Unions learn the talk

March 5, 2014 by Andrew Casey
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Australia’s national union roof body has just completed a three day conference for 700 organisers from across the country – and they were wowed by  American-Israeli cognitive linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio.

Andrew Casey reports from the conference:

Anat Shenker-Osorio

Anat Shenker-Osorio   Pic: Mark Phillips/ACTU

Now I don’t normally associate cognitive linguists with charisma but the US-based political change analyst and linguist, had the union activists coming back for more, and more.

They wanted more because she brilliantly explained to them how to make their words count.

Speaking to J-Wire after the conference she quoted first to me: Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah bein chorin l’heivatel mimena – It isn’t yours to complete the task, neither may you desist from the work (‫פרקי אבות‎).

“ I think about this bit of wisdom all the time, maybe once a day,” Anat told J-Wire.

“ Advocacy — especially in social justice, especially in our current global political climate — is a whole lot of setbacks to very few wins. It often feels like, why do this? What’s the point?

Shenker-Osorio is a much sought after communications consultant and was brought out to Australia by the union movement to discuss how best labour can project its voice in the current hostile political climate.

She regularly writes for the Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Salon, the Christian Science Monitor and is a self-described over-educated Jewish upper-middle-class girl.

“ There is no such thing as ‘just words’. Sometimes, communication gets dismissed as PR. or spin, empty package around the real substance — the policy.

“ But as Jews we are taught G-d grants to Adam (at least in one version) the power to name. Naming, in Judaism, is of supreme importance.

“ The power of this naming grants true understanding of its very essence. It strikes me as at the core of why I chose to ‘do’ social justice in the way that I do — through understanding how people make sense of, and come to judgments about issues.

“ Words, images, etc radically alter perception of truth and thus desire for solutions,” she told J-Wire.

Judaism has always at its core struggled against idolatory – in all its manifold forms.

And Anat told the ACTU conference delegates in Melbourne that the economy has become a false idol.

“ Today, it’s common to rely upon a metaphor that likens economy to a person.

“ We discuss how it’s ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’, we’re constantly concerned with how it’s doing.

“ What this suggests is not only that the economy is an independent entity capable of self-governance (aka laissez faire), it places utmost importance on the economy as the measure of how well or not our society is doing.

“ Babies laughing, Clean Air, Happy Marriages, People who don’t have to work three jobs, etc etc — those either don’t count at all, or count against a measure we hold as sacred for national welfare.

“ Until our language is no longer a contest of who loves the economy best, we’re doomed to favour policies that hurt people and our planet, “ she said.

The second key messaging challenge which unions must confront on behalf of their members – according to Anat – is the notion that money comes from rich people, not workers and their work, their labour.

“ When we speak of ‘making money’, it seems as if money does indeed come from origins unknown — the sky, or awesome-tastic rich people.

“ Workers’ demands like ‘we deserve a pay rise’ or, worse, ‘ our hard work should be rewarded’ eclipses the truth that the reason there’s money to pay people is because of labour – the work which produces the goods which are sold and make money.

“ So a wage isn’t a ‘reward’. It’s a return on what the person brought into being.

“ Yet we reduce workers to supplicants, asking owners for more. If owners assent, they’re nice. If not, they’re selfish.

“But, either way, the decision is rightly the employers to make.

“ That I suggest is a false and wrong-headed paradigm. “

It is the second time in a little over a year that Anat Shenker-Osorio has visited Australia to speak t left-of-centre conferences and by the rapturous applause she received I venture to suggest she will be back again soon.

Meanwhile in Sydney the NSW Jewish community peak body, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, and the peak body for NSW unions, Unions NSW, are getting together in early April to celebrate a Union Seder.

The Board of Deputies has been organising annual community Seders for about eight years – always with different parts of the NSW community.

Its first such Seder was with the NSW trade union movement. Held at the historic Sydney Trades Hall in Goulburn Street it was such a success that the Jewish community decided to make Community Seders an annual event.

This year the community has returned to the Union Seder which will be hosted at Sydney’s Great Synagogue in George Street.

 

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