The following is an address given by Rowan Cahill at the launch of the MUA Educational Project for secondary schools at the MUA Annual Conference held earlier this year.
The project is part of the MUAs web-site and can be accessed by going to the MUA homepage at www.mua.org.au ; select ‘About Us’ on the main menu, then click ‘Ships of Shame, Pirates, Pickets & Ports’, and follow the links.
The MUA website Educational project has been designed for use in Australian secondary schools where there are curriculum opportunities to teach about trade unions and trade unionism. The material is pitched at students in Year 10 where these educational opportunities tend to exist, although a couple of university teachers of First Year Industrial Relations have indicated to me its suitability for use in the early stages of that subject area.
A ‘Note For Teachers’ explains how the package can be used in the classroom; there is a brief history of the MUA and its parent organisations, the Seamen’s Union of Australia and the Waterside Workers’ Federation, written for readers with no prior knowledge of the union; and a series of questions that treat the whole MUA website as a text to be researched, designed to help students gain an overview of the union as an industrial organisation and its functions.
For many years I was a classroom teacher of History. During that time it became evident to me that trade unionism does not significantly feature in Australian school texts. Sure, there are mentions; a few major strikes, the 1890s, trade union opposition to the Vietnam War, the Green Bans, but little in the way of acknowledging the collective role of trade unions in shaping Australian history, society and culture.
This is an interesting omission, especially considering that some trade unions, like the maritime unions, grew out of the experience of living and working in the Australian colonies and are amongst the nation’s oldest economic and political formations. Collectively, trade unions have been a dynamic force in shaping Australia’s social and cultural history.
In this process of omission the collective spirit of the Australian ‘character’ is ignored in favour of individualism. Important facts with far reaching political, social, and cultural implications are sidelined, for instance that during the 1880s and 1890s New South Wales and Victoria were probably the most unionised places in the world; that before 1901, well over 4000 unions formed in Australia. These facts alone say something about Australia on the cusp of nationhood, about communal, collective, self-help values and attitudes.
I take the view that it is up to the trade union movement to try to overcome this omission, and that one cost effective way of achieving this is by using the internet and trade union websites. All schools have computer access; classroom use of computers is increasingly part of teaching and learning; nationally there are numerous secondary school curriculum opportunities to learn and teach about trade unions. The internet provides the ideal opportunity for trade unions to create online classroom resources for teachers who are time-poor. The MUA education project is a modest contribution to this educational outreach process.
I am entirely comfortable advocating trade union involvement in school curricula; the secondary school student of today is potentially the trade unionist of the future. Indeed, many students begin their working lives while at school. They participate in Work Experience programs and many find part-time employment, after school and at weekends, especially in the retail, fast-food, and hospitality industries.
Amongst students engaged in part-time work are those for whom work is more than a source of pocket money and the purchase of mobile phones, cars etc. Indeed, their earnings contribute to supporting their current and future studies, and family finances generally.
If students are regarded as being suitable to be employees now, then it is remiss of anyone to deny them the opportunity to learn about trade unionism, and about having some power over the determination of their wages and conditions and the quality of their working lives.
The MUA education package joins the few Australian trade union websites with material about trade unionism intended for student and teacher use; these sites include the ACTU website, and that of the Labor Council of NSW. I hope other trade unions follow in this process of educational outreach.
I want to thank the MUA for listening to me in late 2002, and during early 2003 when I put this project to the union, and for allocating the resources necessary for its implementation; historian Dr Terry Irving, for his encouragement at various times when I was putting this project together; and MUA media person Zoe Reynolds for taking my words and transforming them with layout and electronics into what we have today.