.
Interviewee: Yeah, because there's been an emphasis on making sure that we get women to nominate and participate and so that's been great, yeah.
Facilitator: Is that reflected to all the structures, national as well?
Interviewee: Probably would be. I can't think of any - I mean I shouldn’t say when I don't actually know.
Facilitator: Which kind of brings me to the big final issues that we wanted to raise which, because we're talking about change, but what did you see when you first became involved with the unions as the biggest challenges for the unions or unionists? Keep in mind that from what you've described, one of the impetus for involvement was Bjelke-Petersen era issues, so what did you see as big issues for unions then in contrast to what you see as big issues now?
Interviewee: Oh gee. Well obviously for us it was getting recognition that we were an industry and that's, people - now if you try and explain that to people, they look at you like, really, because the industry is so different now. I think - and you see this in local government too, like local government used to be a job that you would start at 15 and pretty much if you wanted to, you could stay there. We've got a lot of temporary contracts now, so employment security is a big issue for our members and having provisions in agreements around conversion to permanent employment and contacting out and outsourcing and probably could just write these things yourself, which didn't used to exist to the same extent.
SACS is different. SACS has always been a funded industry, so you've got your - so your job is never really secure there, it's always dependent on the ability to fund that position, but some parts of the Queensland Government now are agreeing to make funding five-year contracts, so that provides a bit more certainty and stability for people. But obviously the declining membership is the issue now; that didn't exist or it existed in SACS, but across industry, there was a reliance on payroll deductions and getting signed up.
I remember I first joined the Clerks Union when I started working at Griffith University and you do just all your forms and before you know it, you've signed up. That doesn't happen at all which is probably a good thing in many ways because it means that unions can't just take their membership for granted. But it's certainly put a real hole in membership density. Correspondingly, we have to put more effort into making people engaged now, so I'm not going to say swings and roundabouts, but there are some benefits to it as well. So the issues that certainly SACS had back then was we had nothing.
Facilitator: On a macro level?
Interviewee: A macro level?
Facilitator: Mm, what do you think were the biggest issues then and now?
Interviewee: Well one of my bugbears is that unions have pretty much been taken out of the award-making process. I can't believe it. You know, it's pivotal to the work that we do, so we're the ones that should be making the applications and being parties to the award and not just having it sort of - I don't even know what you would say. I don't want to say depoliticised, but it's just become this bureaucratised thing and I think that's a terrible, terrible thing, that we're not the ones who initiate the award-making process and maintain those awards.
Facilitator: Why do you think it's so bad?
Interviewee: I think it's terrible because it just makes it - it looks like a gift, that the award has always been there, that it's not something that we've had to struggle and struggle and struggle to get since the Act in 1901, you know? In Community Services we only got a big award in 1996, that's only 20 years ago and there was such a lot of opposition to that. If we take ourselves out of that process, we lose control and we become increasingly irrelevant to the issues. If somebody goes on the Fair Work website and looks at, I don’t know, the airlines award or the clerical award of something like that, we're not mentioned in it.
So it's like something the government just makes and that can’t be good for unionism or for our relevance in creating something that's got a direct relationship to people's working conditions. I don't know why we ever went that way. It's different in the state commission, or local government - all our local governments and state commissions, that's where I mainly am all the time and unions are very definitely relevant in that jurisdiction.
Facilitator: Okay, anything - maybe this might be a nice way to end. If you were giving advice to a young woman starting her union career, what would it be?
Interviewee: It would be to make sure you do your job, make sure you do a good job, but it would also be to find a friend that you can trust and talk to them and not get swayed by the glamour going up, but really find somebody who's going to be a friend to you. I think that's probably what I'd tell them.
Facilitator: Okay. Anything else that you feel like you haven't covered in the questions and you haven't had a chance to…
Interviewee: No, I think I'm happy with that. Is there something I've left out, do you think?
Facilitator: I don't think so. As I said, if there are things that would be good for us to link to or you've got stands, photographs from the commission or photographs after the equal pay stuff or whatever, that would be great to be able to put in a link to as well. Yeah, so if there are things like that, I mean it's not a today thing, it's kind of we'll be building it as we go, but if there are things like that, that would be a really nice archive to get with it as well.
Interviewee: Great. So this is going to be a website, is it?
Facilitator: Yeah, I can show you the mock-up - are you right?
Interviewee: It's this change in season, you see, that's making my nose…
Facilitator: Oh no, I know, I'm hay fever prone too. I'll just switch this off.
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