FSU talks with James (Jimmy) Whitfield about his experience as a Union Rep, his thoughts on the benefits and challenges of unionism today and what changes he would like to see happen at work.
FSU Rep Jimmy Whitfield is proud of his union role. ‘It’s a big privilege to have that title of Union Rep. When you are securing your rights and benefits and lifestyle, achieving that with your fellow workers is much more powerful than having it given to you by anyone else.’
Jimmy is in business servicing for NAB, which covers customer contact, servicing, internet banking, cards, and more. He has just finished up with a customer for whom he went above and beyond – something Jimmy says is especially easy to do when the person on the other end of the call is appreciative and kind.
The sheen of this experience wears off quickly as Jimmy starts to describe his work conditions and the effect the pressure has on his coworkers who often feel like they have no support.
‘Working in call centres does something to your brain. You’re either talking to customers where you can’t really be yourself or you’re talking to a boss where you can’t really be yourself. Or you’re talking to a coworker where you don’t quite know if you can be yourself.’
This is where Jimmy’s motivation to be a union Rep is clearest: being a point of contact for his coworkers in an environment which feels isolating and uncertain is invaluable.
Jimmy first discovered the Finance Sector Union in 2018 during an orientation day. It was the first union he’d been in contact with, but he always knew they were important. He signed up on the day. As he described why unions matter to him, it doesn’t sound like it would have been a hard sell.
‘A union is your avenue to make actual change and improvements for yourself and your coworkers that aren’t an improvement to the bottom line and business. Everything that is coming from the top down has a price tag to it – even if it’s a pay increase. When it’s something that you’ve achieved by standing by and working with your coworkers – that’s better. It’s an achievement and it’s something that you can be proud of.’
A year after joining, Jimmy became a Rep during enterprise bargaining negotiations, simply because, as his organiser Laura pointed out at the time, he was already doing everything a Rep does. He was having dozens of conversations every week, handing out leaflets, and being a point of contact for his coworkers.
At the time he was working in pay and processing, and it was his move to call centre work which pushed Jimmy into becoming even more involved. He describes it as going from a small team where everyone is considered irreplaceable, to a group of a hundred people who are doing the same job.
‘Expendability is what it feels like.’
Growing a union within this atmosphere doesn’t sound easy. ‘A lot of it comes down to fear.’ Says Jimmy. But not the fear of getting fired, ‘In some ways the fear of not getting a promotion or being stuck in this job forever is almost more insidious.’
‘“If I don’t stand up, if I don’t make any fuss, it’ll get better for me. I’ll get that promotion, I’ll move onto that other job.” I think that’s an awful trap.’
Call centre work makes having conversations with coworkers especially difficult. But that doesn’t seem to faze Jimmy too much. He has his fellow Reps to thank for that.
Jimmy says that being part of the Reps community has broadened his horizons. ‘It showed me what workers in other departments and other banks and other companies go through and how their structures work and how their systems work and how organising works.’
You can see how Jimmy carries this confidence to his own workplace. ‘When I’m in the mood to stir up a bit of trouble, I’ll identify something and then I’ll put it out there in some kind of group chat – “hey has anyone noticed this? What do we think about this? Is anyone else concerned about this?”’
Often times, coworkers show a lack of awareness that unions even exist at all.
‘That’s been surprising to me. In a way it’s good, especially if there are negative assumptions of what a union is.’
Jimmy’s counter to this is simple: ‘I use myself as an example.’ He tells of how he even got hired after saying in his job interview that the thing he’s most passionate about is being a union Rep and the rights of his coworkers. ‘I got the job. I get to tell people that. And for some, it’s worked.’
Jimmy can’t help adding a practical part to building our union as we’re just about to finish the call. It’s not enough to explain the why, how is just as important. ‘Here’s the website, here’s this piece of paper to fill out, I can answer your questions.’