New hope for movements to lead social change

A trade union internship opened DANI SACKS’ eyes to the power of collective bargaining to effect change for individuals in the workplace and beyond.

In 1948, the 40-hour working week became standard across most industries in Australia. In 1970, union agitation led to four weeks annual leave and on February 1, this year, on the second day of my three-week internship at the Australian Worker’s Union, 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave came into effect.

Before my three-week internship, when I heard the words “trade union”, it was these monumental changes to the labour force that came into my mind. But I honestly didn’t know what the trade movement actually did on a day-to-day basis.

Having grown up in the lower north shore of Sydney and coming from a family of professionals, family dinner time was used to work out which parent was doing the Saturday sport drop-off that week and in my teenage years matured into a post-ABC evening news analysis, the dinner most recently consisting of airing frustrations with the current political state of Israel.

Unions, underpayment and unfair dismissals were rarely, if ever, talked about.

So how did I get into this summer job? After three years of attending law school and volunteering in the Jewish youth movement Netzer, the little voice that I had pushed to the back of my head for so long, saying “get some ‘real’ industry work”, finally grew louder.  Yet I didn’t want to join the corporate side and be seen as “the baddie” in my own eyes, a box in which I had put many of my peers.

From the very first day of the internship, I was exposed to the real work of a union. From attending a construction company’s strike, where workers were advocating for changes to their bargaining agreement, to hearing about workers who had been underpaid for months but were too scared of speaking up in fear of any adverse changes to their visa, to sitting in a negotiation about wage increases of public sector workers, I saw just how important unions are not just for all individuals, but the broader public at large to overcome what can simply be described as bullying.

While no day was like the other throughout the duration of the internship, I distinctly remember in my second week heading down to BlueScope in Port Kembla, the largest steel production company in Australia. Seeing molten metal in real time (which looked more like lava than actual lava) on a tour of the steelworks was something to write home about.

But what has stuck with me since were two things: the sad stories about the numerous explosions on the work site, and the afternoon meeting between the employees and HR where the workers came together and fought against employee cuts, a small but important win for the day.

The biggest thing I took away from this internship was the power of a union and collective bargaining to effect change. Many individuals don’t have the same access or resources that I and many others in my socio-economic class have, to being able to choose their professions, their work, and more importantly recognise exploitation and bargain for better rights.

In a year where we’ve experienced so much political change already, there exists a real hope for the ongoing importance of movements, not just work-based ones, to be at the forefront of reforms on an individual and societal level.

Dani Sacks was the recipient of the 2023 Andrew Casey internship at Unions NSW earlier this year. The internship is partly funded by Plus61J Media.