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The best $180 I ever spent: My union fees

An illustration of a paper bill for union fees, with “Union Contract” written on the top.
I would be taking a side, definitively, and I would be paying for the privilege. | Dana Rodriguez for Vox

By joining the union, I bought myself a new political identity that stood in solidarity with anybody struggling to make the world a better place.

I grew up comfortable. Not rich, but with two loving public servants for parents, in stable jobs that could provide everything my two brothers and I would ever reasonably need. Our quarter-acre block was quiet and dense with trees, and even now when I return, it feels like a deep, calm breath, nestled on the green fringe of inner-city Sydney, just a little over four miles west of the opera house and the famous Harbour Bridge.

My mom is the daughter of an Irish truck driver, risen above her station to become the first in her family to go to university. My dad is the son of a stuffy British family made briefly wealthy by World War II. They never let us forget our luck to have been born into such a life.

My parents read the paper each morning, and discussed its contents each night. The world had red and blue, rich and poor, lucky and unlucky; clear winners, clear losers, clear enemies, and clear friends. I remember the 2007 federal election, both of them astonished and on the edge of tears of joy, as it became clear that the conservative government that had ruled for the past 11 years would finally fall. They spoke in hushed tones, lest words break the spell: “They’ve lost Bennelong — that’s John Howard’s seat! Labor is going to win!”

As ubiquitous as feelings of right and wrong were, politics for us was largely abstraction; something that happened — in the papers, on TV — and to which you reacted accordingly. You knew your side, and you supported them as best you could; with your vote on Election Day, your anger or pleasure at policy announcements, your words around the table if your company wasn’t too judgmental. It was not something you did, not something you took with you into the streets, into work, or to family Christmas. And to join a union — that relic of a bygone era, of dusty men in peaked caps shouting outside a shuttered factory before heading home for tea? Forget about it.

We were middle-class — quiet, polite, and fiercely self-sufficient — and politics, while important, was not something you fought for as if your life depended on it. Because, well, it didn’t. Though, of course, you were sympathetic to those for whom it did.

I went like this through high school. Though the looming threat of climate change scared me shitless, and I nurtured a growing disgust for Tony Abbott — the lurching, zombielike opposition leader, then prime minister whose slander of women, immigrants, environmentalists, and the poor had toxified Australian politics in the early 2010s — I couldn’t have called myself a political person. The two students in my year who could were, frankly, considered weirdos, and when I did once try to make an intervention — some point about the budget deficit I’d read in my parents’ paper — I earned from one of them a brittle retort: “Well, I didn’t realize you knew anything about economics, Angus.”

University was different. I’d taken a year to work and travel, and joined a group of youth activists who organized workshops across Sydney to teach schoolchildren about climate change, the environment, and sustainability. My nascent political consciousness, freed now from the hollow moral universe of my Christian Brothers school and in search of a language that I could use to describe the world and what I’d change about it, quickly morphed into ardent student socialism. In the company of like-minded teachers and peers in the political economy faculty — routinely dismissed around campus as a slack band of communist pretenders, but to me, a revelation — I crafted meticulous takedowns of the capitalist status quo, which I would then unleash on the unsuspecting, uncaring, or less-informed. I would berate them for their ignorance, expose their complicity in the evil systems that ruled the world, until I was so puffed up with indignation and my own clever theories that I thought I might burst.

Then I would go home, to our leafy quarter-acre, and soak up my parents’ praise over a home-cooked meal.

Because the truth was that this was all theoretical to me. I worked a shitty job, true, and I was scared; of climate change, of cronyism and dodgy bosses, of letting the wrong people win. But I was also a white, middle-class kid from a nice part of Sydney, who had leveraged an expensive education and supportive family into the unshakeable foundations of success inside the very system I so passionately skewered. I was an observer, a pretender, full of words and empty theories, cosplaying as revolutionary at a sandstone university.

When I graduated I was offered a job at the Australian Treasury, punching out the spreadsheets and paragraphs that keep the government running. Notwithstanding criticism from some of my snarkier classmates — “sellout,” they called me, only half-joking — I moved down to Canberra at the beginning of 2019.

Canberra is Australia’s bushy, anonymous capital city, but the Treasury building itself is unmissable. It’s huge, gray, and granite, rising like a prison from the banks of an enormous human-made lake and lawns that stay rich and green during even the harshest summers. On my first day I sat at my desk, shuffling paper, until a polite — though insistent — cough sounded over my left shoulder. I looked up to a smiling face. It was younger than most I’d yet seen in the office, perched over a defiantly patterned shirt with a red-and-white lanyard trailing from the breast pocket.

“Sydney Uni, eh?”

“Yeah, yeah … just finished in November.” I’d talked through my qualifications a thousand times that day.

He nodded, and looked around shiftily. A pause.

“Political economy grads usually join the union, you know. We’ve got an introductory rate on membership — $15 a month. It’s all here on this form.” He slapped a piece of paper down onto my desk, tapped it once (“think about it”), and left.

$15 a month. $180 for the year.

It felt like a lot. I was in a stingy, post-relocation frame of mind. Moving states is never cheap, but even then the brutal early-year Canberra rental market, competing with the annual influx of new students and bureaucrats for scarce, overpriced rentals, had blown a hole in my savings.

But equally, here it was. An opportunity to at last put some skin in the game. To finally commit to something real, something that was bigger than my textbooks, greater than a collection of coddled kids shouting half-digested words at each other in the corner of a grimy pub. I would be taking a side, definitively, and I would be paying for the privilege. In this seat of political and economic power, at the center of government for a nation that bought so willingly into the crude individualism of the 1980s and ’90s, to be unionized was to be inefficient, slow, lazy, and old-fashioned; to be unionized was to be unable to look out for yourself.

Could I afford it? Yes. Did I want to spend the money? Not really. I was making more than I ever had before, my first proper job after years of minimum-wage work behind bars and shop counters. But it was precisely the cost that mattered. You put your money where your mouth was. And so I joined up.

A few weeks later I was watching the news, and the bulletin flashed scenes of a protest in Chile. It had started in opposition to transit fare increases, but quickly spiraled into a national movement against inequality, repression, and elitist government. In the footage thousands of people were marching down the street, waving flags and chanting as a line of armed police advanced with riot shields. It cut to the president announcing a state of emergency, and then back to violence, bands of protesters now running, pelted by water cannons, and police firing tear gas into the crowd. On the banner along the bottom of the screen scrolled words: Chilean unions call general strike, join calls for new constitution. Leader: “We want to demonstrate that unity is strength.” And suddenly I felt it.

In one sense I couldn’t have been further away. I was in my living room, in pajamas, with cockatoos hacking in the trees outside and dinner bubbling away on the stove. In that moment, though, I had a powerful, palpable sense of myself as a node in a vast network of political energy, spanning forward and backward through time and across continents. I felt connected to these people, marching in the sun in a country I had only ever heard of, against problems I myself had never faced. By joining the union, I realized, I had bought myself a new political identity that stood in solidarity with anybody struggling to make the world a better place. Not to mention the generations of workers who had lived, fought, and died for things that now felt eternal. The 8-hour day, sick leave, weekends, and holidays; all once dreams, then goals, then demands, then facts. This was an identity that demanded I act, not merely discuss, and for which politics was as real, pressing, and personal as hunger pains or a police baton.

I became surer, more confident; bluster was replaced by a calm sense of purpose. At work, I realized more people than I had ever imagined were union too; the young guy who sat on my right, the 10-year veteran at my back, the manager at the end of the hall, and the woman in the cubicle immediately opposite my own. We tried to bring more people into the fold, joined arbitrations and wage negotiations, protested against reductions in public service staff levels, and stood in solidarity against the inequalities of race, sexuality, and gender that clove our workplace as much as any. We would see each other in the white-collar trenches — kitchen, meeting room, afternoon tea — and know that we were, in our sterile, small, but very real way, working to make positive change.

I stood up to my boss, and called him a racist when he was being a racist. I wouldn’t have done that before.

On September 20, 2019, I joined my first strike. It was an unseasonably warm day, with a hot, dry wind, and the first embers of the Black Summer bushfires that would rage for six months, decimating half the country and claiming over a billion animal and human lives, were beginning to smolder. The union had called on its members to leave work in solidarity with millions of children across the world, who in turn had left school in solidarity with one 16-year-old Swedish girl who, every Friday for the past year, had stood outside her country’s parliament with a sign that demanded they do more to fight climate change.

As I walked, in a suit, in the blinding sun, shouting under union colors that the government I served must take the fears of its people seriously, I felt a lifetime apart from the mouthy student who harangued his parents over dinner. Even more so from the sheltered, confused schoolboy I had been. I had arrived, in the streets, and politics was no longer theoretical. Now, I could not only imagine a better world — free of the inequality, insecurity, and environmental catastrophe that had terrified me first into silence, and then into shallow dogma — but I also knew I would fight alongside legions of others to bring it into being.

Angus Chapman is a writer and researcher from Sydney, Australia, now living in London.

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