In my research into union narratives, I have noticed a clever little strategy the Liberal National government uses to frame unions as ‘the problem’.
Here is an example. On RN Breakfast recently, Education Minister Simon Birmingham told Fran Kelly his plans to improve the education system by changing teacher standards through more focus on ‘preparation of teachers’, requiring ‘teachers meet minimum literacy and numeracy standards’, ‘more specialist teachers’, and to ‘ensure they’re proficient and that graduates are up to scratch’. Fran then jumped in and asked why, since everyone has been talking about ideas like this forever, the results in the classroom aren’t improving? And why hadn’t the Liberal National government done anything to change this situation in the past?
This is where my ears pricked up. What Fran basically asked Birmingham is: who is to blame for this situation? Or, in narrative-speak – who is the villain in this story, stopping our children from being taught by better teachers? At this point, Birmingham didn’t miss a beat. His response was:
‘Fran, I think because we haven’t had such a disciplined focus before, and I just hope that the states and territories actually back us on this and that they are willing to stand up, sometimes to resistance from teacher unions and other forces who want to keep things largely as are’.
There are two villains here: the state governments and the union. But it’s the union villain I’m most interested in. A small note here about framing. Framing is about exclusion and emphasis. Note first the emphasis. Teachers’ unions. Teachers’ unions are the stick in the mud, the ones who won’t let well-meaning Liberal National governments reform teaching practices, the ones who fight for the status-quo, hold teachers back, hurt children’s’ education and supposably do all this just because it’s a lark. And the exclusion? Simply: the teachers.
Let’s look at this strategy more closely. If Birmingham, at this point in the conversation, suggested that teachers weren’t keen on the education reforms, the audience would automatically think of a teacher they know. Maybe a relative, a friend, or even their child’s trusted and much loved teachers. The audience would wonder, why are the teachers, those kind, caring, honest folk, why are they against these policies? There must be something wrong with the government’s plans if teachers resist them?
Birmingham’s strategy kills two birds with one stone by bypassing the workers – in this case the teachers – and framing, instead, the teachers’ union as ‘the villain’. This strategy is clever because it frames unions as difficult and against-progress, and it also leap-frogs over the most important part of the very existence of unions; that they represent workers. Somehow by focussing on union behaviour, the Liberal Nationals are able to pretend, subtly, that the union doesn’t actually represent the concerns of workers.
If the teachers’ union is unhappy with the proposed education policy changes, there’s a reason for that. It’s because the teachers aren’t happy and their collective voice is being funnelled through their worker representatives; their union. Same thing goes for construction unions, who are particularly relevant right now since the ABCC legislation has just been passed (albeit in a watered down form). Construction workers often speak out about safety problems on building sites, which is a key part of their role representing the interest of workers; the interests of workers surviving their day’s work and going home to their families at knock-off. But, rather than accept the union’s voice as representing the workers’ interest, the Liberal National government, and an often compliant, or just un-thinking media, frame the construction unions as corrupt, as hurting productivity, as shutting down building sites just because they feel like it, just to flex their muscles.
So what do I suggest unions do about this clever little communication strategy, which, by the by, has helped to enable a generation of Liberal National union bashing which undermines’ union legitimacy, credibility, their importance to workers, and in turn, workers’ trust in unions, impacting union membership levels and threatening the continuation of the labour movement? This Liberal strategy also helps to make unions not just separate from working people, but also part of the establishment, the bureaucracy, the elites who play a part in the political process and leave the little guys behind, which, by the by, is why unions haven’t benefited from the backlash against the establishment which enabled Brexit and Trump, and have instead suffered along with progressive political parties the world over.
This might sound overly simple, but sometimes the best ideas are. What I suggest is that when unions want to speak on behalf of workers, which I accept is a key part of their role, they don’t actually speak. Instead, they organise and facilitate a worker speaking on behalf of workers – a teacher on behalf of teachers – a construction worker on behalf of all construction workers – in order to smash the frame that says ‘it’s just the meddling corrupt union getting in the way’ and not legitimate grievances of workers. The worker is the member of the community we’re all members of so their grievance is our grievance. By hearing them speak about it, we put ourselves in their shoes. We sit up and take notice.
It is time unions stopped being the voice of the workers and instead helped workers find their own voice. Their role goes unchanged in the every other respect. But let’s help workers remind their own communities of their rights, instead of allowing the Liberal Nationals to make it all about the big-bad-unions. Only then will we stop unions being framed as the villain, which hurts the interests of workers, union members or not.