Workers Pawns in a Game of Thrones

Peter Marshall, Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the UFU

In my study of the stories told by the media about industrial disputes, I’ve discovered workers are surprisingly absent from the plot. The reason this is surprising is because industrial disputes are all about workers. So how can it be that they are missing from the story? To explain what is going on here, and what could be going on instead, I will use a neat Games of Thrones analogy. If you’re not familiar with Game of Thrones, read on, as I’ll provide explainers. If you are familiar with the show, and haven’t finished watching the latest season, I won’t be including any spoilers, so you’re also safe to keep reading.

For those who haven’t been following along with my PhD research at home, the case study I am analysing is the industrial dispute over stalled EBA negotiations between paid firefighters in the CFA and the CFA bosses which played out in mid-2016 during the last Federal election campaign. You would think, since the EBA is at its essence an agreement between a group of workers and their employer, that this group of workers and their employer would be front and centre of the cast of characters in the media’s reporting of the dispute. You would think. But, what I am finding, overwhelmingly, is that the workers are almost invisible in stories about EBA negotiations.

Instead, the democratically elected worker representative is the key character who takes centre stage. Yes, I’m talking about the union leader; in this case, Peter Marshall, secretary of the United Firefighters Union. And sadly, but unsurprisingly I need to report that my research is finding Marshall framed in the vast majority of stories covering the dispute as the villain of the story. The employer, who doesn’t show up all that often either, in this case the CFA, is framed as the victim in the dispute. And oddly enough, a particular quirk of this case, the main hero and victim of the story about an EBA for paid firefighters, are volunteer firefighters, who are not covered in any way shape or form by the EBA.

There is obviously a lot more to be said about my findings, which are a work in progress, and eventually will contribute to an 80,000 word thesis containing more theoretical layers than this single blog post. But one last finding that is worth noting at this point is that anyone who takes the side of the villain is, like in any narrative plot, also framed as a villain. And you guessed it, in this case this side-kick villain in cahoots with the union leader, and beholden to this king-of-all-villains is the Victorian Labor government (represented by Dan Andrews) and the Federal Labor Opposition (represented by Bill Shorten). So, how does this representation of the big bad union boss, his co-conspirators in the Labor Party and the practically voiceless paid firefighters turn into a Game of Thrones analogy?

The Night King and his Army of the Dead

Peter Marshall is framed as the Night King. The Night King is the leader of the White Walkers, who represent the role of the paid firefighters in this story. The White Walkers are literally zombies and make up a massive Army of the Dead. They have no voice, except to snarl and gnash their teeth at their next victim. They don’t have much flesh, they are really just skin and bones, and like all good zombies, they blindly follow their leader with the goal of converting more humans to zombies, who then join their ranks, giving the Night King more power over his enemies. The Night King has special powers to turn huge numbers of innocent humans into zombies much more efficiently than individual White Walkers can, such as by shooting ice at them from his wand. Sort of like the way Marshall presumably is assumed to have more power to ‘unionise’ unsuspecting workers than individual union members do, turning them into pawns in his army.

At this point I want to bring in the key role that motive plays in the framing of any villain, whether it be in a fictional story, or in a political story. I am finding that the supposedly villainous Marshall is framed as behaving in evil ways due to his quest for more power. The EBA Marshall is negotiating on behalf of his zombie-voiceless-workers is not reported as a contract that seeks to improve the salaries and safety conditions for the CFA’s paid firefighters. No, the EBA is a weapon Marshall is apparently using, with the help of his beholden Labor co-conspirators, to help the United Firefighters Union take over the CFA.

Why would the union want to take over the CFA? So far I haven’t seen a journalist ask, or answer this question, but they still assume this to be the overriding motive of Marshall’s villainous actions. Similarly, in Game of Thrones, why is the Night King hell bent on increasing the size of his Army of the Dead and marching ominously towards confrontation with the humans south of the wall? Because his motive, unspoken, but obvious, is to take over, to seize more power, to grow his power base to help him get even more power. Remember the show is called Game of Thrones, and is based on a constant battle between different groups for ultimate power and control of the people.

If you don’t believe me that the industrial dispute story framed Marshall as villainously working torwards his ultimate goal of taking control of the CFA on his non-stop quest to take over the world, look at this quote by The Australian’s Rick Wallace on June 3, during the heart of the dispute:

‘Premier Daniel Andrews is facing an unprecedented revolt from 60,000 volunteer firefighters and growing internal alarm after refusing to back down over the push to unionise the Country Fire Authority’.

That’s right, those poor volunteer firefighters at the CFA are being threatened with unionisation – a fate worse than death!

As part of this plot to grab power, Marshall is accused of various wicked actions, such as including a clause in the EBA which required seven paid firefighters to be dispatched to structural fires. This was a safety clause, and in reality would have no impact on volunteer firefighters, but that didn’t stop the media framing the clause as evidence of Marshall’s evil intent in his power grab of the CFA. Here is a quote from Liberal Wendy Lovell in Victorian Parliament to give you a taste of how this accusation against Marshall, and in turn the Labor Party, played out:

‘In many of our country towns this would mean houses would burn to the ground while CFA volunteers would have to sit in a truck and watch them burning as they waited for career firefighters to attend… This is no doubt a desperate measure by the UFU to have an increase in the number of paid firefighters on the ground, which will mean more union dues will be paid back to the UFU so it can then direct that back to the Labor Party in contributions’.

That’s right. Marshall is willing to let houses burn down to help the Labor Party win power. It sounds ridiculous and over the top, but remember, every single journalist who reported that this clause was ‘contentious’ had to assume that this was Marshall’s motive in including it in the EBA. A grab for power. Nothing to do with the safety of firefighters battling structural fires. That was never discussed, even when Marshall implored journalists to better understand why the clause was there. Nothing to do with the safety of the people those seven firefighters bravely pull out of a burning building. The Night King is evil because he is evil, and he wants power because he wants to be powerful. And he’ll stop at nothing to get his way, working to grow his army of zombies to help him achieve his villainous goals.

There is actually an analogy from Game of Thrones which represents an alternative narrative frame the media could use to report an industrial dispute. They’re not going to, but it’s there if they ever change their mind. And, by the by, the union movement could consider this story when trying to convince workers to join their ranks. Peter Marshall, or maybe it works better in this case to say Sally McManus, could represent the democratically elected people’s hero: Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.

Daenerys Stormborn and her army of freed slaves

Daenerys is fighting to take her rightful place on the Iron Throne, giving her control of the Seven Kingdoms, but is currently distracted from this goal by having to fight the Night King and the Army of the Dead. For those who don’t watch the show, that’s control over everyone. As well as having dragons as children, who are very useful in fighting battles, you’ll notice in Daenerys’s title that she is Breaker of Chains. This is because she has built her army by freeing slaves (workers who aren’t paid, and are treated poorly, such as having their genitals removed!). She became Queen of the Andals and the First Men by convincing groups of people to ‘bend their knee’ to her, which means to democratically elect her as leader. Workers acting as a collective army are far more effective in having a say in their working conditions than lone soldiers. Armies need a general, a hero like Daenerys. An army like the trade union movement, a hero like Sally McManus.

Daenerys’s main opponent in Game of Thrones is the not-democratically-elected-there-by-birth-right current Queen, who is as evil as evil gets, Cersei Lannister. The Lannister family is obsessed with gold, nepotistic and cruel. I see them as representing neoliberal leaders such as Malcolm Turnbull and his big-business-backers. The Lannisters are deeply threatened by the popular Daenerys. Bring on the battle, bring on the election!

Cersei Lannister

Game of Thrones might just be a fictional show, but think about the implications of the media framing the union leader as villain, and ignoring the plight of the workers in their storytelling of industrial disputes. I can tell you one thing. Zombies don’t live happily ever after. Their opponents always find a way to kill them and their leaders in the end.

How Unions Got Framed

unions-make-us-strong

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.