Workers at the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne have voted up a new enterprise agreement by 64 per cent to 36, ending 16 months of bargaining that saw strikes and other industrial action for the first time in the 93-year-old anti-poverty charity’s history.
The agreement includes pay rises of 5 per cent this year (with most staff receiving 5.75 per cent because the Brotherhood agreed to keep paying 3 per cent above award rates), 4 per cent next year and 3.5 per cent in 2025, along with a $500 sign-on bonus for full-time staff, $300 for casuals and pro-rata for part-time staff down to a minimum of $300.
Australian Services Union members campaigned for a No vote because the agreement locks in below-inflation pay rises and requires staff to use all their sick leave before they can access reproductive leave.
Despite these shortcomings the union won major improvements to a range of leave entitlements.
The union won an early commitment from BSL to provide three days of paid cultural leave per year and 12 weeks’ equal paid parental leave, removing references to primary and secondary carers. But management initially rejected the union’s other claims of additional leave for First Nations staff, gender affirmation leave and reproductive leave.
The Brotherhood ran a non-union ballot in May which was resoundingly defeated 61 per cent to 39 after a strong grassroots campaign that included online meetings, leafletting, mass emails and postering offices.
Union members then escalated their industrial action, with a four-hour strike and protest at a Brotherhood Board meeting at Fitzroy head office on the day after the vote results were announced.
The combination of the No vote and escalating industrial action forced the Brotherhood to agree to 30 days of paid gender affirmation leave and 10 days a year of paid cultural leave for First Nations staff.
The threat of strikes forced BSL to offer an extra 0.5 per cent in the final year of the agreement and 10 days a year of paid reproductive leave. Despite the cruel requirement that staff exhaust their sick leave before accessing reproductive leave, the new entitlement is still a step forward for all workers, particularly for the 80 per cent of Brotherhood workers who are women.
After four separate days of strike action, BSL conceded the sign-on bonus.
Union members are still a minority at the Brotherhood but that didn’t mean they waited until they had reached a majority of the workforce before taking action. Union members organised actions with the aim of winning over the majority.
About 150 workers joined the union over the course of the campaign to be part of the strikes and rallies. The union also recruited by organising resistance to a role merger in the NDIS division earlier this year. While the role merger went ahead, management wasn’t able to implement all of the changes they had planned.
Union membership in Australia has been falling since the 1990s, from 41 per cent of the workforce in 1992 to only about 12.5 per cent of the workforce now. Reversing this trend is a matter of life and death for the union movement. The experience of Brotherhood workers holds an important lesson: that workers join unions when unions fight back.
The campaign was driven by rank-and-file union members who didn’t rely on union officials for leadership. Delegates and activists discussed strategy and tactics and planned industrial action at regular delegates and members meetings.
Delegates set up a strike fund that quickly raised more than $5000, showing the support from across the community for workers who fight back in a cost-of-living crisis.
Unfortunately, the fund was set up only after most strike action had already taken place. Next time the ASU office should run the strike fund and promote it early on among the wider membership to give strikers confidence that there is financial and moral support.
The campaign marks a cultural shift at the Brotherhood. Union members feel that management won’t be able to force through unwanted changes or inadequate enterprise agreements in the future.
The challenge will be to maintain the activism and rank-and-file organisation built up during the EBA campaign. There is no shortage of issues to campaign around.
Union members are pressuring the Brotherhood to include all eligible workers in the Portable Long Service Benefits Scheme. The scheme is meant to cover all workers in the community sector but the Brotherhood refuses to include workers not directly involved in frontline service delivery. ASU officials have made little progress working with the Portable Long Service Authority to resolve the dispute.
Union members could make this a collective issue for all Brotherhood workers by organising meetings, handing out leaflets, putting up posters on union notice boards and circulating a petition about it. Spreading awareness of this injustice and building a sense that this is an issue that affects all Brotherhood workers could put enough pressure on the Brotherhood to give in.
Union members also need to make sure that the changes to the NDIS and rollout of its new computer system, PACE, do not result in increased workloads, which will be bad for staff and NDIS participants.
Keeping members active around these and any other issues that come up will help recruit more members and delegates and ensure that the union is in a stronger position for the next EBA campaign.
By an ASU member