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Episode 1: The phoenix of unionism – VAHPA’s mission statement

10 Jun 2021

What is the Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association and what does it stand for? The inaugural VAHPA podcast looks at the Mission Statement and how it captures what the union stands for.


Transcribed by Lake Majstorovic
All information cited was accurate as of the time of recording (June 2021).

[Lively electric guitar theme music plays.]

[Theme music volume lowers as speaking begins.]

Craig McGregor: I mean, there’s this– this kind of elite who know better, and– and kind of talk down to the workers, and… well, don’t worry about it, you guys just carry on and we’ll make the decisions for you.

Linda Jenkin: Mm!

Craig: And we just totally disagree with that approach, you know, we just think it’s absolutely wrong.

Female voice-over: Welcome to the VAHPA Podcast, where we discuss the issues facing Allied Health Professionals. Each episode, we discuss new topics including wages and working conditions, lifestyle and career structure, Enterprise Agreements, dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, Vikings and shieldmaidens, and all progressive causes facing unionists.

The VAHPA Podcast, the podcast of the Victorian Allied Health Professionals.

[Theme music fades out.]

Sarah Hathway: This episode of the VAHPA Podcast we’ll be discussing the Mission Statement, which reads as follows.

VAHPA is a democratic community of Allied Health Professionals. We are a political organisation, we work together to ensure Allied Health jobs are good jobs, and that the care we deliver is the best it can be. We stand for fairness, equality, and for an end to discrimination. We understand that social structures have a profound impact on poverty and wealth. We recognise the significance of class consciousness. We strive to end all forms of exploitation. Solidarity makes us strong. We are Union, we are VAHPA.

Rjurik Davidson: Welcome to the VAHPA Podcast. Today’s episode is called the “Phoenix of Unionism”, which is VAHPA. This is Rjurik here, the Research Officer at VAHPA, and with me, we have…

Andrew Hewat: Andrew, I’m the Assistant Secretary of VAHPA.

Linda: Linda, I’m the Lead Organiser of VAHPA.

Craig: And Craig, I’m the Secretary of the branch.

Rjurik: Alright! So, we thought we might talk about what VAHPA stands for. We’ve got a Mission Statement, which we’ve got written down.

Craig: We have. We’ve got it out there on t-shirts, bags, we– you know, [Linda: I’m wearing it as we speak.] yeah, we’re wearing it, I’ve got it on my underwear, you know, it’s– it’s something that’s tattooed on our hearts. [Clears throat.]

You know, Mission Statements, people often… they’re digital, they’re just paper-thin often. But ours is something we live and die by, and, um, it’s something we take really seriously.

So, VAHPA, Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association, that is us. And I think the key thing, the– the underpinning logic is that we are a democratic community of Allied Health Professionals. And that goes to the notion that we are not a service union, we don’t… you know, it’s not like an insurance or a bank agency, you know, that kind of thing.

When– when you join, you join as part of the community, and, um, you work with your colleagues in Allied Health to better your wages and your conditions, but also, society more broadly, and we can talk about that a bit later.

You know, I think for us, that is– the core of what we do, that we build that community and we work together collectively for one another.

Rjurik: So, when did the Mission Statement get adopted?

Craig: [Laughs]

Rjurik: In the mists in the dark– in the mists of time, it could’ve–

Linda: Well, yeah, it’s been part of it for so long that you sort of feel like– I would’ve said in, um, very early in the sort of reborn branch’s history. Yeah, 2014?

Craig: Yeah, it’s– it’s kind of– it’s a logic that we’ve worked by for a long time. And, um, it was probably, yeah, 20– I mean, so, the branch was reforged, I guess, in late 2012 after a divorce from HSU East. And when we came to sit on the Branch Committee, we brought a very particular view of how the branch should run.

This, really, is– is the concrete statement of that. You know, it’s taken a while before it distilled down into something that we could say was a Mission Statement. So it probably took a year and a half before we were ready to really, kind of, put it in such a succinct way. Yeah.

Linda: Mm.

Craig: And– and it was a collective effort, you know, everyone in the office and on the Committee played a role in wording it properly and making sure it said what we wanted it to say.

Rjurik: Well, what would you say would be the heart of it? What’s at the centre of this Mission Statement?

Andrew: The democratic community of Allied Health Professionals. I think that goes straight to the heart of the principles under which we– we exist.

Linda: Yeah, everything else flows from that.

Rjurik: Okay. So, tell me about that. What’s– why democratic?

Craig: Well, that’s what a trade union is, you know, it’s a group of workers who get together and– and struggle to improve their lives. And– and they do so democratically.

And because they’re working, you know, they’re working full-time, they’re– they’re under a lot of pressure at work. They don’t have the time to struggle personally for their industrial rights, et cetera.

So, what happens is you say right, we’re going to collectively elect someone who’s going to represent us, going to sit on the Committee, make all the key decisions for us. And that include employing industrial experts to do the work in the field.

You know, it’s inherently democratic, it must be, and that’s what we do. We don’t have fees, members don’t pay fees, they pay contributions. So they– it’s a contribution. A financial contribution, but it’s also a contribution of time, of energy, of commitment, et cetera. So it’s not a fee you pay to us for a service.

And in return, we all put money in the hat and do that collectively, you know, everyone who sits in the branch, in the office, does the same, everyone out in the workplace does the same. We all put money in the hat and we use that collectively.

Linda: I mean, that flows on to then how we work in the field, because for instance, we don’t bargain without members, we don’t meet with… HR or management without members, because we’re not acting for them. We’re acting with them.

In part, that’s– uh, philosophical, and there’s a practical element to that as well, because they have the clinical knowledge and the operational knowledge that we can’t. But from our point of view, it’s their Agreement. It’s their workplace. They’re vested in that. We, you know, we’re– we’re just facilitating that for them, um, or with them. But we don’t do it without them.

You know, there would be maybe 2 meetings that I can think of in 7 years that I might not have had a member or delegate out for some operational reason. But, yeah, every day, and that’s a big… HR don’t like that, at all.

Craig: No, I mean, there’s this– this kind of elite who know better, and– and kind of talk down to the workers, and… well, don’t worry about it, you guys just carry on and we’ll make the decisions for you. And we just utterly disagree with that approach, you know, we just think it’s absolutely wrong.

And also having those kind of meetings without members or without delegates there can lead to some really bad shonky back-door, you know, and– and it’s not so much, well, it can be a slippery slope, and we’re very conscious of that.

And we also know that we’re not the experts, it’s– it’s those people who’re out there doing the jobs, they understand what they need best, what their Agreements… what work their Agreement needs to do for them. And so it’s vital that they’re there, you know, we’re not going to make decisions and put positions to HR on their part, you know.

Andrew: I like to remind them that it’s their fight, and that we’re there to help them, to organise them. But ultimately, it’s their fight, so they need to be engaged and involved in that fight.

Rjurik: So, with this kind of boots-on-the-ground approach, or grassroots approach, what are the things that would go along with that?

Craig: Well yeah, I mean, the boots-on-the-ground is– is a nice way of framing it, because, you know, there are two approaches that unions take. And, I guess, they’re framed as a service approach and an organising approach, and you obviously have to do a bit of both. And that, you know, that kind of polarisation of the two has been a bit of a stupid thing to have done over many years.

But broadly speaking, we– we do all we can to empower members and to change the culture of the workplace. Now, that can’t happen if it’s the Fair Work Commission or the Federal Court making decisions and making rulings for workers, et cetera. Workers are empowered, and culture changes, and workplace culture changes when the members really understand their political power and [Swallows.] their rights and are prepared to stand up for themselves and, you know, change the way they operate.

And that’s all about boots on the ground, they have to do it, they have to take their power back. For too long, workers have eschewed that power and just… just handed it over to the Commission or authorities. And that’s– that’s not okay, we don’t do that.

So you’ll find we very rarely go to the Fair Work Commission, you know, we like to get outcomes by doing it on the ground, by members doing the hard work and achieving the ends themselves.

Andrew: I like to talk about it as engagement, and then education. And from that will hopefully come the empowerment that you’re talking about, so I think that’s really fundamental to the whole… the whole process.

Linda: [Hums in agreement.] Yeah, we’ve always had the view that however many wins we had industrially or in terms of bargaining or any other outcomes, if we weren’t continually getting a more educated membership, then we– we weren’t actually going forward, that was just short-term gain, but no actual long-term gain.

So, yesterday, for instance, on one of the as Craig said fairly rare occasions in the Commission, one of the, you know, we’re happy with the outcome we got, but the other outcome was that, you know, we had three delegates attend, you know, they’re now much more likely to participate in that process, you know, we think it’s very much they’re right, management again, hate that.

But, you know, they ideally at some point could go to that without an organiser, or because they, you know… These processes need to be de-mystified. This is not something magical. It’s simply an imbalance of power and a management who have more resources than individual workers can.

So yeah, when you have groups of workers who say nah, actually, we know how this place runs, we run this hospital, not you, then, you know, they’re much more powerful.

Craig: And somehow workers have been convinced that they have no say in the way things operate within, you know, in healthcare, and, you know, right across the board in all sorts of industries.

And the way we say it is, it’s a 50/50 employee-employer relationship. And the hierarchy is just… it’s just a fanciful mental construct, you know, it just– it doesn’t really exist, and we have to stop being deferential to– to some kind of fanciful hierarchy.

And that relationship needs to change and– and the employers hate it. They hate, you know, they– they just have this visceral and very personal, like, claim to no, we run these things. No, you don’t actually, you sit in your office while the physios out there and the radiographers and, you know, the radiation therapists, they’re doing the work, they’re making it happen, not you, and they will make the decision, you know, on equal footing with you.

So… that’s one thing we do to re-train these people, you know. We change the way they– they view this construct, and I think that’s a really important part of what we do.

Rjurik: For the listeners of this podcast, you weren’t able to just see, Craig, as you were describing… describing [Laughing], I guess, management’s saying oh, we run this thing, you know, he kind of like crouched over like some Game of Thrones villain [All speakers: Laughing], like [Croaky, exaggerated villain voice] we run these things, don’t think that we will be able to run it.

Linda: Unionism in Middle Earth.


Craig: I was the mouth of Sauron for about 30 seconds then, I just– I was the embodiment of that creep? No, no, look, you know.

Andrew: Can I pick you up on that point that it’s very interesting that you just conflated HR with management? [Linda: Yeah.] And that’s, that’s the thing.

That’s a relatively recent phenomenon, because when I started with the workforce, HR was there as a representative for the workers.

Craig: [Laughs] Sorry, sorry.

Andrew: Um, but they are now [Craig: How old are you?] pretty much a– a facilitator of management. And it’s… and we tend to look at them as a management now as opposed to being human resources as they were originally.

Craig: And that’s their role, and it’s very overt. You– you toe the line, you do what you’re told.

Yeah, I mean, I’ve talked to people who have left because they cannot handle that, you know, they have an ethical framework and they feel that that role breaches their ethical framework and they just have to leave, you know.

Linda: Oh, I’ve had more than one HR person in large public hospitals say when they’re leaving, I’m leaving for somewhere that better matches my values. And that’s– that wouldn’t have been their picture when they entered the public health system in HR, but it’s certainly their position when they’re leaving.

Rjurik: So while we’re on this, what has brought about this shift? Why have we seen HR move from representatives of the staff and so on, and making sure that human resources are, you know, looked after to a management of the staff?

[Significant cross-talk.]

Linda: How long have you got?

Craig: The word, you know, the phrase “Human Resources” says a lot about the way the worker, you know, you’re just another cog.

Linda: But even that, you know, that’s now been dressed up in all these changes. You’re actually hard-pushed to find an HR department now, and if you do, you’ll find HR “partners”. But it’s more “People and Culture”, or as one of our co-workers calls it “People and Vulture” sometimes. [All speakers: Laughing]

But, you know, in a way, because we do have people saying, you know, only last week I would’ve had a member say to me I thought they were here to help us. But it’s really clear that they’re just about protecting the hospital, and that yep, that’s entirely what they do.

Craig: There’s still a view on the part of the workforce that you know what, I’m going to ring HR and find out where I’m at with so and so entitlement, do I have access to Long Service Leave?

Well, you know what, you’re asking the wrong people, you know. You need to talk to your union, you need to talk to your comrades, and your colleagues who, you know, are there for your interests rather than the interests of the healthcare network or whatever it may be. So I guess there’s a bit of a hangover there.

But just to go back to your question, Rjurik, I think we’ve seen a massive shift in unionism as we went from 50% density, where 50% of all workers were part of unions in the seventies. And, you know, around the world we’ve seen a huge decline in unionism.

And as that’s happened, we’ve seen these shifts happen, you know, that the cultures have changed and the workers have had less and less rights, less and less representation and less and less power. And, you know, everything shifts when that starts to happen, we’re now in a position where unions are more necessary than they’ve ever been. We have to move back; we have to move back. And we’re striving for that.

But, you know, we need some more assistance in the– in the struggle, you know, we really do. We need a lot more members. There’s, what, 45000 Allied Health Professionals in Victoria, you know, and we’ve built the union back but, you know, we’ve got a long, long way to go.

We need to get to ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty thousand members before we really start to have power and, you know, to be able to have legislation put in place and really make significant changes.

Rjurik: That growth… growth in membership, how much of that would you say is a consequence of– of the Mission Statement? Like, not the Mission Statement, obviously, as a thing written down, but the mission statement as something embodied by the union that it practices day-to-day and so on.

Linda: Look, it’s hard to estimate. There’s obviously a proportion of people who join because they have always had, you know, a commitment to unionism. So that’s maybe a quarter of people.

And there’s probably a quarter who are joining because they have a particular immediate need or some individual need.

But I think most other people join as a result of their involvement. Now, if we didn’t run on those democratic principles, if we didn’t have those meetings, if we didn’t seek their feedback, then this would just be something that’s either achieved or not achieved for them.

So, I think, you know, it needs to be lived. [Craig: Mm.] You know, the people are politicised by action, and that action doesn’t have to mean that we’re flipping cars and having demonstrations. It means that I’m attending a meeting and standing up to my management.

You know, that– those seemingly simple actions, often very difficult to take because there’s a power imbalance, it’s a… It’s an act of defiance, and it puts a target on your back, potentially. But when people do that collectively, then they gain strength from that. And of course, the more you do it, the less scary it is.

Craig: “Solidarity makes us strong”, [Linda: Exactly, yeah.] you know, is the final phrase in our Mission Statement, and that’s absolutely crucial.

But I mean, I think, very largely our growth and… you know, this is right against the trend, unions around the country are going backwards in, you know, huge numbers. And we’re going forwards very, very rapidly. And I think that’s all about our approach, our boots-on-the-ground approach, as you, I think, succinctly phrased it.

Rjurik: So… so there’s another thing on the– on the Mission Statement that I wanted to ask about, which is it says “we’re a political organisation”. And my understanding of that is political in a broader sense than just party political, but political in a sense of interested in the kinds of ideas, um, and cultures that are shaping the world that Allied Health Professionals work in. So, a broader understanding of politics than is sometimes used.

Is that accurate? Is there something you’d say about that?

Andrew: Absolutely. I think there’s, it’s very often understood when people say the word political, they think party politics, and they don’t appreciate that pretty much everything we do is governed by– by politics of some sort. And it’s really important for us to, you know, put that out there.

And… and again, it gets back to the empowerment of our membership, that they understand that to get what they need… And health professionals– To some degree, Allied Health Professionals can be their own worst enemy. They’re always putting their patients or their clients ahead of their own– their own wellbeing or their own benefits, and that gets preyed upon by employers and by management.

And we need to demonstrate to them that there is… there’s a lot more at play here than just that interface between Allied Health Professionals and the patient, and that there’s an organisational structure that’s overseeing what they’re doing, and that’s governed by politics.

Linda: And that politics actually actively impedes their capacity to deliver for their patients and clients. You know, like, if you’re not active in defending those resources, then those resources are being taken away from your patients, you’re in the middle of that.

But if you think that anything other than a political act, then, you know. I’m not sure how you would resolve that, because it’s clearly political. It’s clearly about prioritising the use of our community resources for some things over others. And one of those others is patient care.

Rjurik: [Hums in agreement]

Craig: You know, yeah, I guess, it’s really important to say it is not a reference to party political, as you’ve said, it’s not about party politics at all.

It’s about politics, or more properly, it’s about ideology, it’s about the framework, it’s about the way our economy works, it’s about whether we have publicly-owned healthcare or privately-owned healthcare, you know, what the different under– underpinning politics or ideas that established these things do, and how they impact on us, and how we can change them.

And just to understand that everyone, everyone has political power. You either eschew it and let someone else make decisions for you, or you actively use it, you know, and– and work together to create a framework in which you can work for your patient’s benefit and for yourself and make your job a good one, you know, in a really productive way.

And not just sit back and say oh, look, we’ve got a tight budget when– when there are billions and billions of dollars, you know, Australia is awash with money. You know, there’s all this talk about how poor we are, but per head of capita, you know, we’re pretty much the richest country in the world.

Yet, so much of the money is sitting in private coffers and is not being used for the public good. And we need to change that. That money cannot sit there in billions and billions of dollars. That money has to go to healthcare, you know, it has to go to education.

And, you know, we could talk about the NDIS here, because, you know, the NDIS is a classic example of where the politics went wrong. To me, I think a clear analysis of the NDIS is a system that’s been put in place, an economic framework on which healthcare is delivered in a very individualised way, in a very neoliberal way, in a way that drives people away from the public system.

If– if they self-employ, you know, you’ll get a physio and a speechie, and a pod, and an OT, and they’ll– they’ll rent themselves a house, and they’ll establish a business. And then they’re not paying themselves, you know, super like they need to. They’re working many more hours than they should be working, and you… it looks enticing. But that framework makes it impossible to unionise people.

So people are out there, you start to go backwards in terms of your wages and your conditions, et cetera. And this is a deliberate underpinning element. It’s the central, it’s the heart of the NDIS. And they’re the sort of politics that we, you know, we’re talking about.

Rjurik: The interim… it’s interesting, I’ve been reading the interim report from our Royal Commission on aged care. And one of the things that the interim report emphasises is that, you know, there are no individualised… that there really aren’t kind of individualised market solutions to a lot of the problems which are in healthcare. And they call the healthcare system the aged health care system. They call it cruel, basically.

But, they’re– they’re very keen, you know, or very emphatic that that sort of individualised, market-driven response might not be able to provide any solutions.

But I think we’ve… sort of, one of the things we’ve established then using this– using the Mission Statement is VAHPA is a little bit like the Fellowship of the Ring. [All speakers: Laughing] And it’s on a journey [Craig: We’re invisible, is that what you’re saying?], uh, facing up to the Saurons of the world.

Is there anything on the Mission Statement you’d like to– that you feel we should talk about anything else?

Craig: I mean, I don’t want to dominate the conversation, but you know. I will.

“We strive to end all forms of exploitation”, I think that’s really important. We– we play a role more broadly than– than health and workplace issues, you know. We look at our society more broadly, because we believe one of our responsibilities as elected representatives of the workers is to engage in society more broadly, make Australia and Victoria a better place.

So we don’t think the torture of refugees is right, we think this is really damaging, and this has a negative effect on our society, and that has a flow-on effect. So we take action in that space, we look at issues of gender inequality.

And, you know, Andrew, you should have a bit of a chat about this, because you’ve been involved in some of these campaigns.

Andrew: No, I just think it’s important to recognise that people say why is the union getting involved in that campaign or this campaign. Well, they need to realise that that’s what we do, and it’s in the Mission Statement, “we understand that social structures have a profound impact on poverty and wealth”.

And that goes to the heart of it, that the social structures have a huge impact, and if we don’t have some… some say in what’s going on there, then we’re not doing– we’re not doing our job, and we’re not representing our members, and we’re not representing the community.

And so I think that’s, you know, it’s an important part of what unions do, and historically, they’ve been, unions have played a big part in social justice campaigns.

Linda: It’s really important in terms of how powerful language is. And, you know, more and more we hear, you know, about the economy that we live in.

We don’t live in economies; we live in communities. And those communities require not just that we have good jobs and sustainable jobs, but that we have good and sustainable communities as well as jobs, and that our family members have jobs. They’re not in the same industry.

It’s also just completely anti-collectivist to say look, I’m going to be in a collective that looks after my job, but outside of my little collective, I don’t much care about the rest of the collective. It’s just inconsistent. It’s unthinkable that we wouldn’t operate…

Craig: Little pockets of privilege, thinking they’re going to somehow last.

Linda: Yeah! And they really don’t, it just perpetuates that privilege. We go, well, our members are tertiary-educated professionals, and ooh, good, we can look after ourselves, fantastic. Yeah.

Andrew: It’s a competitive environment, it’s been crowded under capitalism. We’re forced to pit one against the other. And that’s, you know, a race to the bottom in terms of the outcomes.

The NDIS is another good example of that when it’s– it becomes a competitive environment. And all it’s doing is meaning that it’s forcing the conditions and the wages down, and the outcomes are going to be impacted by that.

Rjurik: Um, we’ll just end on that note. So, just thanks to everyone who’s been listening to us, and we’ll come back to many of these issues in the next little while as we continue to have our podcasts. Thanks to everyone who contributed!

Craig: Thanks everyone!

Linda: Thanks.

Andrew: Thank you.

[Lively electric guitar outro music plays.]