How Australian unions used their issues to influence voters and grow their strength
In the recent Australian elections, two unions came up with a great campaign to highlight an issue of huge importance to their members, grow member activism and have a real influence on the makeup of Parliament.
United Voice (UV) and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) members took part in the Save Our Weekend campaign, and they made their core demand one of the key election issues in marginal electorates across Australia.
Identifying their issue
At the heart of the matter was the importance of weekends. Unlike in New Zealand, many Australians are still paid extra for working on a Saturday or Sunday to compensate for the sacrifice of family time that they have to make.
Many businesses are not happy about paying extra on these days, and the Liberal Government made getting rid of weekend rates part of their plan for after the election. As two unions made up of people on low-pay, many of whom rely on weekend rates to provide for their families, UV and the SDA knew they had to do something.
So, the Save Our Weekend campaign was launched. They used both traditional and digital media to raise their issue, getting huge publicity in the process, but they also embarked on a strong organising campaign, mobilising their membership, recruiting new members and talking to thousands of people around the country about why weekends needed saving.
The on-the-ground campaign focussed on ten key parliamentary seats, out of 150 in the Australian House of Representatives.
Research showed that these ten seats were all potentially winnable, with the end goal of having a Government that would either explicitly support retaining weekend rates, or at least one that was too afraid of a backlash to oppose them.
Out of the ten seats targeted, eight were won by the Australian Labor Party, and these results have been largely credited to the success of the Save Our Weekend campaign. In post-election polling, commissioned by UV, 60% of people said weekend rates were between ‘somewhat important’ and ‘the most important’ issue when they decided who to vote for.
Building member capacity
Another key goal was building capacity amongst union members for future campaigning. Volunteers gained skills in door-knocking, one to one conversations, phone calling, recruitment and plenty more that will have positive flow-on effects in the day-to-day workplace union activity as well as in future public-facing campaigns.
For many union volunteers, the Save Our Weekend campaign was the first time they had been active in their union, and for many more, it was their first time using their union as a vehicle to take action outside of the workplace.
Being a part of such a successful campaign has meant the experience was deeply inspiring to many, showing participants the power of working together to make positive social change.
What happens next
The fight isn’t over for UV and SDA members. Employers are continuing to attack weekend rates, even though many of their strongest supporters were removed from Parliament in the election.
The Fair Work Commission, a similar body to our Employment Relations Authority, is currently considering a case on Sunday rates, and they will no doubt be taking note of the strong public opinion on this issue.
The national secretary of UV, Jo-anne Schofield, told the Sydney Morning Herald that it was humbling watching her members tell their stories of what a cut to weekend rates would mean to them.
"We have got to a point in this country where the lowest-paid workers are having to give an account to a court about why they need to keep earning the money that they are earning. It has been for me galling to see hard-working people come to the commission to open up their household budgets and financial situation to be cross-examined on that, to be accountable for what it means to have a cut in pay."
By Asher Wilson-Goldman