Luke Hilakari is Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council
‘There are some who wanted this election to be all about unions and workers. And that’s exactly what it was.’
On 29 November 2014 the new Premier-elect Daniel Andrews, to his credit, wasted no time in acknowledging the work of union members in helping bring down the first one-term Victorian government since 1955.
If there’s one key takeaway from the We Are Union campaign, it is the tremendous political power of union members. Real workers, having authentic conversations with their communities, proved unbeatable for the conservatives.
A panicked Tony Abbott is now doing everything he can to prohibit union members campaigning at the federal election.
In May Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson initiated an inquiry into rules around the distribution of how to vote cards, campaigning by groups ‘other than political parties’ at polling places, and allegations of conduct by campaigners at polling places ‘likely to mislead or intimidate electors’.
No prizes for guessing what that’s all about.
The Abbott Government is running scared at the thought of a We Are Union style campaign being rolled out nationwide because they understand what progressives have been slow to acknowledge – conservatives just cannot compete in an election about working people’s issues.
Our greatest strength is our people.
It’s true of the union movement, it’s true of the Labor Party.
Getting rid of an anti-worker government last year was of course a priority for Victorian Trades Hall, but it was just one part of our broader campaign to build a standing army of union campaigners, who can go out into the community and share the concerns of regular working people with a wider audience.
Trades Hall has recruited more than 3,000 volunteers to help spread the We Are Union message through phone banks, door knocking and public events. That work now continues independently of the election cycle.
This outstanding crowd of volunteers allowed us to make 123,000 phone calls and visit 93,000 homes in 2014. We are working toward even greater rates of direct voter contact ahead of the next federal election.
The Productivity Commission is due to hand in its report into Australia’s workplace relations framework in November. When Tony Abbott responds to its recommendations, we’ll be ready.
But, the sheer volume of interactions is only one half of the equation. What made the We Are Union campaign so effective was that the conversations we had with the public were grounded in the everyday experiences of life under a Liberal government.
Every year, Roy Morgan releases its Image of Professions Survey, which ranks workers from 30 professions for honesty and ethics. This year, Federal MPs come in at an abysmal 25, just ahead of stockbrokers.
By contrast, the nurses who were verballed by Liberal volunteers on polling booths are considered the most honest and ethical workers in the country.
That’s why – when teachers, nurses, paramedics, fire fighters and others went out and shared their concerns about the antiworker policies of the former Napthine Government – people listened, believed us, and then took action.
There are important lessons in this for the Labor Party.
When the federal election campaign arrives later this year or next year, we will be faced with an advertising market more fragmented than ever, a news cycle moving faster than ever, and a level of trust in our politicians that is lower than ever before.
Realistically, the next election cannot be won or lost by 226 Labor candidates around the country.
The campaign can and should be owned by tens of thousands of Labor members and volunteers, out there in their communities, sharing their stories and making a positive case for the election of a Labor government.
But Tony Abbott’s defeat will also belong to the greater portion of our movement – the union members who are not Labor members. Their independent voice rings clearly and authentically for political change.
That voice did not go silent after the state election, and it won’t be silent after the federal election.
Whoever forms government , the fight for our rights at work n e v e r ends.