My union card

I’ve just cancelled my membership of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union that represents journalists. I’ve been a member since 1993. Before that, I was a member of equivalent union in New Zealand.

For 28 years, one of the things that defined me was my union card. I kept it in my wallet. I used it to get cheap movie tickets at The Nova and The Sun. Sometimes, I would be looking for my library card or my Medicare card and I’d pull out the Media one by mistake. It always felt good to hold it and to read the words written on the plastic.

Rachel Buchanan. Journalist. 3907273. Carry this card with you when you work. The holder of this card is a financial member of the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance and a professional member of the working media.

My card has expired now. I still feel a bit sad.

It’s silly really but since leaving the union, I’ve had these dreams about mahogany row. Every newspaper used to have one. The editors sat there. In my dreams I am back at The Age, Spencer Street. It’s just like it used to be in 1994 but there is no Alan Kohler, no David Clemson, no Lorna keeping watch. The chairs are all empty. The phones are off the hook. I wake up unsettled and lost and this sensation shadows me through the day.

Perhaps the union was my last link to that time and that’s why I kept my membership up for so long even though I do very little journalism these days.

I was so devoted to the idea of the union. I was such a big fan. So much so that between 2007 and 2011, when I worked as a journalism academic, I was a member of two unions at once: the MEAA and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

In 2012, my devotion extended to simultaneous journalists’ union memberships in Australia and New Zealand. I was in the MEAA and the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, a private sector super union that represents the modest number of journalists left across the ditch.

On the one hand I backed the union that represented the dozens of Fairfax newspapers subeditors who had been sacked in regional New South Wales. On the other, I backed the union who represented the people who took the jobs created by those sackings. I was one of those people.

Fairfax, you are very bad. Colleagues, I am very sorry. Fairfax, I will take this scab job but I am not really a scab because I am still in the union. Twice over! I was like Toni Collette in United States of Tara except my personas were not really much fun and the pay was crap.

Even those personal struggles seem dated now, like empty chairs in an empty office in an empty building that no longer even exists.

Many of the offshored subs have been sacked too and those regional and rural papers we worked on are now produced without subeditors or they no longer exist.

Other people on other papers also lost their jobs. There was nothing the union could do about it. Not one damn thing. The squeeze has continued in newspapers. It is laughable to express concerns about a decline in the quality of journalism coverage in regional Australia when what is really happening is the death of yet another branch of Australian manufacturing (newspaper manufacturing). I’ve said it all before.

I could see my MEAA fees were an exercise in nostalgia, one I could no longer afford. I had to stop kidding myself. I am not a member of the “working media” anymore. I never was really. I was a newspaper journalist. It was a pretty specific thing to be. Everything I did, all the skills I had, were defined by the platform on which my work was published and that platform was paper. I worked for a paper. We were so literal. The presses published our work and we were the press.

I admire the journalists who continue to work across so many platforms, of which print is just one, but in giving up my union membership I am not giving up the right to define what I did and what I was and what newspapers once were.

We speak in code, we former newspaper people. Kickers, crops, single column drops, mug shots, stand firsts, bylines, dinkuses, slugs, cut to fit. It’s like a dead language, a secret language, one you can pull out to express admiration for another person and the history you share.




About rachelbuchanan2000

Journalist, historian, mum. 'Stop Press: the last days of newspapers' (Scribe, 2013). Creative fellow, State Library of Victoria. Project: 'The Melbourne Sirius' an artist newspaper (2014). First book, 'The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget' (Huia, 2009). New project, about doctors and doctorhood, is on the go now.
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