We CAN organise the unorganised! Radical Women Organisers’ win shows the importance of militancy

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Jordana Sardo. Photo by Alison Thorne.

There’s nothing like a union victory to make my day, and March 16 was one of them. When I received the news from Radical Women (RW) in Portland Oregon that RW Organiser Jordana Sardo won her job back, I was ecstatic! Like me, Sardo works in the community (social service) sector, notoriously exploitative of its predominantly women workforce and grossly under-organised. Wins like Sardo’s are unfortunately rare. But her reinstatement campaign shows workers in similar situations what we can do when we put up a damn good fight.

Sardo works for Harry’s Mother (HM), a non-profit social service for young people in crisis. HM operates an emergency temporary refuge for teens struggling with family conflicts and abuse, a 24-hour crisis line, and counselling for young people and their families. The program is staffed by 22 workers and is part of Janus Youth Programs (JYP), a publicly-funded umbrella administrative body for more than a dozen social service programs. Sardo works for HM as a full-time administrative assistant.

Until last year, JYP wasn’t unionised. But on April 6, workers at Harry’s Mother voted to be represented by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Sardo says: “Winning the union vote was a significant victory, because…it reflects a growing working class consciousness in the workforce. It objectively broke the historical ‘what do we need a union for — we’re a non-profit agency’ mystique that had insulated management for more than two decades.”

Not-for-profit is not a licence to exploit! Harry’s Mother employs 13 women and 9 men. Five are women of colour; the two supervisors are white men. Janus’ entire workforce is primarily women, and few people of colour hold management positions.

The main issues that led to unionising HM were wages, training, childcare and the high level of stress. Sardo’s hourly wage, after nine and a half years, is just under $13.00. Her co-workers include case managers, family therapists, residential counsellors, crisis intervention specialists, and recreation and relief coordinators. They are a mix of full- and part-time; some positions are ongoing, while others are for the life of a project. Staff constantly deal with intense situations, but get minimal or no support and training. For this, they are paid between $8.50 and $12.00 per hour. The lowest paid are the crisis intervention specialists, who work either 12-hour weeknight shifts or on call throughout the weekends.

There is always pressure to work beyond the contracted hours, without pay, for the “good” of the program. Sardo says the culture at HM fosters self-sacrifice that “borders on being unsafe,” with staff often going to work ill or exhausted, because they don’t want to further burden their co-workers by taking sick leave.

Janus’ funding comes from various public sources. Harry’s Mother is primarily funded from the county, or local government, through a process called “Request for Proposals” — or “Tendering Out,” as it’s known in Australia. The agency that submits the most cost-effective proposal wins. Alan Stockdale, State Treasurer under Jeff Kennett’s privatisation régime in Victoria, explained it bluntly in 1992:

“Even in welfare areas we would want to see government agencies corporatised and competition between the government and volunteer sectors. We would see, for example, tendering to provide services by the major welfare agencies, the Salvation Army and all those bodies, entering into contractual arrangements whereby they deliver services in return for government funding.” Or, as Sardo puts it: “The county contracts out public services to the private sector, using public money.” And this profit laundering needs the sweated labour of community workers!

One prong of cost-effective delivery is sacking workers, especially troublesome ones. As soon as it formed, IWW Local 670 pushed for contracts that increased wages and provided training. Sardo was a member of the union’s bargaining unit. Eight months into negotiations, Janus “laid off” Sardo and two other union members in a blatant attempt to bust the union. Management also closed the SAGE (Student Alliance of Garden Entrepreneurs) Program. The two other dismissed women were its project workers.

The layoffs breached the law, and the union took the cases to the National Labor Relations Board. But the critical fight took place outside the courtroom.

Open the books! To alibi the sackings, Janus cried poor. But Janus’ own tax records revealed the opposite. Non-profit organisations that are tax-exempt are subject to public examination of their financial records at any time. A Public Audit Action organised by the union uncovered over $2 million of unrestricted assets stashed away in Janus’ secret little drawer! As Sardo pointed out to a furious public, the productivity of Janus’ workforce over the previous 10 years rose much higher than the costs of running the programs. Sardo told the audit action:

“As capitalism decays and deteriorates the lives of working folks, we need more programs like the SAGE garden project and Harry’s Mother, not less. But layoffs and other acts of anti-union hostility send a message of instability to the community. They signal that public intervention is needed to help Janus make worker value-based choices, instead of bottom line value-based choices…

“Through solidarity, we can successfully defend and build this union throughout Janus and organise the entire non-profit sector.”

The Power of the People. Janus attempted to buy off the sacked SAGE workers by reinstating the project and their positions. But the build-up of solidarity made this impossible. A huge demonstration outside the plush offices of JYP’s union-busting lawyers, Stoel Rives, shouted: “You take one of us on, you take all of us on!” Over 60 unionists, civil rights activists, feminists, young people and concerned citizens carried picket signs demanding Sardo’s reinstatement.

The highly publicised case was supported by several IWW locals, branches of the transport, carpenters and municipal employees unions, Radical Women, Jobs with Justice, Freedom Socialist Party and the Urban Workers Union. Newly-unionised car park workers, students from local high schools and universities and other feisty young people attended meetings and rallies, gathered petitions and distributed leaflets.

Two months of intensive public campaigning won Sardo her reinstatement. On Friday, March 16, Janus management conceded defeat. Exposed for accumulating profits and violating industrial law and, more important, up against a wall of public solidarity with the workers it sacked, JYP buckled. But the decisive blow to its union-busting efforts was the county’s threat to close down Harry’s Mother. Janus did not have the resources to both fight the union and lobby the county officials — most of them elected with union support — to re-fund HM. Sardo returned to work at 9.00 am on Monday, March 19 at full status, as if she had never been laid off.

Key to Sardo’s victory was the radical grassroots leadership that organised her co-workers and galvanised the broad community support. The union bureaucracy would have told Sardo and the IWW local that there was no point in fighting Janus; or, if they really wanted to, they should leave it up to the National Labor Relations Board.

We can do it! The Sardo case takes me back to 1991, when the community sector was covered by the then Australian Social Welfare Union (ASWU). Radical Women played a key role in the union’s fightback against savage cutbacks of government funding. That year, the Victorian ASWU branch had voted in a militant leadership, based on a platform for rank and file control and solidarity. It was the first union to endorse the More, Not Less campaign which originated in my workplace. A statewide meeting of the membership then adopted its strategies and demands as union policy. Faced with the onset of privatisation that threatened — and has since created — conditions like those at Janus, the well-unionised community sector workers embraced its demands, which included increased funding, accountability of funded services to their workers and the public, pay equity and a guaranteed living wage for everyone. They ratified a fightback strategy for organising within the workplace and building alliances across the union movement and with the community.

This was also the year of union “amalgamations.” The ASWU was swallowed up by the Australian Labor Party-aligned Australian Services Union (ASU), and its More, Not Less policy was swiftly buried by the ASU bureaucracy. Takeovers such as this tied the bow on the ALP’s great gift to big business — the Accord, which was based on the dangerous notion that capital and labour have a common interest. With union democracy shut down, militancy was silenced.

Union Maids are organising! But the spirit of More, Not Less lives — at Harry’s Mother in Portland and around the world, including Melbourne. Workers at the Darebin Community Legal Centre recently won the fight to stay open after running a union-community campaign built on the lessons of More, Not Less. They pushed the union, demanding industry-wide mass meetings. Paula Pope, a rank and file activist in the union when the More, Not Less policy was adopted, is now the front office worker at the Darebin centre. Pope argues that “workers in community legal centres are not alone with these problems. All community services have been hit by similar cutbacks and changes to community management structures.” Pope and her workmates mobilised widespread support from service users and the community who value the independence of legal centres such as Darebin from government or corporate control. Pope describes the outcome of the Review of Community Legal Centres in Victoria as “a great victory.” Community centres won an extra half a million dollars for equipment and upgrades. Even so, while some will get substantial grants, Darebin will get a modest $15,000. Pope describes how the workers at Darebin have to tape up the carpet so they don’t trip over! Harking back to More, Not Less, she says: “None of this is enough, but it is a start. We’ll keep campaigning for what we need!”

Most recently, on May 30 in Melbourne’s working class Brunswick, women workers at the Chef whitegoods factory went out on strike. Waving placards that said “Women Workers Aren’t Second Class Citizens,” they demanded retraining and decent redundancy packages as compensation for the factory’s imminent closure. For years, outworkers in the notoriously exploited textile industry have fought for award coverage. The campaign by this workforce — overwhelmingly migrant women — is legendary.

From these frontlines come the leaders needed for today’s battles. Women workers are proven fighters whose struggles unite everyone injured by capitalism-gone-savage. Link arms! We have a world to win!

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