Gerard Morel worked on the assembly line at Toyota Port Melbourne from late 1987 to 1993. He became a shop steward in 1990 (representing 55 people and later deputy senior shop steward.)
Getting to be a shop steward was a long process. I started trying to besteward as soon as I got there. I was inexperienced and didn't have a group of people to help me. It was easy for the company to shift one around every time it looked like I was going to get it. When I did became shop steward finally it was for two reasons; at the first wave of redundancies some of the leading stewards took the package, and by that time I'd worked there for years and I had a lot of friends who knew what I thought and in particular two older long term workers who thought I'd be a good shop steward because I was "smart" and spoke good English. They ran around and campaigned for me and got me elected steward. I obviously had ideas about what a shop steward should do and I questioned everything that was happening. I constantly said to people that we didn't have to work as hard. The fact that I was a socialist and political did mean some thing to some people too. Part of that was just being interested in people someone would say "I'm from Rumania" and I'd have some thing to say about Rumania.
Once the excitement, of actually becoming a steward was over it was obvious that there was no real role for shop stewards. The union or the company would involve shop stewards in discussions in a way that was almost like play acting. Sometime in the past theunion or the company had been forced by militant actions to consult with shop stewards and here they were pretending to do it when it was no longer necessary fifteen years later. Every month the shop stewards would be "allowed" to meet on company time and at this meeting we were supposed to formulate requests and questions for the company. Then the company would respond a week later at a "report back" meeting. This was about as successful in pushing the company to do anything as a suggestion box. Just a device to let off steam. A part from that almost the only formal thing a shop steward could assist on, was being present at discipline sessions of workers. Generally workers who went to see a shop steward about a problem were immediately harassed and asked "why didn't you see a team leader, why didn't you see a group leader, blah, blah, blah". Some shop stewards who had a good relationship with the bosses were given a lot of freedomto move around. I was given none, I was tied to the assembly line. But I was determined every week to see everybody and ask them how they were, and encourage them to see me about problems. I was determined to have a professional system happening where I could use the phone , where I could use the phone, where if a person had a problem I could sit down and talk to them on the spot. There was nothing on paper saying a shop steward could do these things, it was all on precedent. But the Health & Safety representative, which I also was, had a whole series of rights enshrined in law. So I had to pretend that my weekly trip down the line was a "health and safety inspection". That when I used the phone it was to ring to the Department of Labour and Industry, and so on.
It was a struggle to make the position of shop steward a real one. One way I sought to do that, not just for myself but for all the other shop stewards was to get workers to put pressure on their shop stewards by raising everybody's expectations of what shop steward's should do; so I did these weekly inspections, made a point of talking to Vietnamese for example (which a lot of people didn't do), yelled at foreman in the most public way possible and helped workers find lawyers for workcare and things and the result was, as I hoped, people started to approach me and say: "How come our shop steward doesn't do what you do?" To which the response was obvious: "Why don't you get rid of him?" You couldn't lose in this way, because firstly you weren't making stupid promises to people out what you could do for them; instead you were forcing them to understand that things would only change if they got active as well. And if their attempt to change their shop steward failed, it would force their shop steward to respond, to campaign, to speak to people. For a couple of weeks everyone in that section would be talking about unionism and who was the best shop steward. And win or lose you had a contact in another part of the factory you could talk to about the union.
The biggest problem, above intimidation and everything, was that people expected you to do things for them. Sometimes you felt like a real shit boy telling people: "I can't do anything, for this problem you have to go on strike." So, days after I became shop steward, I came in one morning a bit late and people started shouting at me expectantly, the line had been speeded up. So I went off to the industrial relations idiots, who went to the management, who went to the foreman who "proved" that the line was the same speed as normal. I wasn't prepared to go down the line telling everybody that they were wrong and the company had given me a reassurance that the line speed was the same. Instead I had to go back to people and say: "If you think the line speed is too fast, then as far as I'm concerned it is. But the company are not going to accept my word for it so you have to show how seriously upset you are and stop work": This kind of situation came up constantly and sometimes people did stop work. The crucial part of that was not bullshitting to them about what I could do, and encouraging them to take action while they were still angry, and not disappearing into meetings with management for hours on end until people had given up and got used to it.
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