For the past 12 months, I’ve been working with my colleagues Grace Palos, Andy Wright, and Damian Borchok on the future of unions, with our client, the Australian Workers Union (which I’ll be referring to as the AWU from this point on).
Welcome to a peek inside a new union, Hair Stylists Australia, a new union for the 21st century where members are empowered to take action, that doesn’t feel anything like a traditional union.
Let’s talk about why unions need an overhaul.
The Problem with Unions
Unions globally are facing a stark predicament: declining memberships, a staggering lack of diversity, a broken mechanism for engaging with decentralised industries, and a revenue model that doesn’t take into account the heavy services the union provided its members. Unions often behave like a services business, instead of activating members to participate in shaping the union. They’re not proving their value to a new and changing workforce — and that’s being reflected in the public’s perception of unions, the lack of diversity in unions and union leadership, and rapidly declining membership. Despite declining membership, unions have disproportionate political power — and if members don’t see the benefit in their membership, footing the bill for political games and power grabs will grow old very quickly. As a 2015 Sydney Morning Herald editorial put it, “if unions don’t evolve, more people will see them as part of the political problem and turn away.”
Despite this, unions have delivered some huge wins over the last 100 years, including but not limited to annual leave, awards, penalty rates, maternity leave, superannuation, equal pay for women, health and safety, worker’s compensation, sick leave, redundancy, meal breaks, rest breaks, and unfair dismissal protection.
Unions still have a role to play: but the union that works in the modern workplace wouldn’t look or behave like any union that had come before. Today, work has changed. Australia has been called a nation of small businesses. ABS data for 30 June 2014 shows: there were 2.1 million small businesses operating in Australia — consisting of 1.27 million non-employing businesses and 771,000 businesses that employed between one and 19 employees. Small businesses accounted for 97.4 per cent of all businesses operating in Australia. This means a fundamental rethink of how unions work, which is where our brief came in: Help the AWU define a union model for a new breed of unionists: hairstylists.
Hairdressing: Not Your Dad’s Union
First, hairdressing is an industry that is known for rampant mistreatment of employees. This story featuring one of the Hair Stylists Australia ambassadors in Mamamia last year paints a picture of an industry rife with bullying, wage theft, and OH&S issues — all too common in the hairdressing industry. Second, hairdressing is predominantly a female industry, and women are a demographic that unions struggle to capture. Finally, hairdressers usually work on disparate sites, a very different model to large mining sites where all employees are based in the same location.
The union needed a new model — a mix of online and offline organising, that catered to a new kind of worker (the gig economy, decentralised work), and one that speaks to a more diverse demographic.
But when your organisation is 130 years old, predominantly male, and more familiar with log books than Facebook, how do you even start to reach a different demographic?
A Desire for Change
Starting a movement isn’t easy. First, you need to look for signals that change is wanted. Last year, when the NSW Government made a move to deregulate the hair industry (essentially, anyone with a pair of scissors could have cut hair), a petition circulated in favour of upholding existing industry standards, which quickly amassed 20,000 petition signatures. This was the signal: there was a desire to change the industry for the better.
What is this New, Different Flavour of Unionist?
If there was any doubt that hairstylists aren’t your average unionists, it was confirmed on their kick off day when they met for the first time. Here’s what makes make hairstylists a little different to the majority of industries under the AWU umbrella.
- They’re Creative. When the hairstylists got out butcher’s paper to create a vision of their future, they cheered. I can tell you right now, that’s not something we see with clients (asking someone to be creative on the spot usually induces a certain panic) and I don’t think it’s a common reaction amongst union members. These hairstylists are creative. And they love to use their creativity.
- They’re Highly Networked. Hairstylists can chat. They do it all day long! And this behaviour doesn’t just exist in the salon — it extends to real life. On any given day, there’s a number of conversations going on around the country via the Hair Stylists Australia Facebook group. Questions about overtime pay, sharing hairdressing memes, news articles about OH&S issues in the hairdressing industry — it’s all there, and more. They want to talk. Not only to us, but to each other.
- They’re Not All Working on the same site. Unlike many organised labour movements, not all hairstylists are located on the same site. Despite that, though, they often experience the same ups and downs across the industry. They’re still having a shared experience. The hairdressing experience — and challenges — is shared — despite different locations.
- They’re Fierce. They’re Loyal. And They’re Changing this Industry. The passion the 30 ambassadors shared for their craft, their clients, and their industry blew me away. Hairstylists genuinely love what they do. They love their clients. They look out for each other, and for apprentices coming up through the industry. They’re passionate, and they’re determined not to be stopped.
A New Model
In our initial discovery and focus groups, we started testing ideas straight off the bat and used these as stimulus for discussion with stylists. We invited some hairstylists into our studio for pizza and wine, and explored some concepts we threw up on a white board. Our initial concepts:
- The Hot Fix: A support hotline providing help, advice and legal counsel on workplace issues
- Turbotax: A dispute preparation software that helps you collect and prepare your dispute for submission to the union — everything happens in the background for you. Minimal back and forth with a union rep.
- The Posse: Kickstarter, but for issues in the industry. A gamified app where your gripe with the industry has the potential to make the industry great again.
What we learned
There were some very clear takeaways from our discussion. Hairstylists wanted a union where:
- They could band together and stand shoulder to shoulder (metaphorically speaking) with other hairstylists. Solidarity — never out of style.
- They didn’t want someone to step in and solve disputes for them at work — they wanted coaching and information, not a dispute resolution service.
- They wanted to see a union work with training establishments to include education about rights at work for apprentices.
- A sliding fee structure was used to ensure that no one was priced out of the union.
- Members could donate a portion of their membership fees to subsidise an apprentice’s union fees.
So, we had an idea of the priorities of potential new members, but now how to put these learnings into practice? We wanted to understand how what we created needed to feel to people.
It’s not just what you say — it’s how you say it. And we needed to explore how to say what we needed to say.
A New Voice
Beyond a new model, anew kind of unionist needs to be spoken to in a different kind of way than your average union member. To understand how we needed to speak to hairstylists, we imagined the experience of getting our hair cut.
We spoke about how the voice that we would adopt would need to be flexible enough to provide practical information, proof of credibility, whilst coaching hairstylists into taking baby steps towards standing up for their rights, and eventually inspiring confidence in their own ability to transform the industry.
If you’ve ever had an amazing hair stylist who’s talked you into trying something truly bold and new, you’ll appreciate the importance of the hairstylist pep talk: it’s critical. It’s easy to chicken out, but when you have a super stylish, encouraging stylist in your ear giving you ideas on exactly how you can rock that new pixie cut — it’s a lot easier to commit. That’s the feeling we imagined the voice of Hair Stylists Australia creating in members.
If our voice were a person, it would be super ballsy, confidence inspiring, motivational powerhouse who would lend us confidence while we found our feet…we imagine that particular cocktail of human would include ingredients like Cindy Gallop, Mr. Miyagi, Tony Robbins, and Oprah Winfrey. (Hey, when you’re making people up, why not have a little fun, eh?)
A New Launch Strategy: By the Numbers…
To paint a picture of how the HSA has picked up momentum since that first day, here’s a timeline of how the union grew over time:
- 1 attempt by the NSW gov to deregulate standards
- 1 petition launched in support of industry standards + regulation
- 20,000 hairstylists sign on in support
- 1 calls out for leaders in the hairdressing industry willing to unionise
- 100 applications received
- 5 hair ambassadors meet Federal members and voice importance of standards within industry
- 1 Facebook group to connect hairstylists
- 35 invites go out for Hair Stylists Australia kick off day in Sydney
- 35 ambassadors arrive at Hair Stylists Australia kick off day as total strangers
- 7 hours of vision setting, agreeing on fees, and crafting goals for the union’s first year
- 35 ambassadors agree to get in touch with 5 of their contacts within the next 2 weeks to register interest for union
- 500 — number of interested hairstylists in Facebook group (doubled overnight from 200 to 500)
- January 2018 — a new union is coming
Where to From Here?
HSA day one was a day of the creation of a shared vision, completely owned by its members. 30 strangers, a night of karaoke, some strong coffee, butchers paper, and a big, bold, shared vision for the industry that recognises hairstylists as the skilled, creative professionals that they are.
The future already looks bright. Hair Stylists Australia is taking applications for ethical salon accreditation (to recognise employers who treat their employees fairly), a jobs board for hairstylists to search for jobs with ethical employers, a hotline and chat service to ask questions about work issues, and a members Facebook group where members can ask each other or union officials for help, advice and support. And this is only the beginning.
If you’re a hairstylist, love your hairstylist, or your salon treats its employees fairly, would you do consider sending them here to sign up as a member or an ethical salon, or follow them on Instagram to stay up to date? The Australian Workers Union and Hair Stylists Australia is changing the hairdressing industry for the better — and we’re proud to support them as they launch this new union. ❤️