Union strong


11 May 2023

In a career spanning more than four decades, Sharan Burrow has applied tenacity and patience to collective strategies and campaigns that broke ground and smashed barriers. Her advocacy has led to policies and practices that protect and support working people around the world.

The seeds of social justice were planted and nurtured in the Burrow family home in Warren, New South Wales, where “the labour battle was always a topic of discussion”. Burrows’ great great-grandfather took part in the original shearer’s union strike in the 1890s, and her father, a builder and tradesman in rural NSW, was also a community activist committed to greater equality.

“It was part of the family culture, at least on the male side,” she says. “I don’t think they ever demanded I join the union but it was to be expected.” Burrow did join the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) after starting her public school teaching career, beginning her ascent through the union movement.

Throughout her remarkable career, Burrow has segued from teaching to advocating for teachers as an organiser and senior vice president of the NSWTF, then as federal president of the AEU and she became the second female president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). She was appointed to significant global roles, notably the first woman president of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, and the first woman president and general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the peak global council for the majority of the world’s unions, representing 181 million workers across 163 countries.

Change agents

Burrow says she drew on the expertise of “very strong union women as role models” throughout her life, including Jenny George, the first woman elected to the ACTU, and Dianne Foggo AM, a former AEU president, ACTU vice president and Fair Work commissioner. Despite that support and her own achievements, she remains frustrated by the pace of change for women’s progress.

“In most societies there remains a very dominant male culture in political, business, industrial, and community institutions. And on every indicator, progress of women hasn’t just stalled, it’s gone backwards,” says Burrow.

Achieving parity in the workforce, including equal pay, is a much tougher ambition than it was even 10 years ago, with women everywhere in the world, including developed countries, struggling to reduce that gap. A task made all the more onerous by COVID-19.

“Women lost at least $800 billion during the peak years of the pandemic, the combined GDP of around 90-odd countries,” she says. “We also have a broken labour market. Sixty per cent of the world’s workers have only informal work – no minimum wage, no rule of law, no social protection – and the majority are women.”

It’s a bleak picture, but one that Burrow argues “beholds all of us to be feminist warriors in order to at least start to get back on track in a world that, if it’s even possible, has become more misogynist, not less”.

Reasons to be cheerful

On returning to Australia after working in Brussels for the ITUC, Burrow acknowledges the progress made after hard-fought union campaigns for paid family and domestic violence leave, equal pay, and Anthony Albanese’s promise to ratify International Labor Organization Convention No. 190, ensuring workplaces are free from violence and harassment.

“Those measures point to great hope in this country, and you can absolutely point to the unions and say: Well done!” says Burrow.

Effective and consistent messaging are the bedrock of such advocacy and Burrow fondly recalls the birth of Australian Educator magazine when she was president of the AEU, and Mandawuy Yunupingu, the first person to appear on its cover. “He was a teacher and talked a lot about Garma theory – having to walk in with one foot in two cultures, and the challenge for Indigenous educators or those teaching Indigenous students,” says Burrow. “It’s just an interesting reflection that those issues, which were front and centre for the AEU at the time, remain so today.”

Burrow is optimistic about the future of collective action. “Young people are totally committed to justice. They’ve been our strongest activists on the fight against modern slavery, and their fight for climate action has helped enormously around the world,” she says.

“But if we don’t win that fight, contemplating the future is almost impossible. The struggle now is to see the Paris Climate Agreement implemented everywhere and for institutions to support those transitions and invest in secure jobs, re-skilling, redeployment and also communities.

“We all have a lot of work to do everywhere, and putting people and the planet at the heart of our economic models will be the challenge for every country in the world.”

By Cyndi Tebbel

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Autumn 2023