Ged Kearney: speech to AMWU National Conference

Address by ACTU President Ged Kearney to AMWU National Conference
Surfers Paradise
28 July 2010

Thank you for the invitation to speak at your conference today.

It is one of the great privileges of my new role that I get to travel around the country and meet with workers from every kind of background you can imagine, so I really appreciate this opportunity today.
It’s a particular privilege today because the AMWU and manufacturing are close to the heart of our proud union movement and of our economy.

Over 155 years, the AMWU and its predecessors have been right there at the forefront of the many campaigns where we’ve fought to obtain, improve and protect rights at work, pay and conditions.

In fact, you could argue that the AMWU is the crucible of the union movement. So many of the industries and jobs you represent were those that desperately needed organising and collective action when unions were first established out of the industrial revolution.

Frankly, I don’t think your union gets enough credit from our politicians or the community for the valuable work it does in protecting jobs in Australia and continuing to fight for the survival and evolution of our important industries.

But having said that it is terrific that the PM made her way up here to address you yesterday. By all accounts she was received well, let’s hope it is the beginning of a beautiful relationship!

I’m determined to make sure all unions get better recognition for the role they play in Australian society.

Your union has stood alongside other unions, when they have needed your support. And your union has provided so many of the important leaders of our movement over the years, from Laurie Carmichael, Julius Rowe and Doug Cameron through to Dave and Paul today. And I am especially grateful for the support your union showed for my Presidency.

I come from a nursing background – more of that in a moment – but don’t for a second think that nurses don’t appreciate the significance of manufacturing as a driver and heartbeat of our national economy.
Without manufacturing, there would be no economy, and most of us would be out of a job.

Australia is so much more than a nation that grows things or digs things out of the ground, important as those industries are.

Manufacturing is where so many jobs are created and wealth is generated, it adds to our national pool of skills, and it provides decent and satisfying employment for hundreds of thousands of men and women.

Employment in the industries you represent: jobs in food processing, vehicle making, building and construction, engineering, printing, electronics, communications, airlines, transport, aerospace, shipbuilding, paper manufacturing, rubber and cable-making, steel, defence, and I am sure there are more.

As I said in my opening, it is a privilege as ACTU President to be able to meet with workers from all around the country.

I’ve been in the role for almost a month now, and I am glad in a way that I have started bang in the middle of a federal election. They have had me working hard in campaigning land.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in trucking yards for breakfast with drivers at dawn, serving sausages to nurses and orderlies in hospitals at lunchtime, call centres, railway stations, building sites and factories. Everywhere I go, I meet decent, hardworking people whose aspirations are simple, yet so often unfulfilled.

They want a secure job, a job at which they can earn enough to provide for their family without forfeiting precious time.

They want to be safe at work.

They want to be respected and consulted by their employer.

They want productive and satisfying work that they have some control over, and that encourages them to learn new skills.

They want to be treated fairly and women, equally,

They want their workplace to be environmentally and worker-friendly.

We all have a responsibility to these workers.

As President of the ACTU, I am determined to continue driving that agenda with Jeff Lawrence and the movement leadership.

I reckon there are great times ahead for us in the union movement and what we stand for and we have to grasp those opportunities.

Much of what I value and hold as important and hope to bring to this role comes from my background in a large family in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond.

My father was a small businessman. He ran a pub just down the road from the MCG.

I am the second youngest of nine children – six of whom are girls – meaning that I was essentially invisible unless I managed to shout the loudest which might explain a bit.

It was there in Richmond that I learned my political values, from my mother and father.

We were a large family in a largely working class suburb. It was there that I very much learned the power of the collective socially and politically.

In fact we nine children, as employees of my parents in the pub, formed our own union, The Kearney Family
Union, we paid dues and even elected a secretary, and often took industrial action, which always ended when Mum refused to give us dinner!

And about fairness, I learned from that environment, from my parents, the customers, and the general hubbub of life in Richmond, the importance of sharing wealth; of charity without fuss; of respect for everyone, no matter what their occupation, status, education, how much they drank, or where they lived.

Not counting the Kearney Family Union, the ANF was the first and only union I have ever been in. I joined initially because I instinctively knew that you joined the union. That was 1985. During a heated dispute about shift lengths at my workplace I became a job representative, and helped organise a successful outcome.

I again felt the power of the collective to make change and was hooked totally. I was elected to Vic Branch council served as both Branch and Federal President, then Assistant Federal Secretary and Federal Secretary.

The values I have learnt and the experiences I have had as a nurse will along with those of my family, shape the type of ACTU President I would like to be and influence what I want to contribute to the trade union movement.

The ANF where I came from, is a campaigning union, that builds on values that are important to our members, those of social justice, of professional advocacy and leadership, and of course industrial outcomes.

Running campaigns based on values and broader social policy is successful on many fronts. It achieves policy changes that benefit society as well as industrial outcomes that protect and enhance our members working lives.

Being valued is incredibly important for all union members and listening to and delivering on what they value is just as important. We have to do that, on a big scale if we are to grow,

We know that unions can be places that make you feel secure, productive and proud. I want every Australian to know that and I want them to feel the need to join. To feel part of a movement, a movement that makes changes for the better.

And I am determined to fight for more respect for unions from all our political leaders and commentators.

My message is this: If you want to know what’s best for jobs, for public services, for our industries – ask the people that work in them, speak to unions and their members!

I see the role of unions as not just being concerned with the experience of people at work. Unions’ roles, if they are doing their job well, are to be an advocate for change that improves the lives of all Australians in all aspects of their life. All Australians be they young, aged, single, couples, with or without families.

The union movement has always been prepared to engage in constructive dialogue about how to build our nation – after all it is in our members’ interests to have a prosperous country. And we stand ready to do the same today.

But often to achieve change we need to campaign. Campaigning, as you all know, is about engaging our membership, educating people about our cause, growing our movement and creating an undeniable momentum for the changes we seek.

It is our job to convince politicians, of all ilks, that our policy is the right policy, and it’s up to us to put enough pressure on them, to show there is so much support for our policy that it would be detrimental to them NOT to implement it.  

We must develop good social policy that connects not only with our members, but the wider community, and be prepared to take the debate out to the people and ask for their support. Not hide behind careful rhetoric.

If you think about it, our movement is at its best when it is engaging with the community and leading a policy debate to improve the lives of Australians. Whether it is the minimum wage, social policy or workers’ rights, when unions are out there putting their case to the public, they really shine.

We cannot lose sight of the importance of campaigning to our movement. Governments, whether Labor or Liberal, will not simply implement change because unions ask them to.

Of course, strong advocacy does not mean you have to be about finding conflict for conflict’s sake.

We can and should reach out to government, business and the wider community to work together cooperatively wherever it is possible to achieve the outcomes desired by members.

The introduction of superannuation in Australia was developed as a union initiative but ultimately delivered through tripartite consensus.   No mean feat.

I am resolved to ensuring that with renewed energy, a strong commitment to the principles of fairness and social justice, and a willingness to seek out partners for change, the ACTU will continue to be at the forefront of public debate in this country.

We will of course do this regardless of who is in government – but let’s be honest: there is only one side of politics that shares our values. Those of a fair go.

So over the next few weeks, our efforts must be totally focused on keeping Tony Abbott’s hands off the keys to the Lodge.

It’s so important that we judge Tony Abbott not on what he says – after all, this is a man who freely admits he’ll say whatever he thinks will win him an election – but on what he does.

Tony Abbott’s record as a Minister shows he can’t be trusted by working Australians.

Industrial relations policies that tip the balance completely towards employers, and attacks on workers are in Tony Abbott’s DNA.  He not only supported WorkChoices, but was specifically responsible as a Minister for anti-worker policies and decisions.

Since becoming Liberal Leader, Tony Abbott has tried to convince Australians that he is not committed to the extreme WorkChoices industrial relations policies of the Howard Government.

But we know he is. I know you know he is.

We have seen him flip-flopping on this issue over and over since the election was called. Flip-flopping by him and his spokespeople.

Like a punch drunk dill, Tony was so desperate to tell the world he no longer believed in WorkChoices, that he scrawled a written “guarantee” on the back of a scrap of paper during a radio interview last week.

But almost in the next breath, he was saying:

“Obviously, I can’t give an absolute guarantee about every single aspect of workplace relations legislation.”

I’m confused, you’re confused . . . and Tony’s very confused.

But there’s one thing the Australian public is sure about, and that’s that if he was elected Tony Abbott would make changes to workplace laws.

The ACTU conducted a poll last week, and we found that an incredible 71% of voters simply don’t believe Tony Abbott’s promises not to change IR laws.

I talked earlier about the importance of campaigning. It is important to campaign on things that connect us to the community issues that our members and beyond value.

Our efforts have seen the introduction of a paid parental leave scheme for the first time. Our efforts have seen vast improvements for workers rights at work. Including the announcement on workers entitlements, which I know is very close to your union’s heart.

Our campaigning efforts will continue for pay equity for women, for aged care, for industries to meet the challenge of climate change, ensuring sustainable and rewarding jobs for the future.

But right now right at this very minute, comrades we are campaigning for respect. Basic, fundamental respect as people at work and as trade unionists.  

I have had people say our ‘WorkChoices never again’ campaign is negative, that it is scare mongering. But this campaign is about facts.

While there are a hell of a lot positives to tell about our efforts as a movement over the last 3 years, over the last 150 years, I can tell you now, if we go back to WorkChoices we will not be fighting for advancements, for improvements, we will be fighting for our lives.

WorkChoices was fundamentally designed to break the union movement, but we didn’t break we bounced back and got rid of that mess. And we will again if we have to.

But I tell you I do not want to have to do that. I want to keep the momentum we have gathered so strongly this last few years.

So, my message to you today is let’s not take any chances. Let’s campaign together to keep our rights at work, to raise super, and to improve protection of worker entitlements. We have to prevent Tony Abbott from bringing back WorkChoices.

Campaigning is the way. I know Jeff spoke to you about the campaign yesterday. The ads are great, but they are useless unless you back them in with conversations, at work, at the football, at your kids schools.
Anywhere anytime.

Volunteer to door knock, to man stalls for our campaign in your electorate. Get involved. Go to our website WorkChoices never again and see what you can do.

You know the issues, talk it up.

Let’s do that and once we are sure we and not moving backwards, then I can really look forward to working  to advance the agenda of working Australians for a better life and I know you are just the people to do it with.

In solidarity, I thank you.