Monday, May 7, 2012

Mayday, mayday: Is May Day relevant?

Yes, I marched today: Labour Day 2012.

The worth of a State in the long run, is the worth of individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to little more of administrative skill or that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of a business; a State, which dwarfs its men [and women], in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men [and women] no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.
JS Mill, On Liberty, (Ch 5, Applications), 1859 [with some amendments]

Under blue autumn skies

 Today, under a spectacular sunny sky, I joined with thousands of friends,   colleagues and comrades to march through the streets of Brisbane to celebrate, to commemorate, to join in acknowledging the worker struggles of previous generations. Those struggles that meant fighting for the eight-hour working day—the 8 x 3 split of eight hours work, eight hours leisure, eight hours sleep. Yes, me who averages 11 hours in the office/classroom a day, three hours travel per day, a couple of hours work at home and an average of five hours sleep a weeknight. It really is a kind of back to the future, except the job now comes with superannuation, leave and mechanisms in place to try to negotiate a fair and just workplace.

Sharing stories over lunch

I don’t come from the sort of family background that fostered unionism. When I signed on to my first proper paid job, at Woolworths in 1980, signing on with the Shop Assistants’ Union was mandatory—no ticket, no job sort of thing. I did, because I needed the job to see me through school and uni studies. I didn’t really understand the significance of it then—that time-and-a-half pay that came when I worked on a Saturday or public holiday, that I got overtime, that we were to have a ten minute break every four hours, that as a ‘check-out chick’ I also got a separate staffer to pack the groceries—none of this at the time occurred to me as hard-won conditions. It was just a job.

I worked here and overseas subsequently and didn’t have involvement with unions for a while, until I returned to university more or less permanently in 1999. For a sector that was once secure (seemingly) there was increasingly casualisation back then (an intensification of a problem I’d had in the mid-1990s) and so, as part of a group of strong and committed members in my department, I became a union member again and see it now as a part of my engagement in the polity…upholding my end of the ‘social contract’.

And so, that is why I marched today. Yes, there is a sense that unions are on the wane, that they are mere puffballs in the neo-liberal reality. But there is a grand sense of the ‘collective’—collective good, collective power, collective strength. We are people not afraid to stand up and say we can’t make an economy out of individual self-interest, but we can make a society that is just and fair when we stand together. We each have strengths and weaknesses that we bring to our world. When we share rather than compete, we can make the world a better place.

Idealistic? Perhaps. But when I look back on political history and remember the suffragettes who struggled for the right for women to vote, and our union forebears who believed we could make the world work on an eight hour day, then I think we can continue their legacy.

A beautiful end to the day
On a day like today too, I join others in Brisbane—people in a wide range of unions, blue collar, white collar, professional and so on—people I probably wouldn’t otherwise meet (though I might teach their children) with whom I can have a chat over a drink and appreciate that sense of solidarity.

We get blamed for a lot when things don’t go as people wish in the workplace, but we also uphold a rich heritage and a legacy which is worth marching for.

Solidarity…forever…for the Union makes us strong.

*I am a member of the NTEU—the National Tertiary Education Union. I am branch president and so a state and national councillor. These views are mine, as are the photos.