Dear members, staff and others, I hope you will forgive the personal nature of some aspects of the following tribute to Simone Morrissey, who died on Friday 5th August after suffering an aneurysm on the Monday of that week. She never regained consciousness. She was only 24 years old.
Simone started with the NTEU as an organiser on Thursday 28th April this year. I hadn’t been present at her interview (due to an urgent bargaining teleconference) and was sick on the day she started, so I missed welcoming her personally, although by then we had exchanged some emails. These included one in which she told me to drink plenty of water, get plenty of sleep and get well soon. I was a little bemused but also found it rather lovely to be so mothered by our new organiser, whom I was yet to meet!!!
It was only when I met her the next week that I realised I had in fact seen her before, at the Greens State Delegates Council at Gosford a few weeks earlier.
What were my first impressions of Simone? Well, my first thought on watching her facilitate a session at that SDC was “wow, she’s good!” (Closely followed by, “wow, she’s YOUNG!”) She was well across the issues, firm but inclusive in the facilitator role and summed up the discussion effectively. She was very confident – perhaps the teensiest bit bossy! – and spoke clearly and directly. Clearly here was a young woman who was a real asset to the party!
These impressions were confirmed when she started at Macquarie – although I never actually found her bossy, just assertive and extremely competent. Simone was a superb union organiser – enthusiastic, committed and utterly fearless in her advocacy for workers’ rights.
And she was a fast learner. Universities are incredibly complex and culturally distinct from organisations in other industries, especially the community sector Simone had worked in during her time at the ASU. But she quickly picked up on the key issues and was out the door talking to members almost as soon as she arrived – pausing only, according to some of her friends, to take a photo of her name on the door and proudly send it to everyone!
Simone found her way around the Macquarie campus and immediately busied herself recruiting, representing and organising members. My job and my union role take me all over the campus to meetings, seminars and offices. No matter how obscure or tucked-away the venue, I always found our latest poster on the wall and our flyers on the coffee-table! She was everywhere!!!
Members responded very positively to her – she was such a bright, vital presence wherever she went. She signed up new members, persuaded waverers to stay and continued to enrich our delegate network. She consulted widely and took note of not only current issues but emerging ones as well, always with a view to building the union and our collective strength. The many expressions of shock, sadness and sympathy that we received from members in response to the terrible news of Simone’s aneurysm and then of her passing, bear testament to the huge impact she had on the Macquarie Branch in a very short time.
My colleague and fellow Green, and friend of Simone, Ben Spies-Butcher, told me of a conversation he had had with her just a couple of weeks ago. She was lamenting the fact that members still saw her as the “new” organiser, while she felt that she had been there long enough to “know the ropes”. Ben gently explained that in academia, time moves differently, and that it would take several years before anyone would think she had been there for any length of time. Even so, it’s hard to believe that she was only with us for three months – it seemed as if she’d been around much longer.
Apart from her obvious skills and commitment as an organiser, Simone was a beautiful, funny and feisty character. Our Branch Secretary, Paul McKechnie, sent the following reminiscence:
Simone told us about the time she was fired from a juice bar for refusing to wear hot pants and a halter top. She said management wanted relentless positivity about selling juice from everyone who was on the team. Simone would have looked nice in the uniform, but it's to her credit that she set that rational limit to what she would do to make a dollar. 'I don't even know why they hired me in the first place,' she said, 'I was grumpy at the interview.' When I heard her tell the story, I thought of saying, 'They probably hired you for your looks.' But I held my tongue. The thing was, they could have done – and she would have hated that, even more than she would have hated wearing hot pants and a halter top for the sake of selling fruit juice.
Paul, who is a historian, adds:
In the Bayeux Tapestry, there is a scene where an armed man, sword drawn, is driving soldiers into battle. The caption reads: 'Duke William comforts his men'. Simone was the kind of union organiser who was ready to give members the comfort they needed, though not always the comfort they wanted. When an middle-aged union man on the railways called her to complain about management promoting a younger woman instead of him, she told him, 'Get over it, managers are sometimes right.'
Simone and I quickly established a solid working relationship, and in that too, the foundations of a really lovely friendship. We had lots in common – not only the Greens and unionism, but also a love of friends and concern for family, and of course our shared passion for knitting. I was a little shocked when she told me that I am about the same age as her mother – how could this be? – but in reality this just added another layer to our developing friendship – I hope her lovely mother won’t mind me saying that, as a mother myself, I couldn’t help but feel a bit maternal about Simone, especially as I was partly responsible for mentoring her in her new position.
Apart from the terrible loss the Green and union movements have suffered with Simone’s death, my own personal sense of loss is immense. I was so looking forward to working with Simone in the Branch, not to mention stealing some time in amongst it all for gossip and knitting. Even though Simone’s position with us was only temporary, I was sure that she would go on to develop further in her union work, whether with the NTEU or another union. It’s so cruel that this bright future has been stolen from her, and that she has been stolen from us, at such a tender age.
And on that topic, I just want to say a few words to Simone’s younger friends, who are grieving so deeply over her loss. For many of you, this will be your first real encounter with genuine tragedy, for some it may be the first deeply meaningful loss you have experienced. It’s a terrible feeling, and it brings the realisation that there is no great balance of justice or fairness out there in the universe. If you are a believer in a deity, you may be able to comfort yourself with the thought that it will all be worked out in the end. But whether you are a believer or not, that doesn’t help you make sense of the inherent injustice and cruel randomness of what has happened right here, right now, in our lives.
So what can we do? I think the only thing we can do, in recognising that life is not inherently fair and that bad things can – and do – happen to good people, is ensure that we do our best to make justice, to make fairness, right here, right now. And for inspiration in that, we need look no further than our memories of this dear, beautiful, brave young woman who no longer walks among us.
I will leave the last words to my own lovely daughter Louisa, who had only recently met Simone but had already made great plans with her about lunching and knitting together at Macquarie. Louisa’s Facebook status on Saturday read, simply,
“Vale Simone Morrissey. Your spirit will inspire me forever.”
Amen to that.