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AWU farewells outgoing VIC Branch President Tanya Harrington

October 7, 2022

After 18 years as an AWU employee and then organiser, three as the union’s first female branch president, and for a time a champion powerlifter, Victoria Branch President Tanya Harrington has done the heavy lifting and is moving on.

She has won a health and safety role – something she is “incredibly passionate about” – outside of the AWU, and is leaving her full-time union role.

Tanya joined Maurice Blackburn in a dual role with the AWU in Geelong in 2004.

Two years later, she took on a full-time administration role, working through day-to-day issues such as membership, and dealing with member inquiries.

It was there that the office’s organiser, Gavin Penn, spotted her potential.

“Gavin took on a mentor role, and saw something in me,” Tanya says. “He started to take me out on to sites, really involved me in the industrial relations stuff, and I just loved it.

“I just kept working on those skills and was offered an organiser role a few years later.”

Tanya’s patch covers the area from Apollo Bay to Spring, and she continued as an organiser after being elected Branch President in 2019, something she is justifiably proud of.

“The AWU had never had a female branch president and no senior female leaders, other than a vice president,” she says. “So I was the first one elected. It was very humbling and a privilege to be recognised for this role.”

Tanya says female leadership is essential in the modern union movement.

“AWU has historically been blue collar and therefore male dominated, but more women are breaking in,” she says.

“We cover a broad spectrum of employees. For example we cover the funeral industry, which employs a lot of women, the public sector, which also employs a lot of female members, and our female membership continues to grow in other areas.

“So it’s important that as our membership demographic branches out, so too do the people representing them.

“We need to show women that they are seen within the union movement, and female organisers are a way to do that, as they are the face of the branches.”

Tanya is proud of the role she has played in big campaigns and small.

One of her biggest involved the Britax plant closure in 2015The car safety-seat maker was taking production offshore, and AWU members and organisers worked hard to win a closure agreement.

“It was a great environment to be in, those people were some of the most amazing people you would meet. They made some of the best food you would ever get on the front line, and our involvement managed to see about 85% of those redeployed into other jobs.

“That number doesn’t do it justice, because all those who wanted to be redeployed were redeployed.”

But Tanya says some of her most satisfying experiences have been at a member level.

“The value of what we do is often understated,” she says. “Our day-to-day role is quite literally saving jobs.

“We do that in isolation for a single member by being there during a disciplinary process that ends well for them.

“Without being represented they might have been terminated, but we have managed to save that job.

“So I do what I do, I go to work every day, my job is looking out for workers, and I sometimes don’t understand the enormity of that task.”

Tanya says this was highlighted after she helped a member through a challenging time.

“At the end after we saved her job she turned around and said ‘I’m sure your parents are so proud of the woman that you are’.

“I was really taken aback. To hear something like that, to have changed the course of someone’s life, is pretty empowering.”

“Tanya should be proud of all that she has achieved at the AWU over many years,” says Victorian Branch Secretary Ben Davis.

“She goes with our best wishes and she will be missed by both her colleagues and AWU members.”

Tanya has two young children, aged just five and two, and at times her role has been extremely challenging, and she is grateful to have an extremely supportive wife, who also maintains an executive level full-time job.

Work and family commitments mean her powerlifting is behind her, after she made it as far as the 2011 world championships.

But while moving outside of the AWU Tanya will remain a member of the union and remains totally supportive of its role.

“A union is the closest thing you can have to job insurance,” she says. “You insure your house and car, but we are the ones you call when shit hits the fan.”

“And history has shown unions are the ones that affect change, so you really want to be a part of that.”

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