You are here

New Approaches to Union Campaigning

The next speaker at CMPM2014 is Michael Crosby from United Voice, who is discussing political campaigning outside election campaigns. Australian unions' ability to organise is widely recognised, even in spite of the overall decline in union membership in developed nations. Union volunteers are still crucial in many campaigns both during and outside elections.

Michael highlights the great sacrifices made by union volunteers, who commit a great amount of their time to organising even in addition to their work obligations, and amongst these especially flags the work of union members with comparatively poor working conditions, such as early childhood educators.

Past union campaigns which addressed this group have been relatively unsuccessful, because they followed traditional union lines without understanding the specific work environment in this area. Instead, there was a need to research the profession more closely: to understand the situation of workplaces in the sector, their profitability and level of staff turnover, and the feasibility of union action.

Campaigns for higher wages in this area would be misplaced, for example, as there simply isn't enough money in the system and increased costs would hurt the parents of the children being looked after. But of there is no chance to win a campaign, why would workers want to join a union? The eventual union response was that a powerful union in this field could do other things: to pressure government into better support for early childhood education.

This turns the campaign into a political campaign, not just a better wages campaign. But such a campaign depends on strong leadership: on activists taking up the issue. And in this case, those leaders are actually the managers running the early childhood education centres – the union's traditional enemy, but in this case their best friends. Some of these managers have in fact now joined the union, and are encouraging their staff to do the same. This is a most unusual development.

Using social media – especially Facebook – was crucial to this campaign, too. Much of it was organised through Facebook, and while this can create issues with message control it was also a great tool for coordinating action. It was also important to reflect back to the educators what was going on in other parts of the campaign – especially also connecting various regional activities. iPads were provided to local organisers in order to help them share materials with their local colleagues, including packages showing recent media coverage.

The union campaigned especially strongly and visibly in then-Treasurer Wayne Swan's electorate, and in the end secured a $300m commitment from the federal Labor government – not enough to fix the problem, but a good start. In return, United Voice also campaigned strongly in favour of Labor MPs during the subsequent federal election in 2013. The new government removed the $300m commitment, and this has strongly politicised the early childhood workers who had been very apolitical at the start – two of them are now even running for state Labor seats.