Unionism: A Pastoral Perspective

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Science is a collaborative enterprise, spanning the generations. When it permits us to see the far side of some new horizon, we remember those who went before us, seeing for them also.
– Carl Sagan, from the TV series, Cosmos 

Whenever I meet a young person who wants to work in the union movement, I am gratified, but wonder silently whether they really know what they’re letting themselves in for. 

This may seem surprising, coming from someone who has spent much of his adult life employed as a trade union official. But the truth is, my own desire to work for the union movement arose gradually, in response to a complex series of external and internal processes. I was not born into a “union” or “labour” family. When I first entered the workforce, I was largely ignorant of unions. 

It is ironic how time changes things. Certainly, my attitudes were shaped (and hardened) by my experiences as an employee working in a major financial institution. The “pillar of the community” mask behind which many white collar corporations hide was, through a series of hard knocks, stripped away to reveal the callous reality beneath. 

We all have moments of “awakening”, uplifting or destructive. In my own case, it was both. Never being one to complain without doing something about it, I started getting involved in the union of which I had previously been a silent member. The realisation of hypocrisy and exploitation imbued me with a seething rage that threatened to colour my perceptions and cause me to unfairly cut all people from the same cloth. 

Making assumptions about people is a luxury you cannot afford as a union official. The unpalatable truth is that, sometimes, employees tell lies or omit facts. You have to ask questions and check facts, to avoid disastrous consequences. 

And “maintain the rage” is fine, but if you don’t find a means of channelling that energy, of leeching out the destructiveness of anger and bending its ferment toward constructive ends, you will burn out very, very quickly. The union movement is littered with wrecked lives and relationships, the fallout from officials who didn’t sufficiently protect themselves and their families from the stress and pressure that goes with the job. 

Working for a union means you have to give of yourself, you have to sacrifice part of your being to enter into the troubles and hardships of others. But this also means you have to find a way to replenish your soul, to tap into some source of existential nourishment to ensure your own humanity isn’t fatally diminished. 

Ask any doctor or nurse or ambulance officer. In fact, when talking to keen young activists, I often ask them whether they would like to work in the trauma ward of a major hospital, because that’s a bit what being a union official is about: we deal with human suffering. No-one rings a union to tell them everything’s fine, that they’re being treated well and paid decently. People only ring the union when they’re in trouble. And usually, by the time they get around to doing so, they’re in lots of trouble. Which means lots of stress, lots of angst, lots of human emotion and drama. It also means that I have to give that much more of myself, as well as somehow find a replacement for what I have given. 

Union officials and ministers of religion have much in common, if only because both roles can be intensely pastoral. We often see human beings at their very worst, and our reward is that we sometimes see humans at their very best. And it’s the small victories, the apparently insignificant outcomes that mean so much to the recipients, as well as the glimpses of human spirit amid what would otherwise be a welter of misery, that sustains life and hope. 

Unlike Carl Sagan, I don’t know much about science. But I do know that I’ve not heard a better description of the trade union movement: a collaborative enterprise spanning the generations. The Howard Government’s so-called “Workchoices” legislation poses a great threat to the intergenerational enterprise of trade unionism. But I have a sense of hope—no, an expectation—that the threat will be defeated. Not because of any dogmatic conviction; just the simple knowledge that young people are still prepared to plunge themselves into the trauma ward of industrial relations, so that they—or those who come after them—may see the far side of some new horizon.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2006. All rights reserved. Originally published in Eureka Street as “The union official as pastoral carer”