I wasn’t born into a union family. When trade unions were mentioned at all in my suburban Australian family home, it was through the conservative trope of the violent, thuggish union bully boy. This image of a blokey, rough and potentially dangerous masculinity wasn’t entirely media driven. My mother would occasionally talk about being a teenage school leaver in the late 1960s and landing a receptionist job at a local trade union council. Her experiences there seemed to mostly consist of being sexual harassed, so it’s perhaps no surprise that she became a lifelong conservative.
My early politics was shaped by the religious and political conservatism of the home that she subsequently built with my father. But something began to shift over the late 1990s. Part of this was a reckoning with my sexuality. This prompted a wider reassessment of the world around me, beginning with Australia’s 1997-1998 waterfront dispute, which Rosa Campbell has already written about in this series, and which has some similarities with the recent mass firing of the P&O Ferries workforce.
Australia’s leading stevedoring company – Patrick – set up illegal shell corporations with the aim of replacing the unionized workforce at its wharves. Another shadowy company planned to train strike breakers recruited from the military and private security firms in Dubai, which unions described as ‘industrial mercenaries’. While that particular plan was thwarted by international outcry, a domestically trained non-union workforce was nonetheless prepared and, by April 1998, Patrick was ready to sack and lock out its workforce.
Footage of busloads of balaclava-clad scab labour and guards threatening to use attack dogs against workers are seared into my memory. Patrick’s actions were backed materially and rhetorically by the Liberal/National conservative government, which had already pushed through new workplace laws that dramatically reduced collective bargaining rights. The Maritime Union of Australia responded strongly on picket lines and through a highly visible solidarity campaign, which attracted support from many segments of the wider community. I’ll never forget the images of thousands-strong overnight pickets at the peak of the dispute.
As the government my family had cheered into office just a couple of years earlier facilitated the training of mercenaries and company bosses violently attacked their own staff, those bully boy tropes I had grown up with suddenly flipped on their head. I began to ask whether it really was the trade unionists standing arm and arm on those picket lines who were the bullies.
Over the next couple of years, I came out as gay, got involved in student activism, and never really looked back. I felt the solidarity and power of collective action for the first time on the streets of Melbourne in September 2000, when I joined thousands of workers, students, and other activists to blockade a three-day meeting of the neoliberal World Economic Forum and insist that another world was possible. I joined the Queer Bloc, which stood arm-in-arm with other participants, including a highly-visible contingent of trade unionists. By now I had learned that there was a fine tradition in Australia of queer solidarity by trade unions committed to social movement unionism. In 1973, for example, the Builders and Labourers Federation had enacted a ‘pink ban’ on construction at Macquarie University, laying down tools to demand the reinstatement of an expelled gay student.
Cop horses and swinging batons ultimately forced open both our barricades and the bodies of blockaders, but they couldn’t destroy my now visceral understanding of who the real bullies were – the Patrick bosses and their allies in government, and the police backing the global corporate elite over the people of Melbourne.
The trope of violent and thuggish trade unionists may have been undercut by my experiences of solidarity and resistance across difference, and a developing distrust of media-driven stereotypes. However, it continues to resonate because too many workers like my mum have encountered trade unions in much more damaging ways.
There are lessons then not just from the strike, but also from the family, that made me.
Trade unions can and must be organisations that commit to social justice in the places we work and the worlds we live in and make real that commitment in our own organisations. That sexism, xenophobia, harassment, transphobia, ableism, and more persist in trade unions is fundamentally unjust. When we fail to confront these injustices, it is understandable that workers like my mum begin to think that unions are not places for them and turn to building solidarity, community and hope elsewhere, as my mum did through her church and family. If workers continue to drift away from their organisations, we are collectively weakened, and the bully boys of all genders that still run our world and our workplaces, including the UK’s universities, find it that bit easier to get their way.
As some UCU branches strike again this week and more of us next week, and with further action likely on the horizon, we need all members to step up and help build our unity and power. Offer some time to your local UCU branch – even an hour a week can collectively make a huge difference. If your branch isn’t working as it should be because of bullies or harassers or transphobes or racists, it is in all our interests for that to stop. Organise at departmental level or through your networks. Seek out allies across your institution and beyond. Step around or collectively confront. Demand a union that is working for all members.
Most important of all, talk to your colleagues about what they have been doing, or not doing, over the last few weeks, and why. Those of us sacrificing pay and standing on picket lines may well feel let down, but we must push past that feeling if we are to collectively grow and strengthen. Let’s listen to our colleagues, hear their concerns and work to address them. Imagine the impact if next time we are forced to go out, we all brought just one additional person – perhaps someone like the teenage version of my mum – with us. Growing the strike is the way we win.
Our union is us and together we can make it what it should be. Another university and another world is still possible, if we make it so.
Mark Pendleton is the branch secretary of the University of Sheffield UCU, a member of UCU’s LGBT+ members standing committee, a founding member of UCU Commons and an editor at History Workshop Journal. UCU recently published an important report on Eradicating Sexual Violence in Tertiary Education, an essential read for all concerned with making our union and our workplaces safer.