Your Rights At Work Seminar

Humphrey McQueen

Approximately 1 hours’ duration. Can be modified so as to be delivered to anywhere from 5 to 30 students. The focus of the seminar is to allow participants to understand the importance of unionism and collective action in a way that is relevant to their every-day experiences. One of the most successful ways I have been able to achieve this is by encouraging, as much as possible, students to share their own experiences and participate in broad discussions and develop ideas on the basis of this. The historical reality of the dynamic between capital and labour is already there under all of our noses, the challenge is to provide students with the tools to interpret that reality in a way that is going to strengthen our movement and as a result the future of the species. I’ve found that once you get them really talking and sharing their experiences there isn’t that much to do to connect the dots and present their ideas in a union friendly way. For this reason what follows is only a rough guide that should never be rigidly adhered to. Spontaneity is the key to maintaining their attention.

1) I often like to break the ice by saying that If I could have my way all of the people facing me would grow up and have fulfilled and problem free life at work but that the reason I’m here is because I know that every single one of them will most likely experience exploitation, bullying, sexual harassment etc. at work.
2) Begin once you’ve got their attention by asking who has a job or who is looking for work – go around the room and ask students to share their experiences and expectations of work. I usually start with an example of what I want them to do and recount a horror story of a nasty accident that happened to me while I was on the milk run when I was 15. This sets a good tone and makes the students feel more comfortable about sharing their own horror stories (and you can bet there will be lots of them). In the case of those who don’t have a job or aren’t looking, ask them what their ideal job would be and why. When they are answering this question write down the values behind the things they desire in an ideal job on the board, you can link these back to the benefits of unionism later on.
3) Ask if anyone knows what a union is. If someone does get them to explain what they think. This can lead into good open questions to ask the class such as “so why do you think workers have historically tried to struggle collectively?” (or why do you think workers have seen the need to form unions?). Before moving onto the next activity give a brief and clear description of what Trade Unions are in Australia today.
4) To get the students starting to think about the historically irreconcilable interests of capital and labour, invite the students to participate in an exercise that begins with drawing up two columns on the board – one marked ‘employers’ and the other ‘employees’. Ask students to firstly pretend that they are all employers and that they live in an idealised world in which, as employers, they can have anything they want from their employees at work. Write down the things they say in the relevant column (inevitably things like ‘no money, no breaks, no safety etc.’). Then ask them to switch and tell you what, as people beginning to enter the job market, they would ideally want from their job (inevitably things like ‘as much money as possible, respect, a safe environment, lots of breaks etc.). Explain that they have just told you that there seem to be irreconcilable differences between the expectations and desires of employers and those of employees. Ask them what they think they can do, as employees, to address these differences. Ask them what they have done in the past and what the outcomes were. Explain why collective action on behalf of the workers is necessary (perhaps with a historical twist), point out that the bosses have their own organisations and ask why you think they do, explain why bargaining alone very rarely works.
5) Sometimes this is a convenient place to go into a more in-depth analysis of what a union is and the values underpinning it. You can tie in development of Australian democracy and the reasons why we enjoy the quality of life we do. This is also a good time to discuss the morality of ‘youth wages’ and the historical forces responsible for their genesis.
6) Spend the latter part of the seminar telling them about things to look out for: trial shifts are illegal; you must get pay slips; why you shouldn’t work for cash in hand etc. Explain to them how to contact the fair work ombudsman and fair work australia (pointing out that this is a process that is always easier when you’re a union member). The retrieval of unpaid wages form on the FWA website is always a crowd pleaser. When you have them on a high note like that it’s a good time to distribute the info card.
7) Always save 5 minutes at the end for questions. Leave them with some kind of rousing final thought. Examples that have gotten a good response for me have been comparing being underpaid with someone walking up to you, spitting in your face and taking $50 out of your wallet. Another good message is reinforcing the idea that we all have a sense of when someone is wronging us but often feel too timid to act on it, but that more often than not that sense is correct and is reliable sign that someone is doing something wrong. Tell them that you will hang around for 5 minutes after the class in case any of them want to talk to