One of the many highlights of Sydney’s Palm Sunday rally in April was the 100-strong Unions for Refugees contingent. The group formed after last year’s federal election and managed to get representation from 13 unions at the rally.

Unions for Refugees have gained official endorsement from Unions NSW and a number of individual unions. The task now is to deepen its support amongst the union rank-and-file.

As MUA member Harvey Norman told Solidarity, “We are going to take it to our comrades at the worksites because at the moment the other side of the story isn’t being told by the politicians…or the media which is controlled by the politicians’ masters.

“We can use our union contacts, we can use our workplaces to get to our people to dispel the myths and the lies that are told to them on a daily basis.”

“Instead of calling them this, that and the other, refugees, boat people, queue jumpers. We all know they’re lies. We’ve got to convince people that they’re not a threat to us.”

Refugees have been demonised as a threat to working class people’s jobs and living standards. Such scapegoating obscures the responsibility of governments like Tony Abbott’s for cuts to public services and welfare that are the real threat to working class people. The unions’ base within the working class means they are the most effective way to reach out to, and try to win over, hundreds of thousands of working class people.

The NTEU has begun building local refugee activist groups within the union. As Mark Johnston told Solidarity, “the Sydney University branch of the NTEU has its own working group called NTEU for Refugees which came about as a result of the Unions for Refugees initiative.

“We’re leaflet dropping and campaigning generally to raise support for rallies amongst students and staff at the university. The other main aim that we have is to campaign for a scholarship for refugees at Sydney University.

“Refugees are educationally disadvantaged by the circumstances that they are fleeing, but also by the experience of prolonged mandatory detention itself.”

Unionists also have the potential power to stop deportations and disrupt the government’s detention regime, through strikes and industrial action at airports and elsewhere.

Refugee activists need to do all we can to deepen our links with union members.

By Matt Meagher and James Supple


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