When the role for union representative opened up at Tony Mavromatis’ workplace, he found himself compelled to put his hand up for the job. A boilermaker by trade, and a proud one at that, he worked with some good, honest, hardworking people, many of whom he noted were struggling to stay afloat financially. He also witnessed colleagues being mistreated by management, and at times exposed to less than desirable safety conditions. He understood firsthand what it would mean for workers to have a representative, to have their voice heard, not one voice alone, but presented as a united front.
That drive to help people has since seen the Greek Australia rise the ranks through the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) to become the State Secretary of Victoria, appointed in September 2018 – a role he doesn’t take lightly.
“I wanted to be able to say to an employer ‘hang on, you haven’t got it quite right, that’s not the true story, that is unfair’. And I feel privileged that I’m able to have a voice for workers because I understand. I come from a family that migrated to this country back in ’65 with a case – that’s all they came with – to give my brother and I a better life,” Mr Mavromatis told Neos Kosmos.
Since the AMWU’s establishment in 1852, representatives have worked hard, campaigning and fighting for many of the rights and conditions that are enjoyed today – a history that Mr Mavromatis believes has been forgotten by many, and hasn’t been recognised by the youth.
“I would like the youth to know that all the conditions that we have today are because of the unions, not because the employers felt generous and thought that we deserved them; they’ve always pushed back on every single condition we’ve tried to introduce and they will continue to do that until the days I’m buried and the next generation will come through,” Mr Mavromatis says.
“People forget how they got annual leave, sick leave, long service leave, even superannuation – all the conditions that they enjoy today. I think the youth take that for granted sometimes – or they’re not aware of it. But if they don’t step up and maintain what they need in the future, they will lose it, and once you lose something, it’s very hard to get it back.”
Current unionists understand this all too well. Unions are not as powerful as they once were, largely due to law amendments, and membership numbers having been on a downward spiral for years, which Mr Mavromatis admits has been due to a number of factors, one being the closure of car plants.
“That was over 200,000 jobs that were effected in that industry, and we took a big hit on that. But that decline has stopped now and we’re starting to grow again,” he says, optimistic, citing an increase of 2,400 new members in 2019.
He believes the way the media characterises unions is an issue, with an emphasis on the negatives, rather than positive outcomes achieved for workers.
“What we do know as fact and statistics is that where we have a workplace that’s unionised, they have better wages and conditions than places that are not unionised. But mainstream media is run by capitalist people, so we don’t normally read the paper saying ‘workers stood together and got four to five per cent wage increase’,” he says.
There certainly has been a narrative of mistrust around unions, with the federal government’s push to introduce the Ensuring Integrity Bill – a move that Mr Mavromatis naturally believes is “way over the top”.
“People really don’t understand or have knowledge about how much auditing goes into a union. We’re fully audited by three or four external auditors every year. We declare everything to our members, providing our financial statement every year. The union’s got to be above board, and we are. Really they’re trying to slander the union to be quite honest. Even if it gets through, we’re not going away. We’ll never go away,” he says.
THE DEATH OF THE MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY
While wages have been stagnant in Australia for some time, it has been argued that the push from unions for higher wages has contributed to local manufacturing in various sectors becoming unsustainable, and resulting in its death over the years, not excluding the recent shut down of Holden.
But rather than blame unions and higher wages, Mr Mavromatis says the onus is on the government. The Secretary says there has been a lack of support and foresight from a governing level, with lack of subsidisation and the introduction of free trade agreements and the removal of tariffs that have ultimately disadvantaged Australian workers.
“If the federal government had supported the car plants before they decided to shut them all down in Australia and brought in a policy that all government vehicles would have to be Australian made vehicles, that would have been a huge move. But to not subsidise a car plant, which every other country does in this world where they make cars, and allow it to disappear, the risk in that is you lose big jobs and all the training and the resources that have gone into those workers as well,” he says.
“Both sides of politics have made it very clear that for the economy to be strong, workers need good jobs and good paying conditions, so they’ve got money to spend and create a better economy. We agree with that. We need a strong government to be able to stand up and say ‘jobs in Australia are important and good jobs in Australia are important to have a decent economy’. That’s the message that we’ve got to keep on sending out there.”
Mr Mavromatis says the federal government should take a leaf out of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ book, who has introduced policy since his election to keep jobs local.
“When we’re building these trains in Victoria for all the new infrastructure, the recent policy was that these new trains must be at least 60 per cent locally made. It’s a good policy; keeps jobs in Victoria, and gives people decent jobs. That’s what we’d like to federal government to look at.”
The rising job insecurity has Mr Mavromatis increasingly concerned about the cost of living in Australia and the impacts. Lack of employment has a host of negative consequences that impact on mental well-being, with the one of the top concerns being financial burdens for families, which has the potential to create conflict between couples, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.
“Australia’s getting to be a harder and harder place to live with all the financial burden on working class people and family homes. One of the biggest pressures every family faces is to maintain and sustain a home for their family and for young people to try and get into the market now they are getting into debt of around about $400,000-$500,000. One would have to think, will they ever be able to pay off that loan?
Mr Mavromatis also highlights the casualisation of the manufacturing industry as a key problem.
“We’ve got people working in the labour hire industry where people will get a call and say can you start in half an hour? And there’s no respect as far as taking into consideration i.e. what’s he doing right now? Is he going through his kid’s homework? Is he sitting down to have dinner in half an hour? Or what’s this person going through? But if the person refuses the job, he goes to the bottom of the list and may not get another call. That’s the pressure on workers today that they face.”
Meanwhile he says that many young people are often blinded by the dollar figure, not understanding the significance of the rights a permanent employee has, especially long term.
“The youth don’t really know exactly what they’re entitled to these days. If they could just spend maybe an hour of their time doing a little bit of research or coming to a youth conference or seminar, for them to understand that, that could make a difference,” he says.
PERSEVERING IN THE FIGHT FOR WORKERS
Since coming on board an a union official in 2002, one achievement Mr Mavromatis is particularly proud to have been involved with is the introduction of income protection for workers, as a security measure for those injured outside of work.
“We were saddened, angry where workers that got injured outside of work would have to come to work with plaster on their leg or their arms and crutches and really forced back to work because of financial pressures in the family home. What this union’s been able to achieve is an income protection insurance scheme where there’s an insurance there; they get their average weekly earnings for up to two years to give them the ability to recover properly, take away the financial burden and be able to come to work fit and physical and able to work,” he explains.
Aside from financial security, one key consideration for Mr Mavromatis is having respect for workers’ time, not only at work, but at home, which is what led him to help push for the introduction of a 36 hour week.
“The worker has a balance between working life and family life to be able to spend more time with their children. And a lot of businesses accept that; companies want people to have time off and be fresh when they come to work, and a lot of companies told us that. In many areas productivity was improved because people would obviously take less sick leave, they’d be more refreshed. What’s the point in working all your life and not having a social life? They call it modern slavery, where you’ve got to go out and get a big bank loan and you’ve got to work, work, work to pay off a mortgage and then we probably die with that montage still over our heads today. So we need to find that balance where people can live a decent life and actually work to pay the bills. And we don’t want to go into the cost of the bills these days, it’s just out of control,” he says.
In addition to better wages, a key concern for the union and Mr Mavromatis is workplace safety. He says he has seen many cases involving casual employees who are dismissed after raising a genuine health and safety concern, and says that changes to workplace laws in the last 20 years have made it harder for unions to get justice for workers.
“Why is it they call it unlawful to go on strike? We’re not asking to be paid. All they’re saying is ‘mate I don’t want to work under these conditions’. You can’t even remove yourself from a workplace. Just that simple fact is crazy. Capitalists are really controlling this country at the moment.”
One recent win however, has been the introduction of industrial manslaughter laws in November last year, carrying maximum penalties of $16.5 million and 20 years’ jail time for negligent employers in Victoria.
“When I first came in as Secretary, we had a very sad experience where a 19-year-old kid, two weeks into his apprenticeship, entered a confined space and died because there was not enough oxygen, and it was really a neglected duty by the employer. How is that possible? So I was very proud of this state government introducing the new laws because now that tells them, you neglect your duty, you’re going to jail. That’s a good introduction for the working class,” he says.
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UNDERSTANDING THE STRUGGLE FIRSTHAND
Mr Mavromatis understands the struggle first-hand. He grew up in a working class family, his parents having migrated from Greece to Australian in 1965 to give himself and his brother the opportunity of a better future.
His parents each held down a number of jobs, his father working at Dunlop Tyres and a painter for a bit of extra money for the family, while his mother worked predominantly in the textile industry.
“I very rarely saw my father, he was working all these shifts. Sometimes in the morning when I’d be going to school, he was coming home, and I could only see his teeth and his eyes, the rest of him was covered with black soot,” he recalls.
“We’ve got to remember the difficulties these people had when they came to this country. They didn’t know the language, they had no transport, they had no direction at all, and they had to do it somehow. I am so proud of my parents the way they did it, because they gave us a lot and to do what they did, I think it was a huge achievement; to leave their families back in Greece and to leave it all behind to come here, just to give their children a better life, I cannot be more appreciative of it to be quite honest.”
Losing his father just before Christmas has made these memories even more poignant, and has given him a reality check of sorts, and even greater meaning to his work.
“What are the real things in life? If we forget about family and friends and all we do is work, I think we’ve lost our way,” he says. “And that’s why it’s important to have good jobs, good working conditions, good wages, where you can balance life out a little bit and spend precious time with the family, because life is just too short, it’s just too short.”
This understanding of his own history, and the lack of understanding many young people have for the past is what the Secretary keeps coming back to: “You’ve got to know where you’ve been before you know where you’re going, and that’s the same thing with the unions”.
This Labour Day, the AMWU is celebrating the 100 year anniversary of its retired members division, as a chance to give thanks for all their hard work.
“Just stop and think for a minute, if the unions were to disappear, who would be the voice for a worker? Some people may look at that and think ‘I’m fine, I’m an individual’, but eventually it will come back and bite you, whether it’s this generation or the next. Workers need a voice, and without a union they’ve got no voice, that’s the reality of it.”