Unions support communities recovering from disaster

Union members are playing a vital role in the recovery process of bushfire affected communities.

Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey said unions were offering their members support to cope with the trauma they had experienced, as well as providing practical support rebuilding communities.

“This work will be needed not just for a few weeks but for a few years. It’s up to the union movement to make sure affected workers and their communities remain at the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Morey said.

The IEU has taken a proactive approach in this field by designing and delivering online professional development to respond to an urgent need for members to address their own wellbeing, and also assist their students and young people close to them recover after a bushfire.

“Schools and early childhood services often serve as a lighthouse and community hub during crises, and we are doing our best to make sure teachers and support staff are supported and can continue to provide a safe haven for children,” IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam said.

Debuted in week two of the first term for 2020, the course Responding to Bushfire Trauma, was conducted by Professor Lisa Gibbs and Jane Nursey of the University of Melbourne, authors of the study Delayed Disaster Impacts on Academic Performance of Primary School Children (2019). Members of the IEU were able to participate in this NESA and TQI accredited PD free of charge, as part of their membership.

Recent studies into those affected by Victoria’s Black Saturday catastrophic fires of 2009 have shown that children suffering bushfire trauma demonstrate outcomes one to five years below their age group norm. Staff affected by bushfires are more anxious and have poorer overall wellbeing than staff in comparative settings.

“Delaying acknowledgement of trauma can only lead to more long term problems down the track, and this union has taken responsibility for its members’ wellbeing to try and provide whatever help it can,” Northam said.

Morey launched the innovative session to 480 teachers and support staff, 350 of whom actively participated. Many were from the south coast of NSW, which was severely impacted by fires. 2020 is the first time the union has had the capacity to deliver a session of this size, as we continue to invest in advanced ways of providing the best possible services for our members.

“This is a model for the type of support unions can offer their members. This initiative is bringing people together in an innovative way through a huge online union meeting. These innovative strategies enable workers to form connections and network with each other,” Morey said.

The live streamed PD session was well received by all participants. Praise and appreciation for the opportunity to learn directly from experts in the field filled the highly active chatroom accompanying the livestream, as participants left the session feeling newly empowered and enlightened from what one described as “an extremely informative session [with] great practical common sense advice which can be used in even broader areas”, and another calling it “one of the best and most relevant PD events that I have experienced”.

There were also thankful responses from a number of members who had personal experiences of the recent bushfire disasters, with one participant saying “Thank you so much. This was most helpful on a personal level as well, having been evacuated and having almost lost my home,” and another emailing the IEU after the session to say “thank you for organising the PD – so many people have been affected by the bushfires therefore it is so heartening to come together as a populace to be well informed and learn from professionals and researched findings. Our young people will hopefully have better outcomes, building resilience and having the support they need and deserve.”

In addition to providing training and wellness resources, the union is also advocating the interests of our members through industrial avenues. The IEU is claiming up to five days' paid leave per year for employees unable to attend work due to a natural disaster, in current negotiations for the NSW and ACT Catholic Systemic Schools Enterprise Agreement 2020-2022.

Morey said all future awards and enterprise agreement negotiations should include considerations of our changing climate, with flexible arrangements to allow employees to deal with emergency situations such as the recent bushfires.

New guidelines on how to deal with hazards such as poor air quality are also required, he said. The ACTU is now examining all these issues.

“Unions will take a holistic approach to dealing with all aspects of climate change. Our members are at the front line when it comes to tackling natural disasters,” Morey said.