• External Contributor

I work at a union and here's what we heard about the tradie protests

The 'tradie protest' that took place in Melbourne this week was widely covered, there's no doubt. But there's a perspective missing from most mainstream media outlets. I work for a union, and the vax debate and mass pushbacks on unions dates long before the violent protests at the CFMEU.

When the Delta strain hit NSW, all levels of Australian government started pushing vaccines pretty aggressively. Talks of vaccine mandates in certain industries began popping up, and workers began calling on their unions to oppose them. As a whole, unions publicly opposed mandatory vaccines, but encouraged all members to get the jab if and when they could.

Hordes of anti-vax, anti-lockdown, and flat out COVID deniers started popping up on unions' social media channels. Most were not members, just people from the public, questioning unions, pushing for their presence at anti-lockdown rallies, and demanding unions take more aggressive action. To repeat, these people are not union members. Democratic unions determine their positions via debate at conferences attended by their delegates. For the most part, union leaders like John Setka, the target of the Victoria protests, only communicate messaging to the public - they don't decide on it.

Non-union members have been creating flyers and communications for anti-lockdown rallies and adding union logos to them. This is assumedly to gain more traction and credibility, but there's another very important reason: the far-right strongly oppose unions. Most Australian unions are affiliated with the Labor party, and are the enemy of conservative governments - and vice versa. It's a very typical divide of the right and the left, the workers and the bosses. This is a simplistic and stereotypical summary of course, but for the most part, it sticks.

At my union, we had a very, very small number of legitimate members question our stance on vaccines, which, like many others, was to oppose mandatory vaccination, but strongly encourage members to get jabbed. Many members were genuinely concerned about getting the vax, presumedly due to a lot of conflicting information being published, and a minuscule number threatened to leave the union. This seems to be the shared experience of most Australian unions.

This week, around 15 CFMEU members arrived at the office in Melbourne to voice concerns about the union's stance on vaccine mandates. The CFMEU has repeatedly and vocally opposed mandatory vaccinations. We can only assume that these unhappy members felt that they weren't 'strong enough' in their opposition, or they simply didn't want to hear it. Organisers of far-right, anti-vax, anti-lockdown, and neo-Nazi groups quickly sent out the word and within a few hours, the crowd had grown to what appeared to be thousands.

Said organisers sent messages around on the encrypted app Telegram to instruct protestors to 'dress like tradies,' so the rally would appear to be attended by CFMEU members, construction workers. The event was labelled the 'tradie protest' by the media, and later by commentators and satirists.

Despite overwhelming evidence that attendees weren't disgruntled CFMEU members, weren't even tradies, the ship had already sailed. The mainstream media, led by the very conservative Rupert Murdoch of course, widely reported the event as a 'tradie protest,' and even though some had corrected it, the damage has already been done. Unions have fought against a 'thuggish' reputation for decades, so this story plays straight into the hands of all people who oppose unions. It also plays right into the tropes based on good old Aussie classism. We take one look at a violet crowd dressed in high-vis, and we say 'typical tradies!'

The organisers of this protest, many of whom have been identified as the same people who pulled together other anti-lockdown rallies in Melbourne, knew the violent tradie/unionist narrative would get a reaction from the media and Australian public - and it did. For unions, the event was sadly not unexpected. For months, unions have been a target of anti-vaxxers looking for large bodies to target. The protest just took it to the extreme.