For many, the question isn’t so much “why did you join the union?” but “why wouldn’t you?” LOUISE SWINN speaks to members about the benefits of being part of the AEU.
Erin Oliver, program area leader at Wodonga TAFE, can list numerous reasons why she’s glad to be part of the union. But when asked what she appreciates most, she doesn’t hesitate. “It’s the friendship and moral support I get from other union members.”
Over the past year or so, Erin has been taking part in the WILD [Women in Leadership Development] training, where she has made connections with a range of union women from different contexts she would not have otherwise met.
“Every session we have, I leave feeling supported and inspired. They encourage me when I’m feeling frustrated or angry, they inspire me when I’m exhausted, and they listen to my concerns,” Erin says.
“We also share solutions to mutual problems. I never understood how much of a difference that can make. It has moved me from a place where I was considering leaving my job to supporting me to make real change and grow the union membership where I work.
“It’s the shared values, the sense of purpose and togetherness I have with other members and union staff, that I love the most.”
“I went from years of casual work, with no security and fluctuating hours each term, to being on a full-time contract. I cannot understate what a difference that makes to my mental and financial wellbeing.”
Giving everyone a voice
Sam Harrison, community services teacher at Melbourne Polytechnic, feels similarly.
“I have felt enormously supported by the union in a range of circumstances. The women in the union are phenomenal. It’s fantastic to be part of something that really gives women a voice.”
“I’m comfortable speaking out about things but I recognise that not all people are.”
Sam sees her role as being a voice for her colleagues. “Being part of the union has enabled me to exercise my advocacy skills – advocating for the people I work with so that they get respected in their work. I’m comfortable speaking out about things, but I recognise that not all people are.”
For Krystal Cohen, teacher and sub-branch president at Aberfeldie Primary School, union meetings provide an important forum for people to speak about their issues.
“I was on a lot of short-term contracts when I first started teaching as a grad, and I found it very useful to find out that I was eligible for an ongoing position. It was being in the union that gave me that information,” says Krystal, who is also union secretary for the Maribyrnong region.
“I’m a bit of a shy person, so I’m not the best at running meetings, but the passion is strong at our school and that makes it easier. And I find it really easy to call the helpline at the union when I have a question. For example, regarding professional practice days (PPDs) – getting clarification on what is expected in terms of attendance on site and what kind of work you can do on that day. Then I was able to reiterate to fellow staff that the day is for teachers to manage their workload.”
Krystal has also become a point of contact for other staff. “I’ve had principals come to me with questions around the enterprise agreement, asking, ‘What is the rule around this?’”
Maurizio Salvati, photography teacher and acting lead teacher at Melbourne Polytechnic, has been a rep for the past four years. “The union provides a great support, and the ability to achieve working conditions otherwise impossible to negotiate. Fortunately, I’ve not experienced anything that needed AEU intervention, but as a rep, I’ve witnessed the unprofessionalism of a manager abusing his position, asking teachers to work outside the limits of the work plan – in fact, some did not even have a work plan – and he always found excuses for not doing his job.
“Luckily, the majority of teachers were union members, and with the support of the union, they acquired the strength they needed to get better conditions and get rid of that manager.”
Fellow TAFE teacher Erin Oliver has also benefited from improved conditions negotiated by the union.
“The last MEA meant that my workplace had to put me on a contract, so I went from years of casual work, with no security and fluctuating hours, to being on a full-time contract. I cannot understate what a difference that makes to my mental and financial wellbeing,” she says.
“The stronger our union is, the better our position is for negotiating an MEA that benefits all.”
At one point, Erin found that she had been paid incorrectly for over a year. “Our HR department was being quite difficult about resolving this, so I called the union for support.
“I was moved to the correct pay grade and back-paid. Without union support, this would have been a far lengthier and more stressful process.”
Knowledge and support
Peter Murphy teaches in training and education programs at RMIT, where he has worked for more than 30 years, taking on various union roles, as well as serving on the TAP council.
“When I was sub-branch president, on the odd occasion when people went to a dispute with management, I was taken along as their support person. We could access AEU industrial officers and get legal and industrial advice. That kind of support is invaluable.
“Generally, people don’t want to rock the boat – but when something comes up, it’s good to have someone by your side.”
“Generally, people don’t want to rock the boat; they accept their lot. But when something comes up, it’s good to have someone by your side.”
Peter points out that there are always going to be times when an employee won’t see eye to eye with management.
“In an enterprise agreement there is always scope for interpretation and ambiguity; sometimes you need to have robust discussions with management about how the member could be treated better. Sometimes the expectations of workers by management are above and beyond what we think is reasonable. With the support of the union, the outcomes to disputes have been good.”
Krystal sees the union as fundamentally important to the future of teaching.
“I think teaching is an amazing profession and we want to keep really good teachers in the profession. In the union, we are trying to address workload – and having a strong union means we have more power to get better conditions.”
Loaded with the gravitas that comes from years of experience, Peter adds: “Having an organisation with the strength and resources the AEU has can only be a good thing and can only work to your advantage.”