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We Didn’t Wait – the Campaign for Paid Family and Domestic Leave

Natalie Lang

Eight years on from launching the We Won’t Wait campaign to win 10 days Paid Family and domestic violence leave for all workers we are on the eve of winning this life saving entitlement with the looming passage of the Albanese Government’s historic legislation.

In my 16 years as a union official, and the countless years as a union activist before that, I can say hand on heart that I have never met a unionist or a feminist who has told me that they got involved in the movement to “play it safe”, to “maintain the status quo” or because “the way things are now is just fine, actually”. We all get involved for a common purpose – to change the world. To create a more just society. Whether that is about changing your workplace, your industry, local community or even your political party – we are the people who see injustice and inequity and say “it’s not acceptable and we will do something about it”.

When we first started the campaign for 10 days paid Family and Domestic and violence leave as a universal entitlement this was not the accepted norm or status quo. It was off the back of the groundbreaking and pioneering work of Ludo McFerran and the women and the Domestic Violence Clearing House who identified that Family and Domestic Violence was a complex and pervasive scourge on our community, and workplaces had a vital role to play in making society safer for women and their children. And she went further – she told us that it was the Union movement who have the capacity and drive to achieve this change widespread across our workforce.

I was in the Auditorium at Trades Hall that night when Ludo presented her work. It challenged me. And as I looked around the room, I could see by the looks on the faces of my comrades, that it challenged many of them as well. It is one thing to give a rousing speech and declare that we are mighty and unbreakable. I love those speeches. My cheers will generally be some of the loudest in the room. But its another thing to be told that we are missing something. That there are sisters, comrades, vulnerable workers, whose voices we haven’t yet heard properly. Whose struggle for dignity, respect and safety has not yet been mounted by our movement.

It’s hard to hear that what you are doing, through the blood sweat and tears of your struggle is still leaving someone behind. And the human and often natural reaction is to be defensive. To point to all that you are doing. To find that barriers to what is being asked of you. It’s hard we often have to consciously resist this urge. But then you get a phone call that changes you. The name, the voice, the lived experience of that worker who is being left behind. And as feminists, as trade unionist who are driven by the determination to change society and make it more just, you realise that you can and indeed you must do more.

I remember that phone call. It came from an ASU member. An active trade unionist who worked in women’s services. For Sam her workplace was the safe room of the local courthouse where she supported women experiencing domestic and family violence to go through the court process. She could see firsthand the impact that having, or indeed not having, paid family and domestic violence leave had on the women that she supported.

That day Sam had supported a woman who did have access to paid FDV leave in her union negotiated enterprise agreement. And that woman was able to access her paid leave, go through the court process, have safety arrangements put in place and find safe accommodation for her and her children. Sam had also, that day, supported a young worker who did not have paid FDV leave in her workplace agreement.

While in the safe room, that young woman’s employer had called her and told her that if she did not immediately return to work, she would not have a job to return to. Faced with the diabolical choice between attending court to have an appropriate safety order made for her protection, or maintaining her employment and financial security, she made the heartbreaking decision to leave the safe room and return to work. Choosing between your employment and your safety is a decision no worker should ever have to make it.

As trade unionists we believe in solidarity, unity, and activism. It’s more than a catchy slogan to put on a t-shirt or call from the stump to the cheers of the masses at a union rally. It’s what drives us. It’s what binds us to each other, as a movement. And that’s what drove Sam and her colleagues, ASU members working in Women’s services. That young worker’s struggle was our struggle. Our dignity and our justice are tied up in the dignity and justice for all workers. Especially those left without the power to demand better for themselves.

And so, the ASU started the We Won’t Wait campaign for universal access to paid FDV leave. A bold campaign that to be successful would mean convincing every state, territory, and the federal government. It would mean needing to secure legislative change for a new universal paid leave entitlement for the first time in a generation. It would only be successful if every trade unionist and allies would join and stand with us.

It’s important to reflect honestly if we are to learn from our victories to win again in the future. Not every trade unionist, community group or progressive politician was with us immediately. They also went through the process of trying to find the barriers to justify why in the twenty-first century we still have women being forced to choose between their safety and their employment (which is also fundamental to maintaining safety). But they were willing to listen, be challenged and change.

You know the arguments; we have heard them all play out over the last 8 years: “who will pay?” “What about the cost?” “How is this a workplace issue?” and the one that hurst me the most “Why doesn’t she just leave?”. These comments are usually proceeded with the comment “Of course I reject domestic violence; I attended a breakfast”.

But we took on each of those arguments. The facts are on our side. Family and domestic violence costs the economy more than $22 Billion a year. It costs employers in lost productivity and the costs associated with staff turnover. It costs our community through pain, trauma and alarmingly, on average the death of one woman every ten days.

It takes time and money to leave violence. Workplaces are often the only place that a woman living with domestic violence feels safe and respected and can access the time and resources to make a plan to safely leave violence.

I’m so proud to have been part of this campaign. I’m so proud of the incredible women who pioneered paid FDV leave. I’m proud to have served as the secretary to the front-line women’s service workers who said this is an issue for every worker to campaign for – because no worker can be left behind. I’m proud of our great movement who all adopted the campaign and drove it for years on end amongst their membership, negotiating agreements, taking part in campaign activities, because our solidarity is what binds us.

I’m proud of what we have achieved. Nationwide political support and a (soon to be) legislated new paid leave entitlement for 11 million workers, including the full ten days for Part-time workers, paid leave for casual workers and payment at actual rates of pay ensuring women are not financially disadvantaged for accessing this entitlement.

I’m proud of the lives that this new right will change, and the lives that it will save.

This victory is a tribute to the women who have led the campaign, and those who have shared their stories. This victory is a tribute to the unity and solidarity of our great trade union movement. This victory is a tribute to what can only be achieved when we elect progressive labor governments.

But I especially want to acknowledge, that this victory is only possible because people were willing to change minds and have their minds changed. It is one thing to be on the right side of history because you always agreed, but it is a testament to the human condition that those who didn’t immediately agree could engage generously, listen, learn, and move their position. They can join us in our campaign for a more just society.

Nobody ever joined a progressive movement to maintain the status quo – we join for change and through our activism, solidarity, and unity we can change the world.

Natalie Lang is the Director of Education and Capacity Building at the Australian Council of Trade Unions. She was until recently the Branch Secretary of the Australian Services Union (NSW & ACT Services Branch).


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