Union movement, racism and a Green New Deal

Australian Greens

Union organiser and former Greens national co-convenor Rebecca Galdies discusses why unions need to step up in the fight against racism, and why that’s critical to the development of a Green New Deal.

By Rebecca Galdies

I begin this article by acknowledging my privilege as a white woman, living and working on Kaurna land. I have benefitted from the chaos wrought on First Nations people by colonisation and continue to benefit from the reality of white supremacy in this country. I also work for a very progressive union as an organiser, and I love my job.

We’ve been talking about a Green New Deal in some form or another in this party for some time now (at least since 2009). Around this time last year, our now parliamentary leader Adam Bandt asked me to facilitate a session at our National Conference on a Green New Deal, and I jumped at the chance – partly because I love facilitating a big rowdy crowd but also because I am enthused by this concept for quite a number of reasons.

On the panel with Adam were the inimitable former Victorian MLC Huong Truong (we miss your voice in parliament, Huong!), Karina Lester (Chairperson of Tjayuwara Unmuru Aboriginal Corporation) and Jamie Newlyen (head of SA Unions).

The presentations from each of these accomplished individuals were short but fascinating, but the point of the session was to have a discussion with the people present in the audience as much as to hear from the speakers. Many notes were taken by the staff of then-leader Richard Di Natale, and further consultation processes have since ensued.

I have read a number of articles about the Green New Deal concept; I’ve listened to podcasts, speeches and had many discussions. Overwhelmingly, the conversation seems to centre around the ideas of addressing economic inequality and preservation or at least genuine recognition of the need to look after the natural environment.

Some articles go on to discuss the need to include an anti-racist sentiment, and even to address the particular notion of consultation with First Nations groups – but this particular element is not central to these discussions. I believe that is dangerous and something we need to talk about.

The role of unions

I’ve come across one or two articles that have addressed the role that unions can and possibly should play in a GND. However, none of them have addressed the underlying historical factors that have led to some unions continuing to have a shocking track record of working with First Nations groups, or indeed migrant or CALD groups.

Why should they? Because for any GND to be successful, cultural diversity needs to be genuinely sought and valued in every layer of our society because otherwise we will never truly be free.

Given this, I believe the union movement needs to hold a mirror up to itself and challenge its current standing. Not all unions are the same. Some may have a very forward-thinking approach to supporting First Nations issues in bargaining settings, however I reckon you’d be hard pressed to find a single union in this country that has true representation of the cultural diversity of the workforce it represents within its own employ, or within its elected structures.

I know that when I sit down at a union meeting and glance around the table, I am struck by how very white we all are. I am the first person to recognise that colour does not necessarily determine diversity. I have a very mixed background of culture and language despite my pasty complexion. However, whiteness is a privilege in the world in which we live. This fact cannot be argued.

I believe that the union movement as a whole can and should do better. Don’t get me wrong – I love working for the movement and steadfastly believe in union principles.

I have only worked in the movement for a little over three years. Prior to this, I have worked in jobs where, when reporting having witnessed racism in the workplace, I’ve been told to “just ignore it, and if you can’t ignore it, get over it.”

However, even within the hallowed walls of the union, when attempting to address the need for more culturally diverse representation within our ranks, I have been hit with responses such as, “yes but we have to be careful, because we don’t want to take jobs away from Australians” – as if to suggest the possibility that Australians can’t be of diverse backgrounds. The union movement is probably more diverse than many other political bodies in Australia, but as vast and diverse as this movement is, whiteness and Anglo Australian culture is still viewed and perpetuated as the norm – and this is problematic.

The GND link

The past few weeks we’ve seen our newsfeeds filled with images from rallies and Black Lives Matter hashtags. I attended the rally in Adelaide earlier this month, I listened to the speeches and I chanted when called upon to do so. I am sure by now we are all familiar with the number of First Nations deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into deaths in custody. If not, read this. Everyday, people of colour in this country – and especially First Nations people – experience systemic bullying and harassment, but I suspect most of you have read (or indeed experienced) some of that already, too.

Maybe you’re thinking: how is this relevant to a GND? How is this relevant to finding an alternative way to approach our economic reality whilst also taking into consideration the health of the environment?

There are so many examples I could draw on, but the most recent and dramatic would have to be the climate fires of 2019 and 2020. The heavy economic, environmental and indeed emotional toll this took on our country may largely be fading from the memory of those of us city dwellers who, whilst beset by images on our screens and in some cases smoke in our eyes for days, were not dealing with the prospect of potential immediate loss of life or property.

If, as a society, we placed more value on the lore and knowledge kept by the forebears and living descendants of the traditional custodians of the lands on which we all live and work here in Australia, perhaps we would not have borne witness to the devastation we did. We cannot go back to the late 18th century and alter the terra nulius mindset of the invaders, but we can work together to dismantle it now. Planning any sort of economic recovery from COVID-19 without genuine involvement from and centring of First Nations people (both here in Australia and around the world) will lead to further oppression of minorities and vulnerable people. And our collective liberty is tied up with theirs.

If the union movement wants to grow and remain relevant, it (we) needs to be prepared for some confrontational self-reflection. We need to be prepared to not only question but to challenge the status quo, and not just be satisfied with trying to do a better job but strive to do the best we can. We cannot address the inequality we claim to be passionate about without careful listening.

It is no longer enough for us to claim that we are not racist. We need to be actively anti-racist in everything we do.

Rebecca Galdies is a division organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), the membership secretary for the SA Greens, and a former co-convenor of the Australian Greens.

Hero image: Kelly Lacy via Pexels.

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