Most people who take the step into working full-time as a union official have had an early experience that has demonstrated the need for a strong union presence in the workplace.
For me, it was when I was an apprentice at Liddell Power Station in the 1980s. The apprentices were being underpaid, but when we raised the issue with management we were told to bugger off by the more senior foremen. Then I went to see one of the union reps on site and he took it seriously and promised to fix it, which he did. He said to me, ‘that’s what the union does, we follow through’.
This experience entrenched in my memory that it was critical to have workers’ representatives on site with the confidence and skills to stand up to the employer. It steered me towards becoming a union delegate in the workplace and eventually joining the union as a full-time official.
Our District of the Mining and Energy Union is very pleased to have had two new officials join our team in the past year – Mick Taggart, formerly from Ashton Underground Mine; and Chad Hanson, formerly from Mount Thorley Warkworth Open Cut Mine.
Mick and Chad also had experiences in the workplace that steered them towards a lifelong commitment to the union.
Similarly to me, Chad was underpaid when he was a third-year apprentice at Mt Thorley Warkworth. He approached the union for support and they took it up the dispute with the company and were able to secure $8000 in backpay that he was owed. Chad says that experience made him appreciate what the union does for members and it encouraged him to step forward first as a Site Safety and Health Representative, then a Lodge Official at MTW, before being elected as a Vice-President of our Union this year.
For Mick Taggart, inspiration came during a meeting with management for a new Enterprise Agreement at Ashton Underground. Mick felt passionately about improving conditions for workers at the mine and the fight at the time was over payment of personal leave that reflected time lost rather minimum shift payments. He had the confidence to engage in a healthy debate with management, who told him he should have studied harder at school if he wanted a job with better conditions. Since then, Mick was backed by his workmates to take up a position as a Lodge Official and our District Board of Management before being elected as a full-time Vice President late last year.
One of the important jobs our VPs perform is leading negotiations for Enterprise Agreements (EAs) for the worksites they cover. Mick says a benefit of becoming a full-time official is having access to all the legal and industrial resources and expertise of the union, putting him a stronger position to negotiate. One of the first EAs he has worked on this year is for Ashton Underground mine and it’s been a sweet victory for him to finally fix the issue of how personal leave is paid.
Union Officials work long hours and the work is very varied, but it’s also very satisfying because at its heart it’s about solving people’s problems. The role has a steep learning curve that involves building negotiating skills, understanding relevant legislation and legal obligations, developing strong communication skills and even being a counsellor for members in difficulty.
Chad says it has been a big step up going from being a Lodge Official to a District Official, but he’s enjoyed it. One of the areas he’s been developing is better understanding mining companies’ business needs and challenges to come up with ‘win-win’ solutions in bargaining that protect and strengthen workers’ conditions while also supporting the success of the business. If we have better communication between employers and workers, we have a better chance of coming up with solutions that work for everyone.
Mick and Chad have both hit the ground running and I’m delighted to have them on the team, which also includes long-term VPs Jeremy McWilliams and Mark McGrath. If you see any of us around, please feel free to stop for a chat, ask a question or just say Hi.
District President MEU Northern Mining and NSW Energy