Unions' new voices in hard, uncertain times

TIME was, everybody knew what a union member looked like.

He was around 25-35, worked in a blue-collar job and was the sole wage-earner for his family. He’d left school early, but through an apprenticeship or on-the-job experience he had solid, saleable skills.

He wasn’t strike-happy, but you didn’t push him around – and ‘‘pushing him around’’ meant things like bothering him when he was at home. He’d give you a fair day’s work, but it sure as hell had to be followed up by a fair day’s pay. His conditions, his breaks and the way he was treated by his bosses had to measure up to the undefined but universally understood standard, ‘‘decent’’; and if they didn’t, he’d down tools, quick-smart.

Some unionists were ‘‘militant’’. This usually meant they’d go on strike for things that weren’t directly linked to take-home pay and working conditions. There were local things, like keeping parks open; national things, like heritage or the environment; and even international things, like the unending campaign to protect sailors on unregulated ‘‘flag of convenience’’ ships.

Today’s unionist is a bit older. She’s 35-45, a public servant, with children and possibly older parents dependent on her care as well as her wage. Her job is one that demands post-school qualifications, but she trained for it because she wanted to do something worthwhile for others – usually in health or education.

Her big issues are close to home. Money’s short. Half those surveyed have a partner who works as well, but it’s still common to have had to use a credit card occasionally to deal with surging power bills, transport problems or housing costs. Dentists’ visits have been postponed to pay more urgent bills. As for savings – hah!

Desperately juggling all her family obligations, she still manages to fit in more volunteering than the national average. A conscientious worker, she’s prone to ‘‘just staying back a few minutes’’ – unpaid – to get the job done, or dealing with work calls from home after hours. She may have some job security, but she’s quite likely to be a casual, a part-timer or on a limited contract, since that’s the only way she can meet her family commitments. She’d love – oh, how she’d love – to be sure she’ll have a job for the foreseeable future, one where there’s a bit of give and take around family needs. But with ‘‘public service cuts’’ being the first thing any politician thinks of when the budget’s tight, she’s feeling a bit desperate.

(You may have seen just how desperate on Thursday in Sydney, when she sent a message to the O’Farrell government.)

My portrait of the new ‘‘typical unionist’’ is based on a study of more than 40,000 workers compiled at the behest of the Australian Council of Trade Unions by Essential Media Communications and Your Source.

Recognising that the way the ACTU advertised the survey would skew results (because of the size and responsiveness of two female-dominated professions), the companies also provided a standard public poll covering the same ground.

The object is to clarify for the ACTU exactly what Australians want the peak union body to work on. The report, Voices from Working Australia, is the first part of a major study they’re calling the Working Australia Census. (Check it out at actu.org.au.)

The two surveys, public and union, showed up three groups of workers who need particular help. The ‘‘Sandwich Generation’’, largely female and sandwiched between conflicting responsibilities; the ‘‘Forgotten Blokes’’ (men, 45-64, looking for work but not finding it because employers think they are too old); and the ‘‘Insecure Youth’’ – under the age of 25, employed, but facing labour market and financial stress on an income that, with housing and transport costs, is very hard to get by on.

The most important issue for all groups in both studies was housing affordability and the cost of living.

Job security came next, though the ‘‘Sandwich Generation’’ women were understandably concerned about flexible hours to balance their commitments.

Among issues not connected with pay and conditions, the leader with unionists was access to education and the quality of public schools. For the general public, it was healthcare.

‘‘Addressing climate change’’ came fifth with unionists (24per cent), though on the general poll it was pipped by ‘‘maintaining a budget surplus’’ (12.9per cent to 14.7).

The unionists considered that one, at 6.4per cent, the least vital of all concerns, preferring ‘‘managing the economy in the interests of working people’’, an option which was more popular with both groups.

What have you had to cut back on to balance your budget?

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