‘People Learn from Using Their Power’: An Interview with Tali Williams

Nadia Abu-Shanab interviews Tali Williams, the Retail, Finance and Commerce Sector Secretary of First Union. Williams was perhaps the union movement’s most prominent face through the COVID-19 lockdown, and she talks here frankly about organising, politics, and conflict. more

9 July 2020

In serious union organising there’s an adage; get close to the workers, stay close to the workers. It’s as much practical advice as it is a deliberative warning about our loyalties. Closeness feels timely coming out of lockdown, where we’ve all been navigating how to use distance to promote safety without succumbing to a distance that breaks our collective power. At this very moment, the same people who run the warehouses projected to make Jeff Bezos the world’s first trillionaire are fighting together for sick leave and hand wash. Wealth is being extracted from us with such remorseless demand that workers everywhere are forced to strike not just for better pay, but for their lives.

More than ever, working people deserve unions, and union leaders, that are unapologetically on their side. Trusting and empowering working people to be experts in their own workplaces and lives is the only way we win. It’s how we’ve always won, and the future of unionism will be emboldened by the memory of this simple fact. Every day, my friend Tali Williams plays a crucial role carrying this work forward.

Tali Williams’ dad’s militant antics frame her best stories. These stories flip the workplace hierarchy on its head in spectacular fashion. Mick Williams began working on boats at 15. When Tali was growing up, he was an organiser for the Seafarers Union. Tali describes Mick with political and familial admiration, ‘the way he organised was very much with the people rather than from the office. He spent most of the time just going on to the [docked] boats, going into the mess rooms talking with workers about their issues. He would end up taking direct action in relation to those issues, completely unmediated by bureaucracy. He’d just call up the management and say, “the boat won’t sail until you fix Jimmy’s cabin!” We knew this because he’d be making those phone calls in the house, with lots of expletives.’

The threatening of bosses with industrial mayhem was ‘normal’ childhood to Tali, ‘that’s just  how you get things done. You don’t write a polite letter or hope for the best. It was a house which was about confrontation of the powers that be to change things. You want to change things because it’s right to care. It’s right to look out for other people. That was our family values I guess.’

‘Collectivism?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, collectivism but very much grounded in reality, care and love, not in theory, which to be honest, I still feel light on. But I feel very invested in, in my heart. I know inherently is the right way to be as a human being. Love, cooperation and contribution but not necessarily within a framework of theory. [Theory] is part of it but not my entrance. It was very much about what you were actually doing. Not what you were talking about. He [Mick] didn’t really spend much time talking about the theoretical side.’

There was a ‘DIY ethos as well. Or DIT. You think it’s gotta be changed? You gotta do it yourself, together with your people but you gotta get it done. It’s not going to just happen if you quietly lobby for it and hope for the best. I saw dad and his comrades winning through collective action. It’s not something I consciously knew but yes, it would have been sitting back here somewhere; that’s what got it done. That’s why you keep doing it like that.’

‘He [Mick] couldn’t understand why other unions were not making the same stands. Of course when I started working for unions  I understood more about what you can achieve through high membership and direct action vs what you can achieve when you don’t have high membership or action.’

Tali doesn’t do the story of how she came to be the 37 year old Retail and Finance Secretary of 30,000 strong First Union without crediting a mentor at every twist and turn. People such as Jody Anderson, Chris Walker, Paul Goulter, Andrew Campbell, Maxine Gaye, Lyndy Mcintyre and Helen Kelly. I acknowledge how she names those relationships. It reminds me of something Jim Meyer said, ‘all the good stuff I know about unionism, I know it because other people taught me it’.

‘Absolutely, it’s not just a thing you’re born with. It’s what people teach you. It makes you think about what time of day you are giving to others as well, in that respect. If I think about all of the people who gave me the time of day without which I wouldn’t be where I am, am I affording others the same? It’s an important question’.

Tali got into organising after contacting SFWU about issues at the Newtown cafe where she was working in her late teens. Jody Anderson agreed to show her the ropes and Tali did some volunteering visiting care workers in the intimacy of their lounges, discussing their issues. She describes discovering this kind of relational organising between women as a lightbulb moment to seeing unionism as relevant to her.

She was lucky enough to attend a training program which doesn’t exist anymore (CTU Organising Works). ‘You went to training sessions once every couple of months and other than that you were just on the ground organiser. It was brilliant. It’s something we should run again. It’s a great way to get people involved. I learned some real good organising skills’.

‘What did you learn?’ I ask. ‘It was very much about building relationships with workers, spending time with them in their own spaces in a way that works for them, not in a way that works for you and your work day. Might not be very healthy advice, but at that time I didn’t have any family obligations. I’m sure it could be a lot harder for others. Having relationships with individual people, bringing people together and in ways that are natural to them, where they naturally would already congregate.’

‘My favorite union story of all is when I was organizing at Ezibuy for that reason, because the union was built by the delegates and the delegates had a very social relationship and we would go around to each other’s houses and enjoy our time together. We worked hard, but we had a lot of light stuff as well. That is another element I learned through the Organising Works program as well; this stuff is what life is built of. It’s not just the work day. You have to look at the full 360 human being, not just the worker but also the person as a mother. So being aware of the full person and all the different aspects of people’s lives that we need to pay attention to. It all links in.’

‘They showed me the right way,’ she says of the training. ‘The only thing that takes me away from that is just the bureaucracies and how busy things get. But I know fundamentally in my heart the right way to go about organising, and that was the stuff I was taught back then.

Then there’s the part of me that got so burnt by union bureaucracies and awfulness. I don’t want it included too much [in the article], but It’s a bittersweet journey in that respect. It’s important to know there’s the shadow as well. It’s easy to talk about the lovely stuff, but the shadow matters and the shadow is there.’

The shadow matters. In her 20s Tali was working to organise a well-known telecommunications company into collective agreements. It was union building Tali had done the ‘dogged work behind, there was no time when I was not working’ a 3 year process she describes as ‘getting true organising done, I had an amazing relationship with these delegates. We all built that union up from like 5 to around 300 members.’

A union manager above her felt the process was taking ‘too long…so they met with the company and just sorted it. Without my or the delegates involvement. The delegates were devastated with me. Because I was the union. They were the union, but I was the union in terms of like that interface with the office. They were like, “how could you do that?” That’s not what we wanted, we almost got there and now we’ve lost that.’ This is what I mean. It’s emotional wreckage that comes from that. It’s not just a little tiff in the workplace.’

‘You had to be accountable for politics and a set of actions that went against everything you believed in,’ I say. Tali replies, ‘Yeah, and anything I was taught that organising was as well. Which is if you do it right that’s how you win. You put all these things in place and you win. So you can imagine that kind of politics and then somebody comes in over top and just does a deal behind you and all of the organising work goes out into the wind. Members don’t forget that either. They don’t want to return to unionism after that experience.’

I ask Tali if we can name it, ‘what is the politics that sees people going try and do

deals behind workers backs?’ Her first answer is complicated and honest, ‘there is an easier way to do our job which is just call the boss and get it sorted, and sometimes I fall into that. In terms of issues, if an issue comes up, It’s easy to just call them up and get it sorted. I don’t think it’s some kind of evil intention. Part of it is just laziness, tired, been doing it for many many years; over it. And this is just a way to get things sorted and move on to the next thing. Because we don’t have much resource or time. Privately, there is an aspect of that that seeps into my consciousness as well. Having been involved in this work now for 18 years.  When you are really busy, I get it, you are trying to find easier options sometimes. I don’t want to frame it like the bad guys and the good guys ’cause I can see how you get there.You just have to fight really hard against that tendency in yourself.’

I continue, if you don’t have politics though, well not just have the politics cause you’ve also got to practice the politics, then I feel like that’s an easy space to go to? Sometimes, it’s incidental, but sometimes it also is that people have lost belief in workers’, I ask if she agrees.

‘Definitely.’ We talk about how dangerous it is for union leaders to think they know better than members,  ‘when people are on Facebook saying, I’m really not happy about this, and they are clearly a significant majority, you need to engage with that. It cannot be shut down or ignored.’Tali reflects, ‘one of the things that I feel like I’ve done now is to try very deliberately to stay involved with where members are at. I don’t always agree with criticisms, but if a majority of people are saying, we’re not happy, you’ve got to engage and do something with it. The thing that remains in me, in regards to that “true school of organising”, that is really strong, is about remaining engaged with frontline membership.’

It might not be good versus evil, but Tali has a structural principle that keeps her out of the dark, ‘there can’t be all these layers between you and the membership. Because that’s when you get lost and that’s what I think happened with the story before. In the case of the union manager who undermined our organising, [they] got totally disconnected from members. There were no forums with them engaging with members, so it was easy to be like, “I’ll just do the deal. Tail will deal with the frontline people losing their shit and being disenfranchised by it. I’m not engaged with those people”.’

I get Tali to talk about how accessible she is to the members she serves, ‘who has your cell number?’ ‘Well it’s on the website as like the main point of contact for retail and finance members. So anyone in the sector. I get calls all the time from people being like “I want to join the union”. Then people messenger me on facebook because I run most of the big pages in the sector. All of the emails that go out for the RFC sector are largely under my name so if people reply, they reply to me. There’s no way for me to not know when there are major issues happening within the sector or within certain brands. Because I’m hearing it already and then organisers will reflect that as well.’

‘The workplace is changing. You have to organise in response to that. You’re not going to know what those solutions are but then these new workers become involved and actually know more about organising than we do in their specific environments. We have to be prepared to listen.’

The workplace is changing but to what extent do unions need to change? I ask Tali what she thinks of the blue-collar unionism of the 60s and 70s. “I think the machismo is outdated and the ego is outdated, but the actual model of organising is still relevant and should be utilised more. But I think there are definitely unions that present the machismo and the ego, but there’s nothing behind it. There is no organising behind it. There is no direct action behind it and there are no wins behind it. I think that’s the point of difference when I think about what my dad was doing. Yeah, there was all the bolshy “Oh yeah we will come in, staunch as, sort it out” but then they would actually do those things. They would use their power and people learnt from that. Real change happens from that.’

Why is machismo a problem?’ I ask. “Well it’s sexist. It doesn’t involve women and women are workers, so that’s the first problem. It’s alienating because it doesn’t feel like unionism that everyone can participate in or understand or who would want to understand or be part of. It can be frightening for people who have bad associations with tough guy attitudes. It’s not a very movement building way necessarily. Equally if people are tough guys we need to find a way to involve them as well. It’s not about excluding people like that, but it’s like, it can’t be the only group because we will shrink.

We have to accept that militancy might look like other things other than a traditional, singing Solidarity Forever on the picket line at 6am. I’ve even found it rubs up against me because I feel like I’m not being militant. It’s what radicals always say right? Not even talking about machismo anymore, just talking about the radical left. Radical politics says if you’re militant you do a picket, you do a strike. If you’re not doing either of those things, you’re not staunch. We need to change what radicalism and militancy looks like. If you’re prepared to listen particularly to younger people about what a more effective way might be in current times.

That’s what’s probably most exciting, those moments when you kind of get freaked out by suggestions that members have, because you’ve not done things like that before. But they know what’s going to be most effective in their workplaces.’