By Callen Sorensen Karklis
All Unions Should and Do Matter! Lessons from pandemic times
The Covid-19 pandemic, recession, and the Ukraine oil crisis caught us all by surprise. For many of us, expectations of a Roaring Twenties good times became another repeat of what felt like the 1930s and the GFC. With ever increasing cost of living prices at the grocery store, fuel pump, and stagnant wages, inflation and lockdowns forced many people out of dream jobs and many into old jobs.
For me, mostly I was working part-time in marketing while I was running a share house, and studying full-time in university on my way to gaining a promising post graduate entry level job I was running for city council, and I had a supportive partner and friends around me.
But when Covid hit I lost a great deal of all this, and I knew when my media advertising sales started to crash even before Covid that economic turbulence was on the way as I had a good track record of sales.
In 2020 I found myself losing a city council election during a bitter Labor Party split on overdevelopment issues locally in the Redlands, and half my family and friends losing their jobs (in many of their hospitality jobs) as soon as the lockdowns hit. We all became isolated from important relationships and meaning in our lives. For me, it strained a close relationship during a tough campaign I over committed myself towards … away from other things important in my own life. I found myself finding another campaign to help people in tough times away from city politics towards the politick of unionism. I had a brief history helping the United Voice and RTBU unions assisting employee bargaining notices and market research on election polling in 2011-2012, running Labor Party branches in the Redlands as a Secretary, Vice-President, and Chair/President, and helping the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) on anti-asset campaigns during the Newman era, and wharfie picket lines.
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union and IWW
I used this experience to help the huge sways of unemployed and underemployed workers sacked from bars, sports clubs locally, and cafes. Using the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU) as a platform to help those who were losing their livelihoods. In one case we helped people get their jobs back in a sports club. The AUWU is an association operating as a charity advocating for welfare protection. In the past, unemployed workers’ unions were successful in the Great Depression to advocate for full employment policies to all levels of government. I made comrades and repaired old friendships during my city council campaign that continued during the Covid crisis, and we did our best to help those losing a great deal around us. We set up branches in the union to help people doing it tough particularly as many were finding it hard to adjust just living off the state welfare system, some for the first time in their lives.
The AUWU – whilst not perfect in its structure prior to the crisis and riddled with small levels of infighting – set aside these issues when Covid overruled this as a common dominator. Some in the bigger left-wing unions like the Victorian branch of the UWU and CFMMEU supported the association financially and activist. Unfortunately, whilst the union had success in assisting people land on their feet and in some cases fought for jobs being reinstated in workplaces industrially with some help with the QCU. The union sadly became overwhelmed by bitter personality politics, Twitter celebrity wars, lapses in procedure, and infighting on policy direction.
Whilst a state, then national coordinator I observed that this overwhelmed the union and it also didn’t help that the ACTU didn’t take the union seriously enough, but in the end, it was also a double edge sword as the AUWU was filled with some who didn’t take themselves seriously enough regardless of their politics of the left. The AUWU has potential still, but it must follow procedural rules structures like any charity or association. These were the pros and cons of the organisation. The same could be said of the IWW as it was consumed by similar issues despite its strong historical in activism in tough economic times. As it was riddled with a failure in attending to people struggling only focused on turning away help from AUWU activist, and politicians who were anything but supportive like Cairns former state MP and incumbent Cr Rob Pyne (Labor turned socialist).
A lesson I learnt as the interim Secretary of the Qld IWW was that if stronger open-minded activists step up and set the differences these groups could reclaim their influence when times become tough again beyond Covid. Opening membership for input would be the best way forward for these unions to regain influence as they lack positive PR and tarnished as undemocratic by critics.
The Strength of Student Unionism
As I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Government and International Relations, I found the temperament to work for former Labor leader of Brisbane City Council (2016-2020) Cr Peter Cumming of the Wynnum Ward BCC during a work placement. While working for the Brisbane City Councillor during the pandemic I observed the office helping constituents. In doing so, I found myself doing something I never thought I’d be involved in: student politics.
Particularly at Griffith University where I studied. The Labor Club that I was involved in previously in 2011-2016 was filled with bitter infighting between the rivalries of Young Labor between the Left and Right/Forum groups backed by the UWU, AMWU, ETU in the Left and AWU, SDA, and TWU on the right. In fact, in earlier years in 2011 the Left and Right of the ALP at Griffith used to compete candidates against each other in the student representative council (SRC) while I made attempts on deaf ears to see unity among Young Labor on campus. Over the years there was a multitude of SRC reps from political parties be it LNP, Labor, Greens, or independents, some good, some bad. The infighting of earlier Young Labor years soured my interest in student unionism during my 20s. Particularly as I saw first-hand how bar tabs overruled decent discussions about ideas, and policy in the youth wings of the major parties.
That said, with the pandemic hitting students particularly hard with many losing their retail, fast food, or hospitality jobs, and from what I observed in the AUWU, I endured my resolve to put aside any personal issues I was having in my own life (relationship and family issues). I networked to become more involved in the Griffith Indigenous Student Association (GISA) among fellow Indigenous students and became its secretary; one of whom resigned from a vacant position on the SRC which Indigenous students nominated me to take. On the SRC and GISA I pushed for bursary funding for food vouchers which helped many students get through the lockdowns on little wages and welfare payments. Many of us on the SRC came from different ALP factions but put aside our differences for the students in a hard time. I did this also as the University hired me as a student ambassador … the only problem was the University was running low on financial backing for many of its domestic students with cuts to mental health and financial services. As everybody’s pay was delayed which the NTEU assisted in resolving, what I learnt during this period was the value of student unionism: Unity, cooperation, resilience in hard times.
The Successes of the Retail Fast Food Union
One thing I did notice from HR departments in one retailer was a large sway of recruitment which made it clear to me there was a great deal of high turnover rates. I also noticed managers being forced out over wage disputes, stress, and younger staff barely out of high school becoming department managers and supervisors with next to no training. There were also issues of workplace bullying and harassment, particularly from young staff towards older more experienced staff. Coincidentally while enjoying music with some friends on an evening, I was also king hit and physically assaulted where I had a head injury from a stranger I never met before. As horrible as this experience was and having to deal with paramedics and police. Whilst I was already towards the end of a 3-month probationary hired at a second retail store as an Assistant Dairy/Freezer manager and 2IC for an employer I can’t disclose for legal reasons. I was responsible for dairy orders, stock rotation, managing staff, and receiving invoices from product reps. Whilst working there after becoming ill after my head injury and assault and coming down with the flu during the Covid scare I was then sacked for “working too slow” … RAFFWU organizers assisted me by assisting in a general protection order notice to the former employer on grounds it was unfair considering they knew about my medical issues taking place at that time. The matter was resolved with Fair Work’s help in conciliation.
The union was filled with organisers of other bigger unions and experience such as the NTEU and managed things with greater improvement to what occurred in the SDA (Shop Distribution Union) which I was a member of from 2008-2015. In the SDA union I felt isolated in my interests as a worker in my earlier pay disputes and agreements and on social issues such as same-sex marriage as I struggled with coming to terms with my own sexuality in my late teens/early 20s. It’s little why RAFFWU have had success in organizing the first national union strike in the retail sector for Apple workers fighting for better working conditions amid the pandemic.
Lessons from the Pandemic
Important lessons for me (and most importantly others) now and beyond is that all unions help either workers, the unemployed, underemployed and students, as they all matter! They shouldn’t just be used as career jumping lily pads for recruiting future politicians albeit future and past politicians can come from these roots as a recruiting ground this much is true. But their heart and passion for helping the common person must be paramount. Unity teamwork, regardless of ideology is especially important for any organisation to function, without which, chaos ensues. Over a century ago my forefathers on both sides of my family were inspired by great ideas and policies in the union movement to do great things. Alfred Martin – an early Aboriginal rights activist who along with several relations of Quandamooka workers of the Benevolent Asylum – fought for fair days’ pay for First Nations people: the first won for Indigenous peoples anywhere in Australia at the time after working slave labour. And James Wilson Hughes of Gympie – a grocery store owner amongst the bustling mining working class town of Gympie – who took on notice to fight for better services in health care providing for ambulances and better roads by implementing full employment policies to help those less fortunate to work a fair day pay who came from very little and those who were unemployed as the Town Treasurer during the Great Depression while advocating for more services in Gympie.
Callen, who has Bachelor of Government and International Relations, is a Quandamooka Nunukul Aboriginal person from North Stradbroke Island. He has been the Secretary of the Qld Fabians in 2018, and the Assistant Secretary 2018-2019, 2016, and was more recently the Policy and Publications Officer 2020-2021. Callen previously was in Labor branch executives in the Oodgeroo (Cleveland areas), SEC and the Bowman FEC. He has also worked for Cr Peter Cumming, worked in market research, trade unions, media advertising, and worked in retail. He also ran for Redland City Council in 2020 on protecting the Toondah Ramsar wetlands. Callen is active in Redlands 2030, Labor LEAN, the Redlands Museum, and his local sports club at Victoria Pt Sharks Club. Callen also has a Diploma of Business and attained his tertiary education from Griffith University and QLD TAFE. Callen is a member of Workers Power radio program on 4ZZZ.
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