‘Doing it for Gran’: Three generations of activism

Union activism and a desire to see justice for all is in the Laidler family DNA. Helen Laidler and her father Rob Laidler are both IEU Reps, and Helen's grandmother came from a family with a Shearer’s Union member, Journalist Sue Osborne writes.

In the Laidler family, two of four grandchildren, aged from 12 to 15, are thinking of becoming teachers and all are interested in social justice.

Rob has been active in the IEU since the 1980s, and over the years he was a chapter rep, branch president and a member of IEU Council. He was proud to receive his 40-year IEU membership certificate recently.

Having worked in both independent and systemic schools in the Sydney and Parramatta dioceses, Rob retired in 2015 from his principalship at Loyola High School, Mt Druitt, but has maintained his membership of the IEU Principals' Sub Branch and is still available for union activities.

You’re crazy if you don’t join the union. It’s not just the industrial support, it the professional support, and feeling like you’re part of something bigger.

Rob was an unusual principal, telling all new members of staff that the first thing they had to do was join the union.

“It’s a delicate juggling act, being a principal and the employer’s rep, and being a member of the union and an employee too,” he said.

“I appreciated being able to attend the Principals' Sub Branch meetings where these positions were not in conflict.”

In retirement, Rob stays in touch with several deputies and encourages them to keep the union active and strong.

“You’re crazy if you don’t join the union. It’s not just the industrial support, it the professional support, and feeling like you’re part of something bigger.”

A geography teacher since 2005, Helen said Dad didn’t direct her into teaching. In fact, he warned her it was a hard way to make a living.

Passion for teaching

“I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. I was passionate about my subject area, and I wanted to influence the next generation to make the world a better place,” she said. (One of Helen's students topped the state in Geography in the 2021 HSC.)

“Teaching or being around teaching clarifies social justice issues in your mind, it’s a subtext of teaching.”

As Rob said, “You can’t be a teacher if you are not caring and wanting to see people become their better selves through your work.

“I was mindful of providing every child I taught with opportunities for personal achievement, I tried to stimulate an interest in the world past and present, while instilling skills enabling them to contribute to their community, irrespective of their origins or socio-economic background. We teach young people not disciplines!”

Helen is a relatively new chapter rep at Hills Grammar School. When she attended her first union meeting only three people were present.

“Gran had just died, and I was feeling emotional," she said. "I guess I was doing it for Gran when I decided to put my hand up for IEU rep.”

Union membership at Hills Grammar went from less than 40 percent in 2019 to 75 percent by the end of 2020. In 2021 a Health and Safety Representative was elected to add to the Chapter Committee and effect change in the school, ensuring the health and safety of all staff.

Helen’s maternal grandmother, Avis, was the daughter of a shearer and a shearer’s cook. Avis's father was an early member of the Shearers' Union and his papers are now in the State Library of NSW. Avis instilled a real passion for justice in Rob, Helen and the great grandchildren.

When she turned 100, Avis rejected a message from Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison and put the Queen’s to one side, but was happy to receive congratulations from Labor MPs Julie Owens and Ed Husic. She died aged 104 in 2018.

Helen’s paternal grandmother’s fridge always bore the sticker: ‘United we bargain, divided we beg’.

Acknowledging that not everyone comes from a strong family of unionists, Helen and Rob agree it is important to listen to other staff, act in a collegial way and show you are actively working for the good of all.

“Being a rep, you’re expected to be courageous, and you need integrity,” Rob said.

Helen said she did a lot of “myth busting” about unions, especially with people who may have come from countries where unions are associated with corruption.

Both agreed modern unionism should be about collaboration with employers, rather than conflict.

“If employers think employees are just a cost, that’s regrettable,” Rob said.

Sue Osborne