It’s Christmas night in Australia and, replete with a fairly Australian repast of seafood and alcohol, I’m home after a day spent with family and (virtually) with friends. My siblings all live overseas; this year one’s come home to visit, along with spouse and children. And so, for only the third time in twenty-three years, I have Christmas off.

Instead I’m working New Year’s Eve. I’ll also be working nights over Easter, because someone has to – health care, like every essential service, can’t run only office hours.

Today I went to a green grocers to pick up limes for lunch. My niece and nephew are young and have unadventurous palates, so my mother and I picked up chicken from a take away place for them in lieu of our seafood. On the journey we passed police, ambulance officers and a fire engine. I stopped at 7/11 to pick up a magazine, in between the two trams I took home.

The green grocer is family owned; every other worker I passed should be getting penalty rates and/or additional time in lieu. That’s not something employers gave us – it’s something unionists fought for.

In fact, with vanishingly rare exceptions, employers are singularly opposed to workers having improved conditions – regardless of productivity or profit, there is almost never a good time to give workers a pay increase, improved conditions, or other recognition.

We don’t have to look to the past to see what a labour market without unions is like – we need only look to the developing world. Child labour instead of education, barely livable wages, six (and sometimes seven) day weeks, not only not annual leave but no sick leave, no work place safety legislation or workers’ compensation are just the beginning.

We need only look at the US, where the paradoxically named “right to work” States to see the impact of non-union workforces: 3.2% lower wages (after controlling for variables), lower health insurance coverage (in terms of both amount of cover and percentage of workers entitled to any cover), 4.8% lower pensions (if transferred nationally that would mean 3.8 million Americans without pensions), and 1% higher unemployment (source).

Here are conditions Australian workers enjoy that were fought for by the unionists who came before us – in some cases, by unionists who died in the fight :

  • the 8 hour day
  • the five-day week
  • occupational health and safety legislation
  • WorkCare
  • Medicare
  • annual leave
  • sick leave
  • long service leave
  • maternity and parental leave, first paid and now paid
  • superannuation
  • pay increases
  • unfair dismissal legislation

Most of these are off the top of my head, as this is a response post not a planned one (something I’ll come to shortly).

In addition, union values and family values – unions have prioritised financial security fr those injured or killed at work, family leave, time with family, and (in a brilliant move by the Australian Services Union) domestic violence leave.

Union rights are human rights – unions have fought, and continue to fight, against injustice and unfairness: against apartheid, gender discrimination, homophobia and transphobia, in support of same-sex marriage and equity for all.

Great thinkers have supported not just the right but the need for workers to band together:

Martin Luther King: History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.

Noam Chomsky: Labor Unions are the leading force for democratization and progress.

Clarence Darrow: With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men.

Eugene V. Debs spoke against the notion of rising from the ranks: I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rose it will be with the ranks. 

John F. Kennedy said both The American Labor Movement has consistently demonstrated its devotion to the public interest. It is, and has been, good for all America and Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: If I went to work in a factory, the first thing I’d do would be to join a Union and Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy, forget in time that men have died to win themand It is one of the characteristics of a free and democratic nation that it have free and independent labor unions.

Pope Paul VI: The important role of union organizations must be admitted: their object is the representation of the various categories of workers, their lawful collaboration in the economic advance of society, and the development of the sense of their responsibility for the realization of the common good.

I hear that there’s no place for unions. Once, perhaps, but not now, they say. And of course, in Australia these people use the still-cloudy but undeniable corruption in some branches of the Health Services Union as a brush with which to paint the entire movement.

In 2005 through to 2006 Australian unions banded together to fight against WorkChoices, the most draconian work place legislation Australia had seen. One of my favourite ads of the campaign was this: what have the unions ever done for us? This union-led opposition was seen by some as union protectionism. While it’s true that some measures curtailed union activity, the majority of these changes affected not unions themselves but the rights of union members. Rights like the ability to pattern bargain – in New Zealand this resulted in nurses performing the same work on different campuses of the same hospital network earning different rates of pay.

My perspective is inherently and unavoidably coloured by my profession. So here’s what my union, the Victorian branch of the Australian Nursing Federation, has done for me, my colleagues, my patients and my community just this year – in the face of unprecedented government opposition, we fought:

  • to keep the worlds’ first nurse/midwife-to-patient ratios, meaning that (unlike on the high risk ward of a London hospital) three midwives won’t have to care for forty postpartum women and their babies
  • to ensure that all care is delivered by qualified, accountable, nationally registered nurses and midwives (including enrolled nurses)
  • that continuity of care was maintained, with shift lengths of between six hours (no more than one per shift per ward or department) and twelve hours, not four hours or fewer

Those ratios are twelve years old, and no longer reflect the increased acuity of our patients – but even though we care for more and sicker patients, in less time, with fewer staff than ever before, no Victorian government has yet even conceded keeping ratios, never mind improving them.

In exchange for those conditions – unique in Australia – Victorian nurses are paid roughly $12 an hour less than a NSW counterparts. That we not only agreed to this but fought for it should tell you that a) we’re not interested in lining our pockets at tax payers’ expense and b) the government cares less for patients than we do.

I planned, today, to write a post about the season, about the Prime Minister’s Christmas message, and a reflection on the difference twelve months has brought to my life.

But on my way home, on the tram being driven by a man working Christmas, and reading FaceBook messages from colleagues here and overseas working today, I tweeted I’m off today, working New Years’ Eve – I thank the unionists who fought to get, and to keep, penalty rates #ausunions #proudtobeunion

Though I had favourable responses and retweets, @gapp12 tweeted back ahhh, unions, shagging Australia for over 130 years (modified) and I was reminded of how common that perception is.

You might think that the conditions you enjoy now are inviolable. We need only look at Senator Xenophon’s recent attempt to strip weekend penalty rates from all small business employees in retail, restaurant and catering services – that potentially affects over 500,000 workers to recognise that this is not the case.

Like the public holiday penalties that opened this entry, weekend penalty rates are paid to acknowledge and compensate workers for working unsociable hours. We may be moving toward a 24/7 world but we’re not there, and penalty rates recognise that.

Every condition you have, every condition you take for granted, is something that workers before you campaigned for, fought for, sacrificed for, and in some case died for. Not for their own gain but for the greater good.

To protect our conditions I reduced my hours, angered my employers, and handed in my intention to resign. I would have resigned, I would have paid fines, and I would have gone to jail. I am not alone.

Unions are the way workers get to have a voice. Returning to the WorkChoices campaign : without unions to organise, to inform, and to protect them, workers would have had no ability to channel their opposition. Without unions  employees have no voice, no power, no representation.

There are fewer union members now than used to be the case – around 18% of Australians belong to a union. A lot of this is thanks to the increase of casualised work forces, a discussion for another time. Other reasons include this prevalent and, as I’ve already pointed out, false belief that battles won stay won.

I believe that nobody should be forced to join a union, but every worker should want to join – to stand up for the best interests of their trade, industry or profession, and to contribute to the gains made for them by others. If you’re an employee in Australia you benefit from the work of that 18%. In what has been an exceptionally quote-heavy entry, I can do no better than to close with the words of the late Molly Ivens:

Although it is true that only about 20 percent of American workers are in unions, that 20 percent sets the standards across the board in salaries, benefits and working conditions. If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions. One thing that corporations do not do is give out money out of the goodness of their hearts.