One hundred and fifty years ago, about 80 bricklayers, plasterers, stonemasons, carpenters and labourers met to set up the Newcastle Eight Hours Committee, the forerunner to Hunter Workers.
When Hunter Workers meets these days, however, you will not only find a wider occupational spread — with representation from nurses, teachers, shop assistants, crane drivers, miners, maritime workers, disability support workers, public servant — but also women delegates.
What has stayed the same is the need for a shared voice for our region's workers.
Rod Noble writes in Of Human Right and Human Gain, that the shared voice of workers was heard in 1883 as hundreds of unionists, watched by thousands of supporters and onlookers, marched in Newcastle demanding “eight-hours work, eight-hours leisure, eight-hours sleep”.
The “eight hours of leisure” gave workers and their families the opportunity to improve the quality of their lives and increase their capacity to more fully participate in society, through activities such as education and sporting clubs.
The campaign for shorter work hours reflected the union movement's vision of society and quality of life, which went beyond a focus on capitalist profit. A shorter working week also meant work could be shared around among the unemployed.
Over the past 150 years, Hunter Workers has continued to be a voice for regional needs that has promoted a broad social vision.
It was unions that raised the alarm about workplace health and safety issues such as silicosis and asbestosis, for example, when the big end of town was reassuring workers that there was nothing to worry about.
Many health and educational facilities in our region are the result of initiatives and practical work of Hunter Workers and its affiliated unions.
It was Hunter Workers and residents who preserved the city’s heritage in places such as Newcastle East.
Similarly, without Hunter Workers, voices calling for peace, Third World solidarity, socialism and support for treasured public institutions and utilities, would have found it much harder to be heard.
Many of the issues Hunter Workers face today are similar to those in 1869.
While unions eventually won the eight-hour day, workers are losing it through unpaid hours of work. Despite 150 years of employment law, unscrupulous employers still get away with stealing workers' money.
According to The Australia Institute, $116 billion is stolen from Australian workers each year through unpaid superannuation, unpaid overtime and withheld allowances.
Why is the government not doing something about this?
Instead, it is pursuing its Ensuring Integrity Bill. Currently before parliament, the bill purports to be about union governance in the construction industry.
Yet union membership today is predominantly female and not in hard-hat unions. Those affected by this bill include: childcare workers demanding equal pay; nurses demanding safe staffing ratios in emergency wards; unions calling for domestic violence and paternity leave in their enterprise agreements; and long-serving casual workers needing permanency.
Rather than eroding union rights, we need to strengthen them so that everyone receives the entitlements, wages, superannuation, working conditions and pay we deserve.
[Steve O'Brien is a delegate to Hunter Workers for the Public Service Association and a member of the Socialist Alliance. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Newcastle Herald.]