2021 saw the HSU reach its 111th year. Although the union has changed significantly in that time, one thing remains the same: members are at its heart. To celebrate the personal aspect of this story, we spoke to Assistant Secretary/Treasurer Lynne Russell, who is the third generation in her family to hold HSU membership.
Tell us about your first job in Health
I was in teachers’ college and wanted a part time job. At the time, my mum worked in the Kitchen at Wallsend District Hospital and they had advertised for a late cleaner who started at 7pm and finished at 11pm. Back then we were called ‘diet maids’. Diet maids worked in the kitchens. Now they’d be called hospital assistants.
When did you become a member of the HSU?
I don’t actually remember, you see my mother signed me up. One day she said, “you’re a member of the union.” I said, “What’s that?!” I’d heard my dad talk about unions and workers’ rights but I had no idea what that truly meant.
What issue ignited your activism?
In 1991 the Greiner Government announced the shutdown of Wallsend District Hospital, and that’s when I became very active in the union. They had opened John Hunter and it was supposed to be an add-on, it was never supposed to take away from the area. We had a picket line for about nine months. We had mass walkouts, strikes, and rallies in the entire area but unfortunately, they closed Wallsend down.
I was incensed because that was a mining hospital, it was built and maintained by the miners. It was a real community district hospital. That ignited a passion in me that never really died.
After Wallsend closed, I went over to work at John Hunter and became a rep in the kitchen. I became Secretary of the Branch there in about 1994-95, alternating between Secretary and President until 2018. We fought things like unfair rostering and understaffing. One of my passions was casual conversions to permanent part-time or full time-positions. We were very successful in that.
Tell us about your mum, how did she become involved in the union?
She was a stay-at-home mum and my dad was a tradesman in the mines, but the mines went on an extended strike in about 1974 so they were out of work for about 6 weeks. So my mum went to work at Wallsend. Mum became a union rep very early in her career. When she went to work at Wallsend, they had an antiquated dish machine that kept breaking down – which I think is really funny because we’ve just had an issue recently at John Hunter where the dish machine kept breaking down. History repeats itself!
Anyway, mum was a new employee and said, “This is not good enough!” So, she became a union rep, taking on the bosses about the dishwasher. She was a Secretary of Wallsend branch for many years after that, from the early 80’s to 1991 when the Hospital closed.
After Wallsend closed, she went over to Hillside Nursing Home and she formed a union sub-branch there. They became very active until she retired in 2010. Mum was awarded her Life Membership with HSU in 2011.
And what about your grandmother, was she also involved in the union?
My grandmother on my father’s side was a diet maid from 1965 through to about the late 80’s. She was a diet maid for about 5 years and then went to do an in-house trade course to become what would now be known as a ‘dietary tech assistant’. She was first one in my family to join the then “Health Employees Association”. She was on the committee and was a rep on the sub-branch.
Back then it was compulsory unionism. They would say “if you don’t join, we won’t work with you”.
Lynne’s mother June receiving her HSU Life Membership in 2011
How do you think things have changed?
I think in my grandmother’s time, life was much simpler. We weren’t governed by big LHDs, we were governed by a board. The boards were communities, so if someone wanted something we didn’t have to fight for the state dollar, they just had to go to the board and say why it was needed. Things changed when they developed Area Health Boards. It became more difficult to get something done. Now, we’re even more distant from the CEs.
What would you tell someone who doesn’t know about the union?
The union is about protecting people as workers. It’s actually very simple.