What have unions ever done for us?

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MEREDITH HAMMAT is the secretary of UnionsWA, having replaced Freo local Simone McGurk who moved into the big house on the hill at the March 9 state election. Ms Hammat says at this year’s May Day parade, unions will adorn Fremantle.

AT the 1897 Eight Hours’ Day demonstration the WA Operative Painters and Paperhangers Union (since amalgamated into the CFMEU) paraded its banner with its then motto ‘We strive to Adorn’.

These days many people might think unions don’t do much “adorning”. May Day is a good time take a reality-check.

Surveys tell us that even those people who haven’t joined a union believe unions are important to protect basic pay, health and safety.

A bit like asking “What have the Romans ever done for us?” it’s tempting to ask, apart from the eight-hour day, occupational health and safety protection, holiday leave, sick leave, fair pay, after hours penalty rates and unfair dismissal rights, what have the unions ever done for us?

What are unions doing for us today?

Pride in past achievements shouldn’t stop us from asking: What are unions doing for us today? This year’s May Day celebrations will again be centred in Fremantle with a parade and fair this Sunday May 5 at the Esplanadem starting from noon. Federal workplace relations minister Bill Shorten will be our guest speaker.

May Day is part of a campaign by unions up to and beyond this years’ federal election that will focus on improving job security. Sometimes it feels like we are campaigning for the eight-hour working day all over again.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics there are 227,000 WA working people without holiday or sick leave entitlements. Around half are independent contractors—many take calculated risks as genuinely self-employed, budding entrepreneurs (and good on them, I say).  However, too many are forced into these arrangements as a condition of employment. Individuals are forced to bear the costs and the risks of organising their own superannuation, workers’ compensation insurance, sickness and holiday leave and taxation arrangements. Those arrangements are not fair.

The loss of a job puts people’s livelihood at risk and this is heightened in WA because our essentials costs of living, such as housing and electricity, are high and rising.

Secure work is also important because of the impact it has on our communities. Fremantle has a proud history as a place where the wealthy, the middle class, those who work with their hands, retirees and others without work, live together in a diverse community.

Recent reports tell us WA is increasingly a community more sharply divided between rich and poor. The nature of work and the cost of housing are two fundamentals driving our communities apart. Those in insecure work either cannot get finance for a home mortgage at all or are unable to afford to purchase homes in many suburbs. It’s segregation by stealth.

Insecure work also impacts on some industries more than others. With almost a quarter-of-a-million working Western Australians going without holiday leave, how can this not impact on struggling hospitality and tourist businesses so important to Fremantle?

“We strive to adorn”—it’s a phrase that demonstrates pride in work.

Unionists are justifiably proud of our work, striving for fair and modern workplaces that contribute to communities of greater inclusion. That’s worth celebrating and I hope you will come and “adorn” us with your presence this Sunday

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