Solidarity and union strength in the COVID era 

Carolyn Smith

Personal thanks

There are three people I thank and occasionally blame for where I find myself today. The first is an old boilermaker called Alex Glasgow, a shop steward at the Kewdale Workshops who persuaded me to step up as a shop steward; the second is Keith Peckham who persuaded me when he saw me coming to meetings and offered me my first job at the AMWU; and Simone McGurk who was an organiser. I modelled myself on her. I now work for the United Workers Union. We are an amalgamation of the old Storemen and Packers, and the United Voice (LHMU/Missos), and we cover a wide range of members in more than 45 industries.

Change the Rules/ Change the Union

I want to talk about some of the organising we’re doing around the gig economy, much of it digital organising. COVID has forced us to do things we had been thinking about for a long time and knew we should be doing. I’ll start with the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign, an incredibly important campaign. As unions and unionists we should not accept that we have to operate under laws that make it so difficult for workers to win. We have to continue with it; we have to look at what we did last time and work out how we can continue to get that message across.

However there is another discussion for us alongside changing the rules. Enterprise bargaining has slowly killed the movement. It might have worked for certain industries. It can work if you’ve got a mass of workers all employed by the one employer in a particular part of the economy — manufacturing, the public sector — that works but it doesn’t work in smaller fragmented workplaces or workplaces like construction. There you see laws getting tougher and tougher, and employers changing employment relationships. So, the days of stopping the concrete pour because the one builder employed everybody are over; layers of contracting and subcontracting have now undermined everybody. So ‘change the rules’ yes, but we always knew the rules didn’t work for our industries and in many industries for women. We also must have a debate about ‘change the union’. What are we doing that doesn’t work in this world that we find ourselves in, particularly with the types of employment that we now see?

Workers and workplaces today

We need to change the way we operate as a union and start with gig economy that is the apex of exploitation of terrible treatment to the point that workers aren’t even allowed to consider themselves workers. So we’ve got to do something different to organise gig workers. As well hospitality workers need decent jobs, respect and a pay that they can live on. How do you organise thousands of workers who work in small, unrelated businesses and all they have in common is the job they do, not necessarily the employer? We’ve got to do something for gig workers and we’ve got to do something for hospital workers and homecare workers. Homecare workers don’t have a place of employment. They get their job from their phone, work two hours here, have two hours break, work two hours there. We cannot organise them with a group of people in Hyundais driving around visiting workers.

With disability group homes we’ve got big employers but actually every workplace probably has one or two people on roster at a time, if you’ve got five people with disabilities and a couple of workers. There’s hundreds of people working in residential aged care facilities but at any one time there’s may be twenty of them on shift and they all have different breaks. So, you sit in the lunchroom to catch them for fifteen minutes. They come in tired, cranky; it’s a hard job. So, we’ve got to do something else rather than just visit and have a union meeting.

Casinos are the biggest private sector employer in the State. The dealers are on fifteen- minute breaks every hour and they’re on different breaks every time so they are never with the same group of people. How do you sit down and have an important union conversation with someone who’s got fifteen minutes to get off the floor, go to the toilet, grab something to eat, say hello to their workmates, and get back on the floor again? It doesn’t work. As well, manufacturing union organisers say — we walk into a lunchroom now and everyone’s there and it’s a half-an-hour break but most people are watching Netflix on their mobile phones. There are things we need to do in all of these places but we have to change how we’re doing it. We started to think about what we call ‘new organising’.

New Organising – new tools

New organising is old organising — it’s not some new different thing. It’s about finding the issues that matter to workers and dealing with them, developing leaders, identifying activists, building union power through recruiting new members, and then taking action together using that power. There’s nothing different between new and old organising except that we use different tools. So, we organise online and use digital tools and different models of building power.

I will use an example. Average Australians spend five and a half hours a day online so, when we talk about organising people in the community, that’s a really big community and that’s a really important place to connect with people. 87% of Australians have a smartphone. When we first started this idea of digital organising one of the things people said to us is —it’s a class issue, it’s an age issue; not everyone’s got an email address, not everyone’s got a computer. But actually, our members who are the working class of Australia now — the aged care workers, the farm workers— every one of them has got a phone. That’s what they live and die on. They might not have a computer but they’ve got a smartphone. They might be paying as you go on the data but they’ve got it. 25% of all people who visit an internet page start on Facebook and click through. 

New organising uses digital and online tools in a standard way. I will talk about COVID and aged care because it’s what I know best and because we became completely digital for seven or eight months and we not only did that, but we grew, prospered and recruited members, we developed leaders and we campaigned. When COVID hit, the United Workers Union decided that we weren’t leaving the workplace. We represented essential workers; we were going to be in the workplace. If our members had to go to work every day in a hospital, school, logistics warehouse for Coles or Woolies, our union reps were going to stand side by side with them, providing them with the information and the support they needed.

Peer-to-peer texting

State government health directives meant people couldn’t visit aged-care facilities, so we were outside of the workplace at a time when our members were scared, confused, worried. We used peer-to-peer texting — I can sit at my computer and send a hundred texts at once and use our membership database. A member gets a text from me saying ‘Hi, it’s Carolyn from the union. Times are rough and scary with COVID; how are things going in your workplace?’ Peer-to-peer texting was the first thing we did for mass outreach to our members, saying — ‘How are you going? What’s happening? Is there a plan in your workplace? Do you know what PPE you should be getting? Are you getting it? Is there only one dispenser of hand sanitiser in your entire aged care facility?’ That’s how we started to talk to our members.

Mass meetings online

We started having mass meetings with our members as a union at the first peak of COVID. We had the biggest union mass meeting online that’s ever happened in Australia with thousands of workers online. As a union in aged care we did a safety mass meeting. People logged on. We had a speaker from infection control in the WA Health Department. Members asked him questions. People could put questions in the chat; they could talk to us and that was really valuable. We had about 600 members from around Australia on that zoom meeting — getting information, talking to us.

We used it in the Royal Commission into aged care. The Royal Commission was particularly interested in issues around COVID, so we had a zoom about that. We didn’t cover New South Wales and Victoria, and I really feel for my HSU comrades who dealt with the kind of the crazy situation in aged care in those States; but when we did have outbreaks in our States, we’d call a zoom meeting the next day. One of the things I learned was that it didn’t have to be polished, it didn’t have to be pretty. You just get on there and talk to people from the safety of zoom.

Aged Care Safety Network

We set a closed Facebook group called the Aged Care Safety Network and we had union delegates on the network. As well we had a group of leaders, not officials, on there. We make comments but it is run by a group of leaders. They make sure questions are answered. If people haven’t said anything for a while they’ll pop up and put a question. The group morphed quickly from being only about safety to being our way of connecting with members, and members, more importantly, connecting with each other. We’ve got over 2000 people on it. Every time we found someone who wanted to be a leader we’d put them on the group. We talked constantly about what was going on, what happens next, what we do next, how do we do that. The officials would answer legal questions.

Online Petitions and Recruiting

We’ve done online petitions. Petitions are good things to do but we also did them to reach out to people, to find new people who weren’t in the union, to have something for our activists to do. We built lists and found lists from old petitions of aged care workers. So, we would find people who shared that petition who put it up on their Facebook page. That’s someone who wants to be active in the campaign. We would reach out to them with a text and say, ‘Hey, we saw you shared that. Do you want to share it some more? Where do you work? Is there a union rep in your workplace? Do you want to be the union rep in your workplace?’

We also talked to people who weren’t union members who’d signed that petition or maybe had signed a petition three years ago and we’d never followed them up because we’re too busy getting in our Hyundais and driving out to workplaces. We signed up huge numbers of new members. We’d text them and say: ‘Hey, you want to join the union? Shall I talk to you about that? Are you around now? When’s a good time to ring you?’ We had six or seven people in that team. When we’re back in the office they’d be there, each of them with their little earphones clicked in saying ‘Hey, how are you going? Let’s talk about these issues’.

A national union

We now hold Australia-wide leaders’ meetings for our campaign. We talked when we first amalgamated as a union and moved from the old idea of having nation states and branches in each State of building a truly national union and a national campaign. We thought ‘How are we going to do that?’ We now have what we call our warriors meeting; we have a zoom meeting on a Saturday afternoon and we have 50 or 60 of our leaders on that.

We did a lot of surveys and we were doing work with the Royal Commission. We put in a submission about the impact of COVID in aged care and we had huge response to them. However, it’s like the petitions – Good, participate, that’s great. If you share it, you’re an activist and we’re going after you. If you’re a non-member and you’ve signed we’re going and talk to you. We did a lot with Facebook ads and Google ads. Facebook has this amazing facility – we can give them a data set of what our members in aged care look like, and generally they are older, white, working class women and younger women of colour from the Philippines, Africa and the subcontinent, and Facebook ads pop up in front of people. It’s really great for union organising and similar with Google. You pop into Google safety and aged care; you pop into Google aged care award rates, you pop into Google COVID PPE aged care. If you do, we are going to find you and we’re going to talk to you online.

That is what we’ve been doing for six or seven months. I should have put this in context. These really are new tools in an existing campaign we’ve been running for a couple of years and we see it as a 10-year campaign to change residential aged care — to get better staffing levels ratios, a decent wage, a decent job, so people don’t have to work two or three jobs. We saw this 12 months as a time to stand with our members in a really scary time; but also in our campaign we were looking for leaders, building strength, getting people used to being active, getting people used to working together. That’s how we did it online. Our aim was to build industry power.

This is our moment

We’ve got a big year in 2021 — the Royal Commission report comes out and we’ve been talking to aged care workers about this. It is the time to change, to educate. There will never be a better time; this is our moment. We’re going to have the moral authority of the Royal Commission; we’re going to have a federal election. Because of COVID and the deferred bargaining that we’re going to do, we will have over 50 of the industry coming up for bargaining in July 2021. So, watch this space! Even though we haven’t got the laws to industry bargain, we’re going to industry bargain. It’s something we needed to learn to do if we’re going to run a campaign like this. We have an existing union presence; it’s not a strong union presence in aged care, it’s not a high-density workplace, but it has got a history and a tradition of unionism.

The hospitality industry

What do we do in areas that are totally non-union and we want to organise them? The hospitality industry is a good example. Combining powerful online tools and Netflix style memberships activism with the Fair Plate website [] so patrons can see which bosses were on the level, we helped to make it a national issue for the public and cut some big names down to size. We fought back for thousands of young workers to ensure that no worker is left behind. This is where we are now, here at this painful moment in history, but it’s also an opportunity to rebuild a better hospitality industry where workers are safe and respected, where dodgy bosses are held to account, and we have jobs we can count on. In this campaign we’ve had record numbers of new members.

Unions are about building decent jobs where people get fair pay and respect, so let’s start at ground zero before you start to build and what does that mean in hospitality? In hospitality it seems as though there’s nowhere else to go — you leave a job and there’s another job, you leave a job and there’s another job, and they’re all the same. How do you fix that? The old way would be to prosecute the employer for wage theft and by the time you finish they’ve closed down that company and started another one, and that means workers would have to pay massive union fees because it’s a very expensive model. So how do we do it? One of the things we decided on was this fair plate website and public exposure.

The fair plate website

Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Hospitality lives on its people, its chefs and restaurant managers. They live on their public image. So, the fair plate website lets people rate their boss. Employers hate it but it gives bouquets as well as brick bats. We have hospitality venues that get consistently good reviews and they’re accredited fair plate venues, but then we have places that have consistently get bad reviews, especially from workers who have been significantly underpaid. So, we worked with those workers and we got them to the point that they were prepared to speak out in the media. We went to A Current Affair and we had a petition online. We had 5000 people sign the petition demanding justice. You have to create the sound and movement and the pressure on someone like A Current Affair to put that story up. It took about three months for us to get that story up. Our message was amplified as we hoped. There were news stories about how terrible we were, but that amplified the message.

Doing things differently in the 21st century

Probably five years ago I remember sitting at a national executive of United Voice and people were talking about a digital union and what that might mean. People tried things and they failed, and they tried things and they worked, and they got to where we are today. One of the comments people made when we first started talking about this matter was — If we started unions in 2020 they probably wouldn’t look anything like they look like now. We are a beast of our history, so what would the union look like if we started today? That blew my mind. What are you saying? What do you mean? This gives you a sense of what was happening.

How do you do union business in a different way? How do you put pressure on employers? It’s not by going out on strike, which was and is a very important union activity; it’s not by prosecuting them; it’s not by visiting lunchrooms and telling the boss off. How do we do that in our sector? How do workers join together take collective action and win change? How do you pressure the boss in a totally different way to what we’ve done before?

I think there’s a whole lot of lessons there for us about how we organise gig workers and we know the first challenge with gig workers is to challenge this lie that they’re not employees and they’re not workers; that they somehow woke up one day and decided to set up a small business that involved a bicycle and an insulated backpack. However, if we’re going to organise those industries? Every worker can be organised; every worker has common issues. It’s working out how we get them together as a collective, how we build leadership, and then how they exert pressure on what we know as their employer.

Carolyn Smith is the Aged Care director and WA State Secretary of United Workers Union. This lecture was originally printed in The Western Worker, Issue No. 10, 2021.

Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 48-52.