Ged Kearney address to National Press Club: A vision for the Australian union movement

Ged Kearney, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions
National Press Club
6 October 2010


I would like to thank the National Press Club for inviting me to speak today in what is my first speech to the Press Club as ACTU President.

I acknowledge that today we stand on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

It is an immense honour to follow in the footsteps of former Presidents like Bob Hawke, Simon Crean, Martin
Ferguson, Jennie George and my immediate predecessor Sharan Burrow.

All these leaders faced challenges that were shaped by their times, and I acknowledge their contributions to trade unionism and to making Australia a better place.

I also would like to acknowledge Jeff Lawrence, ACTU secretary and colleague.

I have the honour of becoming President at a new and exciting stage in Australia’s political history.

A minority government opens, not just the possibility of new ideas inside Parliament, but in the wider community as well.

But regardless of the novelty of the current political environment the long term task of the union movement and my role as part of its leadership is to:

  • Help build our membership 
  • Improve our capacity to campaign
  • Broaden our agenda
  • Over its history, the Australian union movement has always stood for fairness and equality, and been at the forefront of progressive workplace, economic and social change.

    Take the instrumental role of unions in facilitating mass migration after 1945 or in re-establishing Medicare in 1983.

    I’m sure it’s frustrating for our critics, but we aren’t fading away – in fact the reverse is true.

    In 2009 our membership grew for the second year in row and overall union density increased for the first time in 20 years - showing unions are on the right path.

    So this is a great time to be working in a movement that speaks and acts directly for almost two million Australians and their families.

    We have over 120,000 volunteer workplace representatives and half of all Australians work for an employer where there is a union presence.

    Through our work, millions more Australians are better off because their workplace standards are set through collective bargaining and industrial awards.

    And we are a movement that is prepared to advocate for fundamental values in a way that no other organisation can.

    I come to this job with more than 20 years experience in nursing.

    I learned my profession in a private hospital in East Melbourne.

    I then worked at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital – first as a nurse on the wards and then as an educator and manager preparing the next generation of nurses.

    And finally as a union official, representing the industrial and political interests of my nursing colleagues.
    Many people will tell you that nursing is more than a profession; indeed it is a privilege.

    As a nurse you see people at their most vulnerable, but at a time when the strength of human nature invariably shines through.

    As you nurse people back to health, you can feel their energy, their enthusiasm, their determination to make the most of the chance they have been given.

    Within the union movement, there is a similar sense of possibility now that we have, for the moment at least, won the battle against WorkChoices.

    I think politicians have now recognised what all fair-minded people knew:

    That radical labour market deregulation that puts absolute power in the hands of the employer is not the Australian way.

    And so it seems incredible that just yesterday I read on the front page of a national newspaper that elements of the coalition are agitating for return to Workchoices.

    The Fair Work Act has been a great step forward for fairness and balance in the workplaces of this country.

    Of course, the union movement will continue to press for Australia to catch up to the rest of the world in respect to rights at work.  

    We continue to fail to comply with International Labour Organisation Conventions – conventions to which we as a country are a party.  For example, workers in this country do not have the right to:

  • Bargain at the level they choose – be that sector, industry or economy; or
  • Take legal industrial action in respect to general industrial, social and economic issues

  • This is just to name two key areas of concern.

    The Fair Work Act itself is an unfinished canvas for the union movement as we have canvassed on many occasions.

    But at least we now have the space and opportunity to rebuild the Australian workplace and develop a vision of society that meets the needs of the modern workforce.

    During the election campaign I had the chance to hear from many working Australians.

    They are struggling financially to makes end meet.

    They are stretched between family responsibilities and economic commitments.

    For many there is no guarantee of the basic security and entitlements that many of us take for granted.

    These struggles are not imaginary. The wages share of national income is now at its lowest point since December 1964. Employment is now more precarious than ever.  

    Despite this, there is sense of purpose and commitment to their jobs that I sometimes think neither our politicians nor our media truly appreciate.

    But always, there is a desire for something better.

    There is a light on the hill that burns in the labour movement and it burns in the workplaces of Australia. 

    Workers can’t be fooled.

    Without knowing the figures they sense what the statistics show - that productivity is rising faster than real wages and that real unit labour costs are at their lowest on record while executive salaries reach dizzying new heights.

    Workers tell me that they want our economy to start working for them – rather than them simply working for the economy.  They want and deserve a fair share.

    In a time for new ideas in politics – I want my time as President of the ACTU to be committed to pursuing these aspirations and leading debate on a larger policy agenda – industrial, economic, social.

    Unfortunately the space for rational policy debate in this country is narrower than ever.  

    The debate over the mining tax has been an example of narrow sectional interests and the power of advertising over-riding genuine debate in the national interest

    As Ross Garnaut so eloquently stated in the heat of the mining tax battle:

    It is critically important to our future that we are able to discuss hard policy proposals on their merits, so that an informed perception of the public interest can emerge and eventually win broadly based support.

    These debates affect the health, and happiness, of millions of Australian workers and their families.  The ACTU has an obligation to contribute to those debates on behalf of our members.

    Today, I want to outline three policy areas where the union movement has a special interest and can play a central role in developing a better and fairer nation.

    The first is job security.

    Over the past decade one of the biggest trends in the Australian workplace has been the move away from full-time and secure jobs, to what is called precarious employment.

    Indeed, for the first time in Australia’s history, fewer than 50 per cent of the workforce is classified as being in permanent full-time employment.

    Full-time work was once the basis of our economic security, and also of all our social structures. But that is no longer the case.

    During the federal election campaign, I met Fiona at a call centre that services one of the big banks.

    She told me: “Ged, I love my working life here, the people are nice, I like the company. But they won’t give me a permanent job.”

    Her life was on hold: without permanent job security no bank will lend her the money for a mortgage, she is unable to do many of the things she wants to; every six months she worries about whether or not her contract will be renewed.

    This is the reality for so many Australian workers.

    This week, we have released a report that highlights the significant changes workers face both at work and outside work.

    In Australia, over the past two decades we have seen a significant growth in total wealth, with GDP per capita increasing by 42%.

    Much of this growth has resulted from economic, financial and social risks being transferred from employers to workers, and from governments to households.

    This is played out in the growth of precarious jobs and in underemployment – meaning more people face the same difficulties as Fiona.  Not to mention the added difficulty that casual and precarious workers have in bargaining for fair wages or organising their family needs.

    Of course, for some people casual and contract work is the right work solution.

    But, for most, taking up the risks of insecure employment means job flexibility that does not work in their favour.

    This is a particular concern for women workers, who are more likely to be in casual work than men. The lack of secure, decent jobs has a concrete effect on their careers and their incomes — with the gender pay gap continuing to widen.

    For more than a decade the idea of regulating the labour market has been regarded as an economic sin.
    But is it?

    Would national regulation that required companies to offer casual workers permanent jobs after six months be so restrictive to business?

    Would the social benefits of more secure jobs outweigh any marginal impact on the bottom line?

    Can we find ways to reward employers that do the right thing -  for instance, we could take this into account when government contracts are awarded?

    I believe we can.

    At its last national conference the Labor Party committed to a broad public inquiry into income security and job protection.

    But this is not enough. There is ample evidence before us, and now is the time for broader action on the structure of work that leads to real and enforceable rights at work.

    Today the ACTU calls for the establishment of a national forum  that involves industry, government and unions. This is a national issue of utmost urgency . We need dedicated resources to produce real long term solutions that ensure equitable sharing of the benefits of productivity and economic growth with all working Australians.

    With the input of unions and businesses, it would focus on the promotion of more secure jobs, higher skills, better pay and conditions.

    It would examine the needs of industry, the changing structure of the workforce, and the interaction between people’s work and their lives outside of work.

    It would establish a brief to come up with practical solutions that ensure the workplaces of today actually meet the needs of modern families.

    The second policy priority I would identify is building communities that work.

    Many of our major cities are being strangled by long-term under-investment in infrastructure.

    More workers are spending longer getting to and from work.

    We’ve all used public transport when the journeys are crowded and often delayed. When you drive to work, the roads are clogged.

    As population grows more people push to the outer suburbs – placing pressure on education, health and other services – and also creating resentment and social division.

    Much of the angst over Australia’s immigration levels can be linked to the failure to properly plan and resource our growing cities. Indeed, the population debate is largely a red herring, which hides the failure of successive state and federal governments to invest in public transport, water and renewable energy as well as vital economic infrastructure.   

    At the heart of this problem has been an ideological shift.

    Modern governments are not prepared to carry the debt required to build this infrastructure.

    Meanwhile, the idea of private infrastructure projects - where the public bears the costs but any profit is “privatised” - are viewed with justified suspicion by many people.

    But there is a third option.

    The growing national pool of retirement savings is already well over $1 trillion and is on course to be $3 trillion by the mid-2020s.

    This is the savings pool that was initiated and achieved by union campaigns in the mid-1980s and supported by Keating Government legislation in 1992.  

    This pool could be doing so much more. It could be funding the projects that build our cities and regions, helping them grow in the 21st century.

    This doesn't need to be at the expense of securing a sound retirement benefit for Australian workers: some of the funds can be invested to both build Australia, while at the same time growing members’ super accounts.

    The idea is not new – Australian industry funds have led the world in developing infrastructure as an asset class in its own right.

    Many industry super funds, such as CBUS already invest in projects – it is not uncommon to find a building worker toiling away on a project that he or she part owns.

    Part of the problem at present is that superannuation fund trustees need to compare returns and risk on infrastructure investments with other options like bonds and shares – and sometimes, in the short term, the numbers don’t always quite add up.

    What the industry tells me, though, is that we’d just need some minor adjustments to make a greater flow on investment possible.

    This could be through some form of preferential infrastructure bonds or an approach to tendering that splits construction from ownership and operation. Along with greater economies of scale and more deal flow, such projects can be viable.
     
    We need to collectively find ways to allow superannuation to be harnessed to build the infrastructure of Australia’s future.

    Think about it – Australia’s workers investing their retirement savings in projects that develop their industries and communities.

    The third policy priority where I think there is important work to be done is the implications of dealing with an ageing population.

    We know the statistics – people are living longer, the time of active retirement has been extended.

    There will be fewer people in the workforce supporting more in retirement. Unless we make changes, this is going to result in an economic crisis

    We need to boost the tax base and the Henry tax review, including the mining tax, was part of that process.  

    We also need to encourage the continued participation of older workers - while also giving them the flexibility to enjoy the leisure time they deserve.

    There are complex issues around the way industries and work are structured, that should be part of this debate - so that older workers can continue to be valued in the workplace should they elect to.

    A parallel challenge is the responsibility that many workers who are also carers will face as their parents and relatives enter old age.

    If I go back to my nursing days, I can still vividly see the harassed sons and daughters who would arrive to visit their sick or dying parents, and their distress when they had to leave to go back to work.

    There was never enough time.

    Older Australians staying in their own homes for as long as possible is admirable and desirable. But much of the caring falls on women, who struggle to care for children, maintain a job and hold together their own relationships.

    Some industries are now creating leave entitlements akin to those for workers with young children, allowing them to spend more time with aged parents.

    Spreading these sorts of employment rights, would not only make life more manageable for millions of workers, it would speak to the sort of society we actually want.

    The new Fair Work laws establish National Employment Standards that include the right to request flexible work and additional leave to care for pre-school children.

    This standard has been in place only a little over 12 months. But already unions are planning campaigns in workplaces to extend this right.

    Why shouldn’t workers have the right to leave work early or even take off blocks of time when they have to care for a frail parent, to help them transition to aged care or to provide palliative care?

    Of course, there are a whole range of other issues where the ACTU has an active role to play.

    But I would argue the three issues I have touched on today broaden our agenda in significant ways.

  • To reinvent the structures of work, not just the conditions in the workplace.
  • To take an active role in building communities by unlocking worker capital.
  • And to deal with the nation’s demographic changes, in a way that recognises the demands on all generations of Australians.

  • These are big questions that require national conversations.

    And these are conversations that the ACTU is prepared to lead on behalf of working Australians.

    There is a final question that is central to this agenda:

    How can we most effectively give our members a voice and win lasting outcomes?

    The first thing is to get our house in order.

    Clearly, membership matters.

    Because with members comes resources and the capacity to campaign and  influence policy and outcomes – not just on direct industrial issues but on the broader social and economic agenda.

    ABS data shows we have more than 1.8 million members and that across the workforce, union members earn on average $145 a week more than non-members.

    This is a great achievement in itself. But every union needs to do more.

    We need to reach out to people in new, yet-to-be-unionised workplaces and industries.

    A particular focus has to be our young people.

    I reject the idea that generation X and generation Y are anti-union.

    Many unions that reach out to young people, even while they are still training, find committed and loyal members.

    We also need to make a special effort to reach out to women.

    Currently 46 per cent of union members are women. By 2020 women will overtake men and become the majority of members.

    Reflecting these changes means campaigning on issues that matter to women.

    Issues such as job security and carers’ entitlements.

    Issues like superannuation, where women are materially penalised for the career breaks many are forced to take in order to raise a family.

    And issues like finally ending the ongoing disparity in gender based pay – the pay equity test case currently being run by five unions in the Social and Community Sector is a vital first step.

    The second thing is to embrace ideas and see them spread throughout the workplaces of Australia.

    More than sheer numbers, we need engagement with our member base.  

    I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned – our members don’t just accept slogans and rhetoric.  They want to understand the big picture.

    New policy agendas need to be developed in partnership with the nation’s workers and their unions.

    That’s why today I am announcing that the ACTU will be commissioning the biggest ever survey of union members in the Australian workplace.

    To give each and every union member a chance to have their say on issues that matter to them and contribute to the movement’s agenda over the next ten years.

    The survey will allow us to identify issues – but also to unearth a new generation of individuals who want to play a more active role in the Australian union movement.

    If we get this right, we will not only improve the quality of our national thinking, we will also nurture a willing and active support base for new policy and campaigns.

    But prioritising the ideas for policy and campaigns means making choices and providing leadership – and we don’t shy away from that.


    Thirdly, as a movement we need to take those ideas and form messages and campaigns that are clear and strategic.

    As a diverse, democratic movement we need to continue shaping a unified national agenda.
    We have succeeded in the past in mobilising around common themes and campaigns – whether it was Your Rights at Work, the campaign for paid maternity leave, or the achievement of universal superannuation.  


    Finally we need to be determined in pursuing the interests of our members politically. After all, those who oppose us are unashamedly determined to prop up the interest of economic elites .

    Traditionally, the vehicle for promoting workers’ rights in the political sphere has been through influencing the processes and structures of the political party that the union movement formed – the ALP.

    It is still the case that the ALP is the only progressive party that can form government. On most issues, the policies of the ALP best represent the interests of our members.  

    As compared to the Liberal-National Coalition, who have already started to push back on their election promise to leave the IR legislation unchanged.

    Unions retain enduring and significant links to the party and will continue to do so.

    But it is clear to everyone that over the last 20 years in particular, the Labor Party has shifted ground.

    That is not to denigrate the ALP.

    It is to recognise that the battle of ideas, pursued ruthlessly by the neo-liberals globally, has changed the grounds of the debate and, some would say, the policies that the ALP pursues.

    In areas like refugee policy and climate change the party has confused and even alienated parts of its base.

    In this changed political environment (I refuse to use the word paradigm!) we must establish a union voice that reflects consistent values as well as policies that are in the interests of our membership.

    Our impact has to be on all parties and MPs - Labor, Green, Coalition or independent. The fact is, we have no choice.

    The traditional ties with Labor will remain, but we will work with elected representatives who show a genuine commitment to enhancing workers’ rights – and of taking a long-term view to improving our members’ lives.

    In the next 12 months, while so much public policy is contestable, I will encourage the union movement to be proactive and to build the support base to demand action.

    Big ideas don’t just happen.
    They need to be rooted in values.
    They need to be nurtured.
    They need to be shared.
    They need to be pursued with passion and determination.
    That’s my commitment to the union movement.
    And I look forward to getting to know all of you better as I put these ideas into practise.