About this interview
Natalie Lang reflects on her time as an elected union offical in the ASU and the strengths and successes that come from being a member-led union.
Transcript: Natalie Lang Interview
START OF TRANSCRIPT
Facilitator: Thank you so much Natalie, for sitting down with me today and talking about your, your lived experience, your story being a union activist and a leader of your union as well.
So, our interview today is really considering your story, what it was like sort of starting off being a union member, moving into being a union officer, and a leader of your respective union at the same time.
So, I'm wondering if we can go right back to, if you can tell me when you were first involved in your union, and what sort of time period that was.
Interviewee: Yeah, so I've always been interested in unions. I think my story would be very similar to a lot of unionists, which is two parents who were both teachers, both members of their respective unions, my father was an IEU [Independent Education Union] member and my mum, a Teachers’ Federation member. So that kind of exposure to discussions about unions and social justice was very commonplace in the household.
And then I think, really, I just had that strong interest in unions. Went to university and at university I was studying social science, not with a view to go and work in a union, but more interested in the community sector side of things, which works out interesting that I would turn up at the ASU community sector union.
And for my final subject, in the human rights area, students need to do a 12-week placement somewhere, and so most of my fellow students went into community services. But I was really interested at the time - it was during the implementation of the ABCC, the Building Construction Commission.
And just as a student looking at human rights and civil liberties, felt really strongly about it. And, so, I reached out to the CFMEU to see if there was a chance I could go along and spend some time with them, learning and to be able to put together my final piece for university.
And that was it, they were just incredible, absolutely incredible union to really embrace someone who had an idea about unions, but certainly hadn't been in a union myself at that point. Hadn't been in the workforce, other than a couple of after school jobs, and bits and pieces.
And from doing that work with them, they encouraged me to get involved in other extracurricular activities. So, I became the welfare officer at University of Western Sydney. And as the welfare officer at the university, you're speaking to students all the time about issues that are impacting on their ability to undertake their studies, often those are workplace issues.
So, from there, I got involved with Unions NSW with their, at the time, it was called, Working Student Union Network.
Interviewee: And ended up getting a job with them to do stuff on campus involving students in being able to make connections [that’s mine, sorry I’ll turn it off]. Being able to make connections with l… Oh that’s funny it’s actually the person who was my boss when I did the Working Student Union Network
Facilitator: There you go.
Interviewee: who’s long since moved on.
Yeah, to assist students to make connections with their unions and get support. And again, just, I was really overwhelmed with how wonderful unions were and I never contacted a union and had them say, you know, like, ‘oh that person's not a union member. And we couldn't possibly help them’, like there was a real eagerness on the part of those unions that you'd ask to support the stuff on campus and engaging students to know about their rights at work and be supported.
So, from doing all of that, I had intended to go work in the community sector and there was a short term vacancy at the ASU, just like a backfill position for a couple of months while I was finishing my degree. And so at that point, like I had time, I just had a few kind of last night classes and assignments to do.
And so I went to the ASU and I took that on for three months, and two weeks into it decided to stay and make a go of it, which was great. And I got to work with incredible people like Sally McManus and Naomi Arrowsmith and Fran Teirney and Narelle Clay. And these were all women who were doing the work in the community sector that I had gone to uni hoping to get to do, but found that my skills, were probably able to still support the community sector in a different way through doing work with the union.
So that's how I became involved. And to be honest, I never, ever planned to become an elected official, or… like I've always planned to stick around in the union movement, but I just loved organising so much, loved being in workplaces. And the great thing about the ASU is we do approach all industrial issues as sector issues, like they are about funding of the sector, they are about having Sustainable Community Services. They are about advocating for vulnerable community members who rely on proper community services and disability services.
And, so, the opportunity to do a lot of that advocacy for the workers, which in turn means better services for vulnerable community members was just really overwhelming and incredible. That's how I came to be at the union.
Facilitator: And, so, in terms of the elected positions that you've had, can you give me just a bit of a brief timeline of of what you sort of did following your sort of initial foray into, into unionism?
Interviewee: So I was an Organiser, and loved, absolutely loved that. And then in 2000, so that was in 2006, I started working with the ASU. In 2007, the union launched with the Labor Party at the time, the white paper into social inclusion in Australia and it looked at the rates at which women who were experiencing family violence were turned away from services that were at capacity, and all of those funding issues that in turn, then have an industrial implication for workers around safety at work and decent work standards.
And then, in 2010, we lodged our claim and the Fair Work Commission for the Equal Pay case. And I organised for the Equal Pay case in all areas of the sector. I got to have a really amazing organising patch. So, I basically organised all of the state at some point, but, you know, I had Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains, which is where I born and bred.
So, I really loved getting to know the sector there, I had everything west out to Broken Hill. [At] points, I had the southern region, so you the Illawarra with Narelle and the ACT, and I just I loved organising the ACT and getting to see that the difference that a different government approach to [policy]…to funding policy actually has on work.
And then, while I was organising the ACT in the southern region, during the Equal Pay case, Sally asked me to be an assistant secretary, which is not an elected role. But it's a senior role leading a team and that was leading the work in the community and disability sector of the union.
And then, when our long…so Naomi Arrowsmith is a legend. And I hope that in this project, you might get to meet Naomi Arrowsmith. Naomi’s got a long history in multiple unions as an activist down Port Kembla way.
And Naomi at the time was the deputy secretary of the union. And she did something that just women are exceptional at doing, which is thinking through a succession plan and then being really giving of yourself to make room for other, you know, women to take on roles. And so Naomi said, look, this is my plan to kind of retirement, this is the number of years I've got left at the union. Rather than retire from the Deputy Secretary role, she would start to step back so that she would still be there to support you.
So, it was really funny like I had, you know, Naomi Arrowsmith who was the Deputy Secretary out or something when I started at the union, I’d go into her office and say, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s terrible things happening in a workplace, and what do I do?’, and she'd come out to a meeting and support you through it, was now an Organiser in my team, where I was assistant secretary and, and supporting me from that role and, and still teaching me.
So, I felt really confident and that I was able to develop the skills to lead a team and to do a lot of the kind of policy work and, you know, driving industry organising approaches. And then the deputy secretary at that point was Michael Flynn, who's another legend. And Michael was mentoring me. And then Michael similarly made that decision to say, well, I'm still actually at the union, but I'm going to step back and give an opportunity for Natalie to step up further.
So then, Michael was the Assistant Secretary, and I moved into the Deputy Secretary role. So that was my first role as an elected official, and I got to learn from Sally as the Secretary, being her deputy, but also having around me an assistant secretary of Michael Flynn, and an organiser of Naomi Arrowsmith, you know, these incredible people who’d done the work for decades, and were able to mentor you in this way that’s just completely devoid of any ego consideration or anything.
Yeah, so then I was Sally's deputy for a number of years. And I was really fortunate to get to start my family during that time. So, I had my first child while being Sally's deputy, and just having that network inside the union of Sally, Michael Flynn, Naomi Arrowsmith, who really supported me to be able to do that, and also keep doing my work and fulfilling my role as an elected official was amazing.
And then Sally made a decision in 2015 to take on a role at the ACTU leading their campaigns, which was an incredible thing for the movement and the executive of the union and our rank-and-file delegates were just really wonderful and supporting me to get to become secretary. So, that's very exciting.
Facilitator: Mmm. Wonderful. And I guess I was, that's something that I was quite interested in kind of understanding that journey, and what's sort of motivated your or influenced you to kind of shape your union journey in the way that it has gone. If it's if it has been key people kind of mentoring you or sponsoring you along the way. Or what sort of influenced your path in in that respect? Yeah.
Interviewee: Definitely the mentoring, but also, being a member led union is really, really fantastic. So, Sally, Michael, Naomi, you know, they were the elected officials that I worked with as an Organiser, and they did a lot of work to really build capacity for our members to lead our campaigns and the directions our union take. They were really brave.
And, so, we got to do a lot of things like when I started working at the ASU, the community sector was a small part of the union. And it had a small committee of management a dozen odd people who represented geographic areas. But because we were organising, and we were being led by our members wanted to come together, we didn't force members to fit inside geographic divisions of the union to get to have a say and influence.
Sally and Michael, were really open too, I'd be able to come in and say, ‘I recognise that workers at particular, large employers don't come along to geographic subdivisions, and they seem to coalesce more and organise more around issues inside their employer. Could we, could we build a structure that recognised that?’ And ‘yes, absolutely, we can do that.’ So you had these really brave leaders who were totally open to listening to what members were saying. And then instead of going, oh, here's a barrier why that couldn't work, going like what are the barriers and let's overcome them and make it work.
And, so, I think that really influenced my journey in the union because I was really connected with our members who were getting to have control over opening up new divisions of the union. So now the way that the community and disability sector division of the union which is over 11,000 members, well over now. 15…So, yep about 12,5000 members in the community and disability sector now. It was about 4,000 when I started at the union.
The way those members are represented in the union is we have role-based subdivisions, like a CEO and service manager subdivision that didn't exist before. So that those members could come together and talk about, ‘cause their key issues at work aren't the same as a frontline Disability Support Worker, like, they're not so concerned about their sleepover allowance, and how on-call is working for them, but they are really concerned about, do we have adequate funding to be able to manage the budget to properly pay staff.
And so we created an area for those members to get to come together and, you know, organise around their key issues. So, there's role-based subdivisions, there's regional-based subdivisions, because we know that our members in areas like the Blue Mountains and Lismore in the Illawarra really do have a very strong local identity, and they work really closely across the services in their local community through inter-agency type style. So, those members are still able to come together that way.
We have sector-based subdivisions. So, members can engage and say, well I'm a child protection worker, and my key issues are around the child protection system. And, so, they're able to come together in that way. And we have subdivisions that are based on like, large employers, so where workers are employed by someone like St. Vincent de Paul, or Mission Australia or Aruma in, in the NDIS. The kind of things that they deal with a really unique to their employer. And it's about what's the industrial instrument, and what's the consultation framework like there, and what's the organisational change that they're going through. So, they're all able to come together. And then we're able to bring all of those members together in an industry Council. And that's where we can do all the industry work.
So, I think my, my personal journey is really driven by our members journey, and having wonderful mentors and leadership who were so open to being member-led, that as an Organiser, and then as the assistant secretary for the community sector, I was doing a lot of work with members about those opportunities for them to come together in a way that's really reflective of how they want to participate in the union and grow their union and drive their union's agenda. And being able to implement all of that meant that I just loved, love it here. And I love the work that we do, and I feel really connected to our members and them getting to drive the union.
Facilitator: And can you tell me as well, Natalie, because the, the scope of the Australian Services Union is, id quite large and as a range of different sectors and industries that you do have involvement in, what's that sort of experience like trying to get some sort of common thread or common narrative or key sort of barriers that that you face being a leader of a very large union in that respect?
Interviewee: Well, first off, our union has a really strong history of those divisions working together incredibly well, which I think's just wonderful. You know, we joke about it internally, we refer to it as Team ASU, like our members really do identify as Team ASU.
Each industry division has a industry division committee of management made up of elected delegates from that area. And they meet either monthly or bi-monthly, depending on the industry. And whenever I go to those meetings, they are all really keen to have as one of the first orders of business a report on what's happening for members in every other industry division.
Facilitator: Mmm. Okay.
Interviewee: There's this real connectedness there. When we launched the We Won't Wait campaign for paid family violence leave that actually came out of a women's services subdivision in the community sector, and then it was supported by the community sector, industry division, and then the whole union.
When we had our first rally for that campaign, the frontline of the rally was incredible, like, things that make you burst with pride. Like I knew our members in the community sector were driving this campaign because it was their campaign. But to stand up at the rally and have the whole frontline is the transport division and all the transport officers are there because they are so like this is ASU, this is important to ASU members, and so it's going to be important for all ASU members.
So, it's been a really conscious thing that's been developed over many years and I'd love to be able to take credit for all of that, but I can't, definitely get stand on the shoulders of giants in that regard. And I would say really, you know, Sally, Michael and Naomi, their leadership was impeccable in bringing our industries together.
We've really built on that, since 2015. So, since 2015, we undertook a very comprehensive series of consultations with our members an all-member survey, industry division meetings, workplace meetings at all the major workplaces and small workplaces across every industry across the whole state and territory, you know, in every regional community to develop a single plan for our union, which is called the ASU Proud agenda, which is a six point plan of priority areas for the union. It's really a strategic plan. And that's shared across the whole union.
We also formed the branch Council. So, we've always had a branch executive. But that's obviously a smaller group who make very comprehensive operational decisions around matters of finance, and overseeing the branch part of the union. But we formed a branch Council, which is a very large group of proportionally representative elected delegates from the whole union's membership.
And they come together and do all that strategic planning. And that's actually what I'm preparing for at the moment, is our meeting on the 26th of November this year.
And that's, I think, a real reason why we have that unity across all of the industry divisions. Like if you asked a member in the community sector what's happening to our members at Qantas, they would know. And if you asked a member in transport about what's happening in the NDIS, they would know, and if you asked a member in water about what's happening with a restructure in rail, they would know, because we really do make an effort to share that.
And we build opportunities for our members and our activists to participate in each other's campaigns. So, we ran a really big campaign called No Profit From Rape around the funding of 1800 RESPECT. And some of the key activists in that campaign were members from the transport division who were making phone calls to MPs and able to participate in that way to support a campaign that's about funding of a community service and impacts on 100 members in the community sector.
Right now, we're campaigning in water about an enterprise agreement in the water division. And we have members in the community sector participating in that campaign by taking photos about how they actually need reliable water services in their work. They can't wash their hands and do infection control in a disability service. But we do a lot of organising work to be making sure our members are aware of each other's struggles and able to participate in that.
Facilitator: Yes. Definitely. I'm wondering if you can tell me now Natalie, about some of the key campaigns or the key disputes or some of the key issues that you've been involved in over your, I want to say 20, 20-odd years now with your union and some of the key issues that have really been quite pivotal to, to your time with the ASU?
Interviewee: Yeah. Woah, that’s big. It's hard to talk about like, it's easy to talk about the campaign's it's hard to talk about your involvement in them because I think it's actually part of being a good Organiser is you try and remove yourself from the narrative around the campaign and, and make the ownership on others. So, when you have to reflect on like your own involvement it can be, can be a bit challenging.
So, I would say that like the Equal Pay campaign, of course, is probably the most formative in my experience. And indeed, it's still ongoing. So, we lodged the claim for that in 2010. But the campaign really started back in 2007. So, it's pretty much been going most of my…nearly all my time at the ASU.
We won that in 2012. Then we've had issues with the funding, we've been running the Save Equal Pay campaign. Because one of the things that was always important to us was that in achieving equal pay, workers shouldn't be punished by losing jobs. And we've been facing up to 12,000 job losses this year because of cessation of the funding, but we've resolved most of that now in the federal budget, which is great. I'd say that that would be the most pivotal in my time at the ASU because it was just so member-led.
And I think that's one of the key reasons it was successful. For us to be able to have the kind of incredible participation we had, like to get 5000 people doing a flash mob outside New South Wales government offices. But those things don't happen when you kind of just issue ‘here's what we will be doing’ and go around and try and tell people that like it comes from years of really building up structures and deep participation in every workplace and people flexing their muscle, I don't mean that in the sense of like, we are mighty bang the table, but flex the muscle in terms of like you build up strength, because you get a bit stronger, every time you do something, you get a bit better at it every time you do something.
So, starting with like, low-level actions that were pretty scantily attended at the beginning of the campaign, moving up to a 5000-person flash mob, and there was like, hundreds of actions in between. And I learnt so much through that, like I started off as a new Organiser and by the end, I was leading many aspects of the organising campaign.
That would be probably the most influential campaign that I've been involved in, really positive, really listening to members. Like I can, I can promise you, nobody at the ASU who's on the payroll decided we should do a flash mob.
In fact, I think we all kind of like panicked when we're like, we're gonna have to teach people to dance … didn't intend on becoming a wiggle. But then for quite a period had to be a wiggle going along to workplace meetings with your boom box because we didn't have the… those little speakers, and getting people to, to learn a dance. But that came from delegates saying like this would be really fun. Like, we're not as community workers, we are militant, but we're not militant in the sense of march off site and lock the door, they've got their own type of militancy, which is they won't leave clients without support. But they'll find a way to support each other for skeleton staff to maximize their participation with colour and movement, doing things that are reflective of them, and the joy that they bring to their work.
And through the Equal Pay campaign you had to learn, really, really to listen, to, to bring people together to be a facilitator, as opposed to a presenter, to try and get some kind of consensus in different groups about what they were going to do so that everyone would really participate.
Also had to make decisions, be able to make decisions really quickly, but build trust with members that, you know, yes, on most things, it's going to be workshops and consensus-driven, but sometimes we're gonna have to make quick calls and snap actions. And so how do we do that? And how do we do still enable members to democratically make those decisions?
During the campaign, we had a period where the federal government who was supposed to be supporting the campaign filed a submission that was not supportive of the campaign. They said, the ability to pay and funding would have to be considered, like they’re the funder, just you know, that's on you, dude. They said things like, ‘Oh, well, you'd have to consider how much salary packaging offsets how people are underpaid’. Like No, no, a tax concession is not being paid, is not pay equity, and an inequitable tax concession at that.
So, we had to make a decision, then, really quickly, two weeks out from Christmas, two whole days, a snap rally. And people had Christmas parties and shutdowns, and like that was just mayhem. But we were like, well, we can't let that go by without a really decisive action. And so a committee of management, being called on a weekend to come together and say, right, we're going to call this and we're going to do it this way and maximize the turnout was a real shift in pace on how we were making decisions about the campaign the whole time.
Also learnt that you can never take the campaign offline. So even when you're in discussions and you don't want to prejudice discussions or harm them, you have to find a way that members are still involved in that even though it might be a few delegates in the room. So, we did things like while we were in, I guess, lobbying meetings, way to characterise them, if you had representatives in Parliament House, you had action in a workplace in Broken Hill that supported it. So, we really refined the whole scheduling members to be calling Parliament House.
I presented on the campaign once to a, to a forum and someone there really unexpectedly said ‘I worked in Parliament House at that time. And I remember that the phones shut down because there was so many phone calls. And we're all really angry at you’, and were like ‘Aha! We made an impact.’
But members always felt really connected. Like they knew their representative might have been in Parliament House having a meeting, but they were part of it, because they were calling and that's actually some campaign tactics that we've continued on. So, whenever we do lobbying now, might be about NDIS, it might be about Paid Family Violence leave, we actually have members making phone calls at the time. And it's really great. You turn up then at a pollies office with your delegates to have a meeting, and they almost grab you and drag you in and say ‘thank God, you're here. I've been getting all these phone calls thanking me, and possibly phone calls thanking me for meeting with you. What am I meeting with you about?’
So that would probably be the most formative. The We Won't Wait campaign’s, probably my personal one that’s most had an impact on me. I think because it's a confronting conversation to have and really having to work out how you have those conversations in workplaces where they probably haven't ever talked about family violence before.
A lot of the things we go and talk to workers about are a given that it's workplace issue. Like you go in and say we're talking about pay rates, and they say, yes, that makes sense. You're a union. It's our workplace, that makes sense. But when you go and present in some workplaces and you say, I'm here to talk to you about family violence, and they go like, ‘but how is that a workplace issue?’.
And having to learn a lot about doing that in a way that is safe and ethical, and responsible, because I'm not a family violence practitioner. So, we've been able to run this campaign incredibly successfully, and get participation from the entire union movement, and really win the narrative because of family violence practitioners leading it and teaching people how to speak about family violence in an appropriate ethical way.
We had to make some decisions in that campaign, which were different to how we would normally run a campaign. So ordinarily, you know, you'd say, we're talking about insecure work, well, you get a worker who's been done over by insecure work, and you get them to tell their story. It's totally not appropriate in a discussion about family violence to say let's find a worker who's experienced family violence, get them to tell their story. Like that's completely unethical, exploitative and harmful, harmful for the worker, but also harmful for people who are listening to that story.
So, that was an area we really had to navigate. And I'm just blown away by our members, like, I mean, so deeply moved by them. Members told their stories as practitioners, so we decided it would still be workers telling their story as workers, but not their story, as in, I'm the victim of family violence. And for want of the better term, the kind of grief porn aspect of it. But having family violence workers who go and say, I'm a worker, and as a worker, I actually need this to happen so I can do my job.
Because I actually, you know, I give my whole life to addressing family violence, and I can only be so effective with the limitations that exist now. And I can be more effective with this. And we built a remarkable coalition across unions of frontline workers. So, we had teachers, nurses, paramedics, counsellors, police, like when we turn up and do…we decided we’d do frontline work around tables because family violence is such a complex problem. There isn't just one response that's going to address family violence. So being able to understand that complexity and understand when something addresses, one aspect of that complexity is really important.
So, we held these frontline worker roundtables for NSW Government for in federal parliament, and to have workers turn up in their uniform, and say, this is what happens and, and really paint the picture of a person's journey through the family violence support system. So the paramedic comes and says, I'm the first person who's called and I come out and this is what I respond to. And then this is how it can play out or it can play out this way. And then the police officers saying, you know, they’re in uniform saying, well, this is how much I can assist, but then this is where it falls apart.
And then you've got the domestic violence court advocate saying, well, this is how much I can…and this is where it falls apart, really painting that picture and of nurses, school counsellors, teachers and principals, like everybody who…just demonstrating how it actually impacts in almost every workplace.
And not just in workplaces because people experiencing family violence are in those workplaces, but as workers we want to do our job well. And I think that's a story that's really important for unions to tell. And I think we do tell it well, largely, but a lot of our gripes about what's happening at work is because workers just want to be able to do their job well. And when the industrial relations system fails, it does-over work as human beings, but it also prohibits them from being able to do their job well that they're really committed to. No one goes to work to have a dispute about pay, they go to work to do a really good job.
So that campaigns really been remarkable. And it's ongoing. And I mean, it's incredible to get to present to a, a really broad group of unions about this year's campaign activities. And you don't have to go over what is family violence, the rates of family violence, why is it a workplace issue. That's all accepted. And everyone turns up and says, like, let's get it done. On that campaign, some other things just about unions, internally, Mark Morey at Unions NSW has been an exceptional ally, absolutely exceptional. And he's also had that really brave leadership. So, Mark and I started a women's caucus, which I think Sarah has been to before, where we recognise that some matters are matters for an autonomous decision. And we're…instead of women's…we still have a women's committee and that's really important role, but a women's caucus is a caucus of the executive.
So, it's women union leaders or senior officials who can make a decision on behalf of the union. And the executive agrees to be bound by those decisions. So, the Women's Caucus can turn up and say to the executive [board], this is actually what we've decided, this is what we've worked on together and get the full support of the executive and like not in the sense of oh, wave it through, but then we probably won't do it. But like, oh this is a really big deal and we're all going to do it, we're all going to do our bit and we're really committed to it.
So, that’s been really remarkable. And the other I'd say is, we had a campaign against Qantas, Christmas before last, where they asked workers to work for free. And for me, that was just, I mean, obviously, it's absolutely appalling. But that campaign was a lot of fun. And it was a lot of fun because you're campaigning against a corporation, like, there is no…often when our members in the community sector get done over by boss, the boss is saying, ‘Well, I'm doing it because I'm trying to put the interests of really vulnerable members of the community.’ And we still obviously fight that, but that can be a bit of a harder narrative publicly.
Whereas corporate greed, like that is just the absolute epitome of corporate greed. And, you know, we just pointed out well, like well, you know, what, do people volunteer for at Christmas? Well, they actually volunteer at their local neighbourhood centre at the homeless shelter, or these are the things they do….but instead, Alan Joyce doesn't want you to go and do those things, he wants you to check in travellers at the International Terminal for free. Like…you know, that's about lining their pocket and cutting their wages bill, that's not about going, Oh, my God, it's Christmas, there’s people rough sleeping, who need support, assistance and compassion at this time.
So that was just a lot of fun, because we got to really be a bit outrageous. And because what was being proposed was so outrageous, and our members were outraged. And, so, they all got to have a lot of fun with it.
Facilitator: I'm wondering if you can tell me, Natalie, and I think the Qantas is, is quite a good example of the sort of the, the big business and how that kind of shapes some of the, the union strategy and the work that you do. But I'm wondering particularly for the sector that you, you do work in with the Australian Services Union, how much that external environment shapes the work of the union, whether it be in terms of the, the economic landscape at the time, or politics or, you know, different ministers coming in and out? How has that kind of landscape and how does that sort of influence what you do as well and in your union work?
Interviewee: Yeah. Hugely, hugely. The biggest influence on what happens to our members at work is actually external to the workplace. Most of the time, when a boss does something wrong, they're doing it wrong because of issues around funding. It might be misguided, and they're wrong about what they're thinking around the funding, but often, they think that they’re…it’s something that's happening because of a government decision or a departmental decision or funding’s being taken away.
So it is, we are, I guess, a bit unique. And I know there's others who’d be in a similar boat, like the Teachers Federation or the ANMF. But for a lot of unions, those of us in the kind of public sector, where the employer is not the actual public sector, but it's a third party to the public sector, are in a unique position, because it's not like, we can just fight the boss.
In our public sector membership, we can, because it's a public sector decision that's impacting on our members and they are the public sector. But in community services, non-government organisations, it's that once removed.
So, very little of it's done at places like the Fair Work Commission, where you're challenging something that's arisen out of the employment relationship. And it does have to be around really strong campaigning, or advocacy in a political sense. In terms of the politics, like, Labor/Liberal, we have disputes with both.
Obviously, you know, Labor governments tend to support the community sector better, or at least engage more with the union about the impact of their decisions. But well, as we can see in the Equal Pay campaign, they also get it wrong, and we have to campaign with them.
Yeah, I just say it's the number one influence, and that can be really hard…a hard thing to deal with, it can be hard because the normal, I guess, legitimate role that a union has at a table and an employment relationship is one that's not contested. You've got avenues in legislation on how to deal with that, you can say, okay, well, employer, you're off to the Fair Work Commission with us, and we're going to have a dispute under whichever instrument, have a dispute in the Fair Work Commission, and they're going to hear it because it's between the employer and it's between the employee or employee representatives.
That's not the case with government. And it really has to be that you can win the public argument to force government to engage with you. I think we've become really effective at that. It requires us to do a lot of work with the sector, so that the sector equally sing from the same song sheet as us, because they're the people who hold the contracts with the government and understandably they can be scared at times about are they going to lose their funding contract if they speak out with us, I think that's actually one of the reasons the sector really appreciates and supports the role that we play in terms of that advocacy, because at times, then they're not able to do it where it might risk them being defunded. And so, we can do that, or we can do that with them.
And I think we do a really good job of winning that public narrative and forcing responses. And we've certainly got the runs on the board to show it. And we are we just really are, in a very, in a very practical sense, the union plays a role in supporting workplaces to be able to get on about work. COVID’s probably a really good example of that. When decisions were being made very rapidly at the beginning of COVID about what things would shut and what things would remain open, and on what basis and how many people and all of that, the government wasn't talking, you know, the federal government was not talking to community services.
You have the Prime Minister come out one day and say that he's closing community centres and youth centres, they hadn’t spoken to community centres and youth centres, but hadn’t spoken to community centre and youth centres, and by the way, what is a community centre or a youth centre? Is it the centre? Is it the service? Is it the….
And, so, we were very quick in a practical sense of going here's how to keep services open, operating and safe. And we were able to get support from funding bodies about well, yes, that makes sense. And we have an obligation to keep providing these services to vulnerable members of the community. And services really welcomed it, because they have a contractual obligation to provide continuity of service and workers welcomed it because they had certainty around what was happening and that they were safe, and being paid and able to go to work.
So, we've positioned ourselves really well to be able to play that role in the sector. But that's because we're member led. Like, that's because our leadership in the sense of our committee of management are made up of practitioners who are senior in the sector.
So, when we see those kind of announcements, we go great, get this subdivision together, let's make a decision on how we can keep it going. And the subject matter experts who’re doing the work are able to pull that together. And we play like a coordinating role, and then an advocacy role.
Interviewer: And you've sort of touched on quite a bit Natalie, but I'm I’m wondering if you can describe for me or tell me, what do you see as the main, the main barriers or the main challenges that you have in conducting your work as a union officer and a union leader?
Participant: Oh, gosh. That's a good question. I think it's funny because you don't spend much time thinking about barriers. Because if you see a barrier, you just quickly move past it and find another way to deal with something. I would say the biggest barrier is…and not to sound like I'm just picking up ACTU log of claims, but we really need industry bargaining in the community sector, we have to have it.
The fact that we cannot sit down at the bargaining table with the people who control the purse strings is what has held back our sector from having decent pay and working conditions for decades. And it will continue to be until that can be overcome. Like we are really effective campaigners. We really drive keeping the industry together to have industry log of demands, and then try and fight the government to drip bits out.
But all the protections of bargaining of being able to have good faith bargaining and being able to take protected industrial action in support of a bargain, our members don't have that. They don't have that because the people they need to, you know, quote unquote, ‘bargain with’ are the government and the funding body. And, so, we're never in an actual formal bargaining framework. We're in an advocacy and campaigning framework without those rights and protections that organised labour across the world are able to enjoy and should, and should, but we don't get it.
I mean, I've had community workers go on strike, and I can count it on one hand in … and I would say that they are a militant group of members. But their militancy is in a very different form, because they always put clients first and that's a good thing. But they find other ways to take action.
But given that you're talking about a membership of 12,5000 quite militant activists, the fact that I can count on one hand the number of times they've taken, you know, protected industrial action in 15 years of being at the union is not a commentary on the activism level of that membership, but absolutely a commentary on the the barriers to enjoy the kind of Industrial Rights that organised labour should have anywhere in the world.
Interviewer: And I just want to take the conversation back a little bit, you talked about the women's caucus in the ASU and how that's particularly important. And I wondered if you could tell me a bit more about key women's groups or women networks or the caucus, in fact, that you've been a part of and that's been quite influential for yourself.
Participant: Yeah. So, the Women's Caucus is not in the ASU, it's in the Unions NSW. It's quite funny, I think you'd probably have to describe the ASU as one great big Women's Caucus, like it's very female dominated in membership in all of the elected ranks. Even in our male dominated areas of membership, women have very, very, very strong representation in all of their ranks.
And that's a testament to the fellas that we have in those areas, like I know that the, you know, members of the water committee of management, for example, are always going, is there an opportunity to involve more women? How do we involve more women? Let's find ways. Let's support those women. Like the water division and the transport division have themselves across that division supported women delegates from their ranks to go and participate in WIMDOI conferences, Women In Male Dominated Occupations and Industry conferences, as rank and file as supported by other rank and filer’s, that's pretty remarkable.
In terms of the kind of women's structures, I guess I kind of have a few, I’m in two minds about some women's structures. And this might be a controversial thing to say. I worry sometimes that women's committees, whilst the women in the women's committees are amazing and do really hard work and do great things, I worry sometimes that those committees aren't given the gravitas that they deserve.
So, they can become a place where you bury things. Like, oh this really important core issue has come up that affects women, because it affects women, we'll send it to the women's committee, and then it won't get the full attention of where the decisions are made in the power group of say, an executive that really worries me.
We don't have that problem at the ASU. In fact, when we've had motions around women, the men folk climb over each other to be the best ally, and say, like, what do we have to do and let us back it in. But I do worry just structurally, generally, in workforce, in the movement, in workplaces that I see, that that can be the case. That's why I’m really…I really love the Women's Caucus concept.
And I just want to predicate, I don't, I don’t mean to the exclusion of women's committees, like I think women's committees play a really important role. I just wish they were given more power. Women's Caucus, just gets the power. Like that's the whole point. It's about people making a decision to give decision making power to women, and agree to be bound by a decision that, you know, they weren't part of making. And that’s, that’s brave. And that can be confronting, and it can be confronting when you have conversations with people about why is it necessary.
But I know, for example, the Women's Caucus at Unions NSW has been, has been wonderful. And I think it's a testament to Mark Morey’s leadership because when I talked to Mark about wanting to do it he didn't hesitate at all. And he did most of the heavy lifting to make it happen. So, you know, I called women and said, come along to it, and went along to it, but all the work that needed to be done to make sure that it would be supported and backed in, that that was work that Mark did.
And I think that's an incredibly effective way for people to make decisions and for stuff to then happen. Because when the Women's Caucus bring something forward to the Executive and say, this is what we're doing, stuff actually follows from it, as opposed to like, oh, we've got a recommendation from a committee, but you know, no one with decision making power from our organisation was there. So, oh well, we're not going to really go now and do the thing that we've been asked to do.
And I'm not saying that's universally what happens, but that does happen from time to time. Whereas the Women's Caucus, everyone goes, okay, well, we actually had a senior woman present who was making a decision on behalf of the Union, so we're committed and we're in and we've got to do it now. And we've really seen that and I think that's been one of the biggest strengths for the We Won’t Wait campaign, getting the support that it has, and just absolutely huge participation rates.
And it's lovely, like I love going on Facebook, and seeing delegates from other unions, whose profile picture is the We Won’t Wait campaign and going, oh, that's really nice. That started from a frontline worker, who was really frustrated at work one day, when she was supporting women to go through the court system and saw, once again, something she'd seen many times with a woman who did not get the outcome she needed, because she couldn't attend court in person, because she didn't have the leave and because her employment was being threatened if she attended, and just went ‘no more’, and the piecemeal approach is not good enough, this idea that you bargained for it, and if I'm supporting that woman, she's fine, she's got it. But if I'm supporting this woman, she's not okay, ‘cause she doesn't have it.
And going, you know, I'm going to use the structures of my union to pursue this and go to women service subdivision, who supported it, and took it to the community and disability sector committee, who supported it, who then took it to the Executive Committee. And that all happened in the space of two days.
Like, not kind of endless meetings, but like it was an urgency matter that got dealt with and supported every step of the way, to then become a campaign that has been supported so, so well and had such great achievements. Like, I mean, honestly, did I really think that the New South Wales Liberal government, who are the largest employer in the country with over 300,000 workers would agree and provide it, and actively advocate to a federal Liberal government for legislative change?
I'd hoped it would happen, but I'm not sure I was expecting it to happen, especially in the time that it did. And I do think having the proper structures for women to make decisions, and be supported by the whole movement is instrumental in that happening. Because we never went in and kind of had to plead a case of oh, please support us for this campaign. The Women's Caucus making that decision with authority that says, well we've now committed every union to this, I think that does make a big difference.
Interviewer: And being a quite senior leader of your union as well, could you tell me, Natalie, about what are some of the sort of key pressures or key demands that you face? Is there possible to have work life balance or that type of thing? What are some of the really instrumental challenges that you face doing your kind of day-to-day work as a union leader?
Participant: Look, I would have the same complaint for want of a better term as I think women in any workforce, which is meetings get scheduled at times that aren't necessarily accommodating of people with young children. I have a seven year old and a four year old, I've had both of my children while being an elected official of this union. And I have been really, really fortunate.
So, you know, yes, there's things that happen, like when meetings get scheduled. I do think it's a bit of a problem still in any workforce, including in the union movement, where when people seek advice around, tell us what time, what meeting works, here's some options. I do feel like when you say, this option doesn't work, because that day is the day I'm supposed to be picking my child up, probably doesn't rate the same as someone saying, I have a meeting on that time. It's like it's our slightly lesser consider…we'll can’t you...
That that, that annoys me. But I don't think it's actually grossly bad anymore. I think that certainly in my time, I've seen a lot of change. I know when I started as the Secretary of the Union, there were two other women union secretaries in New South Wales. So, we were clearly a minority. And I look around the table now when I go to those meetings, and there's a lot of women, so that's a great thing, and I think that just naturally when we're there, it does change.
But what I would say, I think it can be…that challenge can be overcome, because of the way women run organisations. We have a shared leadership model at the ASU. It's really important, and it's confronting, and you have to be brave as a leader to implement a shared leadership model. It means that I have people around me who work as a team on all matters leadership, and it means you have to…you know, yes, at the end of the day, the buck stops with you because you're the Secretary.
But for people to really invest in a shared leadership model, you've got to give them a lot of time and leeway and take on board the things that they recommend and the way that they want to approach work. You've got to be really, really open and supportive to do that.
And it may not be sometimes someone says, ‘I want to do something this way’. And you think, oh, that's so not how I would do it. But I've really got to, if this is actually a shared leadership model, I've got to, like, work with you, and let you try that and support you to do it.
And a shared leadership model, I think, does enable women to have these roles without the constant battle of work/life balance. I'm able to work at night, like when the kids are in bed, I'm able to sit down and do emails and write papers and read things. And people work with me on that, like they know, you know, when Natalie's leaving and just got to get the kids, she'll take a pack home, she'll be able to do that in the evening, like she can accommodate getting those things done.
But they have to accommodate when they need me to get things done. And in a shared leadership model, if there's meetings that are scheduled, like you've actually got people who are not just going as your delegate to stand in for you, but they are really across all the decisions that you're making. They're really part of the planning of the union, they're really part of working with the democratic structures of the Union, you can't be a gatekeeper.
But if you aren't a gatekeeper, and you have that network of, you know, shared leadership, I think it's a far better outcome for the union. I think it's far better outcome for women in leadership roles. I don't feel like I have to be at every single meeting. I do feel like I'm responsible to know what's going on and to make good decisions in the interest of the union. But that means you have to let your guard down and really embrace having others and not feeling threatened by that.
Interviewer: I've just got a couple of questions as well, I know you've been very generous with your time today. But I'm wondering if you can tell me about what you see as the biggest challenge for the union movement overall at the moment, and how that might compare to when you first started your time with the ASU and what you sort of see those changes have been, if any?
Participant: Yeah, I think the biggest challenge in the union movement is ensuring that the demographics of our membership reflect the demographics of our workforce. I think that, you know, probably used to be a conversation about, do we have enough women in unions, women are now the majority of union members. That's fantastic. Do they make up the majority of elected senior positions, I'm not so convinced, I think that needs to be fixed. I am convinced that's the case at the ASU. But that's something that we consciously look at and ensure.
We need to ask ourselves constantly, what is the barrier of participation, and then accept that it's our responsibility to remove that barrier. Not find a reason to justify keeping that barrier in place. If that means we need to change how we schedule meetings and build avenues for participation, we just got to get over it and do it.
Our union has been incredible at that. And I go back to my comments about Sally and Naomi and Michael, on the barriers to participation in the community sector meant really opening up democratic structures in the most huge, monumental way. And we did it. And our union has grown so significantly, you know, going from 4000 members to 12,500 members, in that short space of time only happens when you really do open up those opportunities for participation that mean your ranks then reflect the workforce.
I would say young workers are the next frontier that we need to deal with there. I've always thought of myself as young because I was in my 20s when I became an elected official, but I have to accept I’m not now. So that means, you know, allowing young unionists to have a say, and I don't think that's a revolutionary idea that anyone would have, but really listening, like the idea…I'm not convinced that young people aren't joining unions because of our social media prowess.
Like, I think, from all of my experience of working with young members, and we have a growing young membership, and as I said, you know, I've just sat here and gone through our member survey, and we cut the surveys to look at our members who are under the age of 25. And what they tell us about work and we just have to embrace what they tell us. Young workers don't go to work to say I've got a rubbish job. They don't. Like they're excited that they've got their first job.
So, if the first interaction they have with the union is us coming in and going hope and action, so first we'll tell them how shit their job is and then we'll tell them that it can get better, but they've got to do all this stuff. Like does that really appeal to someone who's there going like, I've left school or I've, you know, finished a qualification or here I am entering the workforce, and I'm really excited to be finding my first job. And I want to do well.
Like, are we making that connection? I'm not convinced we are. But when our conversation is about like you’re at work, this is really exciting. Let's support you to have the best opportunities at work. That's where we're finding all of our growth, with young workers. And I don’t want to sound like well the ASU has all the answers, like this is an evolving area of our organizing, but the early signs of this are really, really positive in terms of growth.
And I think we all need to be much better at looking at what do we look like? Does that reflect the workforce? If it doesn't, then who's missing? And what are their barriers to participation? And I'd go further, not just about reflecting the workforce, but reflecting the community, because there are a lot of people who are excluded from the workforce.
And they are still constituents as a union movement. And that is where women are over represented in that group excluded from the workforce, who need to be the constituents of the union movement. That's where people who are long term unemployed have indicators of vulnerability and social exclusion in their life. And we have to be far better at engaging there. And I think we're getting better.
Interviewer: And just finally, as well Natalie, kind of reflecting on your time with the ASU as well, is there anything that you see is most defining of your time or something that you're sort of most proud of, at least at this stage, and reflecting on how far you've come with your union already?
Participant: Yep, definitely the unity across the union, because from that fall, I believe we derive our growth, which is really significant. Since I've been Secretary of the Union, we've grown by well over 30% net growth. That's probably not the case for most of the union movement. Our growth is proportionally faster than growth in our workforces that are growing.
And that's why we also have membership areas where workforces, the actual size of the workforce, are declining, and our membership is not declining at that rate. So, we've bucked trends there. And I think that is because of our unity and member-led nature. So, the fact that we did invest very heavily in involving members at every single level to build one single strategic plan, and taking a mega shopping list, and getting it down to six key strategic areas, and said this is what's going to drive our work, engaging members at every level to be proportionally represented in a new democratic body that we established of a branch council who oversee the work of me implementing those six points.
Constantly changing it, like constantly updating it and deepening it, and driving it. I would say that's my biggest achievement personally. It's not one of getting to be a spokesperson or make a speech, but it's certainly want to be more of a facilitator. And I just, I love it, I think our union goes from strength to strength every single year because of that work.
And it shows, so when we do our member survey, the satisfaction ratings for want of a better way to describe it, have improved off the scale every single year, every single year. And now, you know, members do say like they are really proud to be in the ASU, they would recommend us to colleagues and to family members that they think we are exceptional at communication and member engagement.
And like that's the best thing, like people used to say oh it's great to feel like the union is really strong. But now I think people, our members, describe our strength in a different way. Like they still see us as strong, but it's not necessarily the strong of the kind of here we are thumping the table, we're going to do things. But we're really strong in our participation that it is across the whole workforce.
Interviewer: Is there anything else that I have sort of haven't touched on in particular that you know, I wanted to…
Participant: No, I didn’t, I didn’t know what to expect, I have to say it is a bit confronting to be asked about yourself in your personal experience in the union ‘cause I don't think that's something that you spend a lot of time reflecting on, so yeah, you’re not always prepared to go ‘what’s this’.
Interviewer: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Natalie. We’ll leave it there today and thank you again for your time and sitting down with me.
Participant: No worries. Thank you.
Interviewer: Thank you.
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