I first learnt about unions in Grade 5. We were learning about The Australian Gold Rush and my father - a Ballarat-based painter and decorator - had me perform my speech to the class while draped in his enormous CFMEU jumper, with the iconic Eureka flag plastered across my chest.
In my father’s household, Peter Lalor was the name of a saint (In the same vain, “Margaret Thatcher” is profanity). I knew how to swear my allegiance to the Southern Cross and could tell you the dates of the Eureka Stockade - which Dad oft reminded me was one of the first Australian Strikes. From it all, I’d learnt a valuable lesson: if the higher-ups won’t listen, make them.
It was years later and long after forgetting my Grade 5 Gold Rush Speech that I stumbled across unionism again. I was getting a coffee at Lionel’s - my university’s local cafè - and thinking nothing of it when I ran into an old friend who studies at the other campus. He told me about UMSU - The University of Melbourne Student Union - and how they were really excited to get some activists involved for the new year because arts students can fight for their rights too and all I’d have to do is put my name down here with some contact details and suddenly, I was (somewhat accidentally) in the union.
Said friend was a man named Luca Cernaz - a high school buddy of mine and someone who I deeply admire when it comes to “walking the walk” of activism. I’ve had many chats with him about his commitment to the power of the collective but here are some words from him that really summarise why:
“I think what drew me in was a) that the workers coming together is the most powerful means of struggling against oppressive forces for anyone and b) that it gives us power - regardless of white, black, gay, straight etc - in a society where the individual is so powerless.”
For me, I’ve found that unions have reconnected me with something I’d now hate to forget- and that is that I am, in no uncertain terms, a product of the working class. Both my parents are from migrant families, my maternal grandmother pumped fuel for her father and at the same time, thousands of miles away, my paternal grandfather laboured in the steel works. My father works a trade and growing up, I split my time between outer-suburbs Melbourne and rural Ballarat. I know how to clean a pigsty: that sounds pretty working class to me.
Nowadays, discussion rings with the idea that the working class has been all but dismantled in modern Australia by the major party and elites. It’s safe to say that the Labor Party no longer aligns itself with unionism and in turn, fights less and less for working class people. This is disappointing, sure, but it also begs the question: where do people like myself turn to feel the power of the collective behind them?
I’ve been feeling a shift in the actions of our generation. The need for Climate Strikes and the fight for fair wages are being sung proudly by the young people of today. Especially as we argue against politicians like Scott Morrison - who do their best to rewrite youth protests as childish tantrums - I see the priority being given to collective action when we want to force change.
When it comes to this pandemic, collectivism is clearly proving its necessity. Social distancing doesn’t work on the individual scale and people are yearning to be together during this time of distinct “apartness”. And frankly, my accidental connection to UMSU’s Southbank (Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music) branch has been a blessing in disguise.
I’ve grown to love the committee: the passion with which they speak and the earnest way in which they listen. It turns out that student unions can be a lot more effective than primary school student councils - and we’ve got a lot more to ask for than different food in the vending machines and uniform-free days. I’ve found that the meetings - which initially, scared me with the formality of minutes and chairs and agendas - have become real and concrete ways to engage with issues, discuss them carefully and collectively decide how to act. What it’s shown is that a union is its members - their values, ideals and concerns.
At the moment, the fight for fee relief is at the heart of our work, as we struggle with Unimelb higher-ups to protect the principles of a fine arts education: studio-based embodied learning, access to state-of-the-art resources and accessibility for all. Really, that last one is the one I’m passionate about - because in this world of online learning, some students have better access to learning tools than others, and that makes my working-class heart very angry. I won’t stand for inequality. Nor will a union - that’s their schtick.
This is all a long-winded way of saying: Find your people and laugh with them. Fight with them. And if the higher-ups won’t listen, make them.