This X is the axis along which wages crawl in economic graphs, with productivity and profits soaring upwards together into the corner like a banker’s hollow smile. This X means an early death for those who can no longer afford to live in Australia.
Lots of morning coffee is being clutched at the Australian Council of Trade Union’s first Change the Rules strike. The sun is bright on Lygon St and the crowd smells of aftershave, perfume, and cigarettes. People hand out socialist newspapers reading “Corporate Greed is Bleeding Australia Dry!” I overhear conversation between guys in hoodies and boots, They’re saying $85 billion in tax cuts. The union initialisms on every side—NIW AEU NIMF MUA CFMEU—teachers, nurses, midwives, maritime and construction workers and more. The Greens triangle marches around above the crowd on invisible arms. A woman laughs on the way past, I’ve got the wrong shoes, the wrong shoes. I see fierce veteran Boomer activists with grey-streaked hair. The union’s Eureka flag in Indigenous colours flicks in the wind among the Australian Services Union (clerical workers). Big white blokes welcome each other with big handshakes. How are ya, mate? Where you bin workin’? I hear the growing boom of a helicopter, the first of the day. The socialist red flag flying high atop Trades Hall. An Indigenous man in a knitted beanie wears his nation’s flag proudly as a cape. Luke Hilakari, Trades Hall Secretary, tells us that we are 60,000 people strong on the streets of Melbourne. We do not wanna be a country of the working poor. For so long, big business have been feeding us crumbs, like we’re pigeons. We’re not pigeons. When the 1% have as much as 70%, the system is broken. Inequality is at a 70-year high. It hasn’t been this high since the Great Depression. Luke booms, Do you want equal pay for women? The crowd roars YES!
A speaker introduces Mahani, who is here representing 100,000 farm workers with the National Union of Workers. Overwhelmingly casual. No penalty rates. Paid cash-in-hand well below the legal minimum wage. Mahani introduces herself as a migrant farm worker from Malaysia. She has a high woman’s voice and a Malaysian accent. She sounds a little shrill through the speakers—who doesn’t when they have to project?—but her message is clear. We need work rights! We need better future! Speaking of undocumented migrant workers’ harsh black-market labour conditions, she says, We need amnesty now! White blokes who’d roared their support for Luke now stand around scoffing and laughing, wincing at her voice through the speakers. These moments don’t make it into the press coverage, but they’re some of the most important to remember. I am reminded that solidarity is not a status we achieve, but a horizon we work towards, and that our movements regularly fail people of colour. Mahani, migrant woman of colour, activist and union leader, braves our crowd’s bullshit and our country’s hostility to stand up to speak for 100,000 farm workers being exploited all over Australia.
A speaker booms, What does the government think when they think that they can turn around and tell youse who you can elect as union leaders?I say to all of you, people from all unions, when they came after them, they come for all of us! Sally McManus, Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the peak trade union body, tells the crowd that 40% of Australian workers are in insecure work. 732 corporations paid not one cent of tax. 62 people who earned more than $1 million in a year paid not one cent of tax, not even the Medicare levy. Guys giggle about the difficulty of holding signs in the wind. Nah I’m good holding the flag here, might swap when I need a cigarette. Won’t have one yet though, might burn the flag! A tune starts up from a brassy marching band behind us. I first heard the tune as a kid in country Queensland, knowing it by the earlier folk song lyrics, John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave overlaid with the union movement’s 1915 lyrics to become their rallying song, “Solidarity Forever.” But I still hear John Brown’s body in the melody, and it only makes the union’s version more urgent—the failure of the union is a body in the grave.
The National Tertiary Education Union, my crew, in purple shirts and whistles. Education Not Exploitation! Casuals Against Casualisation! There are lots of young women among us. Postgrads and casuals on strike! No more unpaid work! Pink-scarfed, purple-haired, chatty, checking phones. Someone starts up a snare drum. A woman unionist tells us that the stereotype of a unionist is a man with a hard hat, but in Australia but the average unionist is a woman with a degree. Among the union’s contingent at a later rally, I hear Nic Kimberly, a casual academic, address the crowd. The Australian Catholic University threatened Nic with revoking his PhD scholarship for criticising casualisation in progressive national newspaper The Age. His voice gets stronger and more defiant as he says, So what did I do to respond? I became the union branch President! In the crowd, the conversation continues around me. It’s not about someone coming to uni to have that transformative experience anymore. It’s about getting bums on seats, and not long while we’re making money. Elsewhere, I hear, we’ve got a problem with homeless students. A silver-haired union woman waves to kids in the windows on Lygon St. The chilly winds of late Autumn blow down Victoria St as we walk through the intersection. Bystanders bop to the brass band as we slowly march. A first degree shouldn’t cost a mortgage! Onlookers grin, take phone videos. Flyers, flags and protesters have filled the street as far as the eye can see from Swanston to Queen St. A woman of colour wears leopard-print, sunnies and huge heart earrings with Militant in curvy script inside. The other side, I later see, reads Feminist. A flag flicks across the back of my neck, a surprising intimacy. A red-and-black jester-clothed trumpet player is cheered by the crowd. A sign says I’m young and insecure and so is my work! There is a crisp wind from behind and welcome pockets of sunshine and the slow spin of autumn leaves lifted on winds between skyscrapers. Smiling women in office windows wave invisible flags with us in solidarity. Photographers perch on every tram stop and plinth along our way to capture our march’s glorious sprawl.
Flyers paper the fancy cars parked in the middle of Bourke St. A kid in blue gumboots and a Superman shirt is wheeled through the march—despite chants, clappers, trumpets, and drums—completely asleep.
We pick up marchers, chants and energy as we make our way down Swanston St. A guy faceplants on the tram island and is helped by everyone. You right, brother? A voice reads out a news update behind me, City streets shut down as 50,000 march. A grumpy skinny corporate guy in a tight blue suit cuts through the crowd at an intersection. A speaker says, It’s about the young people we work with every day. They are ripped off in their jobs. They’re forced to jump through hoops to access inadequate Newstart (the unemployment welfare payment). We don’t want them to become the working poor of the future. Troy Carter tells the crowd about the Esso (ExxonMobil) workers: Sacked, then offered their jobs back at up to 40% less. It would be 742 days before the strike ended in a deal. Troy speaks about the effect on his family, on his children being bullied at school. My children have forced themselves into a shell to avoid being rejected. When I stood outside UGL (the contractor for Esso), their Payroll Officer yelled, “How’s your kids, Troy?” and laughed. Colin Long speaks, Secretary of the Victorian National Tertiary Education Union: 50% of undergraduate teaching is performed by casuals, many working casually for 5, 10, 15 years. Low super, no leave. It should be a scandal that one of our members found herself unable to leave an abusive relationship because of being totally financially dependent. Our researchers find cures for cancer, we develop renewable energy. We write to chart the course of the history we are living. Are you ready to change the rules? The farm workers’ signs, stark and true: NO PICKERS NO FOOD NO FUTURE.
This X means early death for the workers whose wages have flatlined along the X axes of economics graphs. But while the union movement lives there is always hope for a better future.
Dr Ariadne Starling is an award-winning writer from Melbourne working in literary essays, sex writing, and queer literature. Her work explores sexuality, disability, neurodiversity, culture, identity, and social justice. She has won 5 national and international scholarships and 16 awards for academic and creative writing—starting at the age of 11. She was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Essay Prize and the City of Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award for Narrative Nonfiction. She has published in Transcultural Studies, Colloquy, Cordite Poetry Review, and Verity La.