Cleaners and carers: difficult to organise. But not impossible
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On Monday afternoon, the TUC delegation to Australia visited the Sydney-based United Voice union to hear from National Secretary Louise Tarrant about their efforts to organise contract cleaners and childcare workers. In both cases, traditional bargaining with the employers is problematic, because the employers don’t hold the purse strings: clients and government do. But United Voice are making huge strides, echoing past triumphs organising bar workers in clubs and pubs.
United Voice don’t do easy organising!
With contract cleaners, United Voice switched their bargaining to upstream clients who determine the contract conditions. They are usually the building owners, and a relatively small group of companies own the vast majority of properties. United Voice used corporate campaign tools to embarrass and cajole, while formally bargaining with the direct employer. They put moral, business and commercial cases (a mix of good governance models and good procurement practices) to the property companies, to get them to agree to include paying the prevailing wage rates in their contracts. They argued that bad publicity – especially the personal stories of cleaners, both those on low pay and those on better rates – would cost more than paying decent wages, and were helped by state and federal Labor Governments acting as market leaders.
The union’s Clean Start Agreement has had measurable results, not least on pay, as it has pushed wages up 40%, from $15 to $21 an hour.
United Voice’s new target is the child-care sector, where professionalisation of the sector has been increasing but wages haven’t. This time, Government is the key funder. United Voice is getting the owners of the individual centres (55% of provision) on board. So far the union has eleven thousand members and 50 union organisers, and aims to represent the whole sector to Government, who provide a rebate on the cost of provision to parents. And then there’s the aged care sector to go, with 300,000 workers likely to be employed by the end of the decade.