Volume 4, Issue 17
Law students, legal support staff, paralegals, grads, lawyers – this is the time to join your union. It’s probably the Australian Services Union (ASU), whose members have won incredible victories like paid domestic violence leave.
This crisis will worsen. If you think your Melbourne Law School degree will protect you, or that your legal knowledge immunises you against unemployment - think again.
Now’s the time to band together with your workmates and secure control over your work lives. Collectively, we have more bargaining power to demand fair pay, secure work, and safe conditions. Individually, you are far weaker and more vulnerable – especially as a young junior worker.
As an ASU member, I support the fight for better pay and conditions. Together, we have secured 10 days of special paid leave if we contract coronavirus, need to care for an infected relative, or are stood down. We have fought to ensure lower-status workers are not required to attend work unsafely while senior staff are permitted to self-isolate. We have pushed back against bullying by management, fought to end unpaid overtime, and won paid study leave and tea breaks for paralegals.
Here’s four reasons to join your union:
First, our industry is very sick. King & Wood Mallesons became the first firm subjected to a WorkSafe investigation after grads slept at the office during the banking Royal Commission. The Herbert Smith Freehills CEO recently threw a public tantrum about proposals to limit grads and juniors to 40 hours per week and pay them accordingly, petulantly threatening to offshore those jobs. Unsurprisingly, our profession has some of the highest depression and anxiety rates. To change that, you must join your union to fight for manageable workloads and a crackdown on overwork.
Second, COVID-19 has exposed the fault lines in our work lives. Mass layoffs have started, with 20,000 staff stood down at Qantas. Global recession, mass unemployment and widespread deprivation loom. As social bonds break down and our lives are ripped apart, the only solution is to stand by each other. We should push our government to follow Britain, France and Norway, who are paying around 80% of workers’ wages to keep them employed or to support those who have been laid off. We need safe, secure work and crisis responses that put workers first.
Third, young people are starved of meaning. Plenty of socially-minded law students end up doing bleak work that they never saw themselves doing which leaves them unfulfilled. If you feel distant from your workmates and insecure about yourself, join your union. Unions create community and social solidarity. They support climate justice, gender equality, and racial equality. Young people feel strongly about these causes, but often feel powerless to contribute. Joining your union is the best way to think global, act local. Building democracy at the most local, fundamental level will give you a strong sense of belonging and purpose.
Fourth, professionals are more vulnerable in the workplace than you think. You can get bullied, overworked, used up, and fired - just like any other worker. Your big brain, six figures, and book smarts won’t save you. There will be MLS graduates who end up tearful and vomiting from anxiety, stuck at home on WorkCover due to bullying, drinking themselves into a stupor on evenings and weekends, or pushed out of a job they thought was secure. As the Attorney General recently said, many people will soon be on Centrelink for the first time in their lives. This is a great time to speak to our workmates, shore up our job security, and win safer conditions.
There are two futures ahead for you.
One: you work soul-murdering hours, rarely see your family, self-medicate with alcohol and/or drugs, spend your weekends wracked with anxiety working from home, and live at the whim of bullies. At any point you could be undermined, pushed from your perch, and driven out. This is the Pinstriped Prison – you’re rich, with high blood pressure, and no time to enjoy it. Your security is an illusion. Stress takes years off your life. This is the reality for significant numbers of people walking out of MLS.
Two: you speak to your workmates, build trust, collectively achieve fair pay and a realistic workload, protect the mental health of yourself and your colleagues, take action against bullies and predators, and develop more individual and collective confidence. You achieve actual, durable work-life balance – not the mirage promised in glossy recruitment pamphlets. You build a workplace on tolerance, respect, and solidarity. You secure your position. You breathe more freely.
Lawyers make great union members. They take no shit, read the rulebook, and argue the point doggedly and exhaustively.
Respect yourself and value your workmates. Together, you can make your workplace safe and fair.
Individually, you are weak. Collectively, you are strong.
Join your union.
To join the ASU, visit https://www.asu.asn.au/asujoin.
If you want to discuss any of this, please message me on Facebook.
Cam Doig is a fourth-year JD student.