Conned into being a union shop-steward

That I was dealing with mature people was in evidence when I joined a hockey team. I found that I had replaced a very senior officer whom my head socialised with, and who had a working relationship with us. I was always treated with courtesy by him and his people. Years later his son worked with me and we had a good relationship too.

In my first week in the office, I was befriended by a colleague. He came to my desk one day and asked me to join the staff union, in his capacity as Branch Councillor (shop steward). My previous dealings with unions had been one of compulsion. In every casual job, I had been required to join the union. I do not like compulsion.

I also did not like the practice of being on the field with an umpire or referee to control the game, and then have the employee and his union walk off the field in the middle of the game. Why have a centralised wages and conditions award system, with an agreed legally-constituted arbitration and/or conciliation authority, and still allow the union or any group of employees to go on strike before, during, or after the arbitral process?

My logic is simple: if you go to arbitration, abide by the rules of the process and the decisions. As the process is an agreed one, no strikes prior to, during, or after a decision should be acceptable; and that should be enforceable by the community, which is always the party to be screwed.

My colleague advised that it was like taking up insurance by joining the union. So I signed the two forms which he held. Then, smugly, he welcomed me as a member of the union and as a fellow councillor. Bloody hell, I thought, what had he done? I was now a non-elected representative of the office of about three hundred and fifty staff, entitled to sit in union management deliberations at the state level. My so-called friend recommended it as a good learning experience. And what an experience that turned out to be!

However, notwithstanding my friend’s triumphant grin (normally it is virtually impossible to find anyone to accept the job of councillor), I consulted my chief. He thought that it would be of interest to me to accept my new responsibility for a while. The next day, the office’s administrative sub-chief sardonically congratulated me on my elevation. I explained how I had been conned. His advice was to stay with it but keep out of their politics. There would be all manner of politicking. Time proved that to be excellent counsel.

My cunning colleague turned out to be a nice man. His wife and he befriended me. We had long sessions of talk and argument some Saturday nights, when a three o’clock in the morning closing was deemed early. This man was a painter in his spare time. He was a good painter. His work had been hung in some famous gallery in London when he was only a pup. (I now have it.)

His wife was a half-Sicilian; she looked the part. She talked about the prejudice she had been exposed to, even though she came from a wealthy family. She was a collector of interesting people, gravitating to the foreigner. She understood the feelings of those of us who had been rubbished by whites; her sympathy was palpable. Together, they made my life warmer than it might have been. There was many a male marauder drawn to the very presentable Sicilian, but the husband usually charmed them into becoming family friends. As a painter he became very versatile; he painted in Papua New Guinea, Spain, and sundry other places. I understand that the Australian National Gallery acquired some of his work.

(This extract from ‘Destiny Will Out’ suggests that someone up there was looking after me. I was most fortunate in working with nice people, and to be befriended almost immediately on arrival. My lowly status did not seem to bother anyone, although I might have been responsible in part; I treated everyone as if I were someone – which surely I was! Had I not been sent to offer a little colour to this white nation in coloured seas?

The connection with the union had long-term implications. After many years on an on-off relationship, I was awarded a Meritorious Service Award for a decade and more of work on merit protection in the federal public service. More on that in later posts.)