Joanna Public sweeps the floors of the Campbelltown General Hospital, as part of her job as a domestic. Her days start early and her wages are low. She makes sure her kids get to school although shes rarely there to see them off because shes already at work. She also fills the shelves at a local supermarket for some additional income. At least, when it started the income was additional. Its more often now that her extra is paying for household staples.
Jo is a member of the union, her union, the Health Services Union. She remembers the heady days when her Union joined the Your Rights at Work rallies when the Howard government had introduced WorkChoices. They were planning to make it impossible for women like her to stay home from work if they had sick children without risking their jobs. If she couldn’t look after her kids who could? The older ones were ok alone but not the younger ones. Wasn’t it great to be with friends on the street, everybody smiling while they listened to the speakers at the rallies. Kevin Rudd was going to sweep Howard’s laws out the door. Most other stuff was ok, so Kevin was going to keep that but get rid of workchoices!
Today Jo is torn. She has seen the news reports showing that Craig Thomson was using his Union Credit Card in knock shops. She knows that when she goes to the shops she has to choose out of date eggs for a 50c discount or there’s no eggs for her table. There’s no chance that Craig Thomsons wife has to search for discounted lines in the shops. Each payslip for years has shown that payment to the union and she had been proud to pay it. To pay for action to get equal pay for women, action against bastard bosses who used to be union members too before they went onto salary and to pay for the free services that the union helped provide.
Now they are saying that the only action that her fees had been paying for was Craig’s horizontal action!
She rang the union on Monday to talk about what she had to do to resign, to stop that payment going out every week so she could buy proper eggs. The person she talked to said that they had had dozens of calls that day and that no-one in the office was very happy. They had asked her to wait until after the National Executive meeting on Wednesday before she resigned.
The Jo Public scenario may be fictitious but the damage to the union movement is not. Unions are in the face of their members every week on the payslip and every week the workers must assess their union membership. Gone are the days of compulsory unionism, where if the union wasn’t doing its job you didn’t have a choice, no ticket, no job.
Kathy Jackson and the National Executive of the HSU had no choice but to take the action they have. To not do so would have left the stain of union missuse of funds in the face of the members. One can only guess at the carnage that would have taken place if the HSU hadn’t acted. The members now have a reason to stay with the union but it wont be carte blanche as it was before. It will be months before the membership is seen as stabilised and it will probably be only after the union has acted to recover the irregular funds.
Any member of any union that is doing it tough will be asking the question each week, ‘Is someone at my union just using my membership payment in a knockshop?
The union movement will be taking very careful steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen again easily. If they don’t they will suffer the consequences as members decide they can spend their own money more usefully than the union. Workers will also be asking questions of their unions in workplaces and pubs across Australia, and if the answers are not forthcoming, the reaction will be swift.
I was a member of the SA branch of AMIEU and would be again. My questions were answered satisfactorily.