Greg Combet: Address to the National Day of Community Protest

Greg Combet, ACTU Secretary, addresses union members and the community on the campaign to protect workers' rights.

Today, by rallying in such huge numbers, we declare that working people will not be denied a central place in Australia's future.

Working families built this country. They fought and died for it.

They do not deserve to have their rights at work taken away.

The Government's laws are motivated by ideology - the articles of Liberal Party faith - the prejudices of the Prime Minister.

We face these laws simply because the Government has won control of the Senate and has the power to do what it wants.

And in the next couple of weeks the Government will abuse that power and ram these laws through.

When it does so it will not signal any set-back for our campaign.

Rather, it will signal the start of a determined, relentless effort to overturn these laws and put in their place decent rights for the working people of this country.

That is our goal.

You have already heard the main ways in which the laws attack worker's rights.

Let me give you some more specific examples.

Building workers have been especially targeted. They risk gaol for standing up for their rights.

I am concerned for them and their families.

The most important thing unions do on building sites is protect the safety of workers.

And yet the Government wants to smash the building unions.

It will put lives at risk.

I want the Prime Minister to know something right now.

We will hold the Government to account for the human cost of these laws.

Just as we supported the maritime workers when they were targeted, we will support building workers and their families.

All of us face risks under the new laws - even for doing bread and butter union work.

  • It will be illegal to ask for workers to be protected against unfair dismissal when negotiating an agreement - and there's a $33,000 fine just for asking.
  • And there will be a $33,000 fine for asking for union involvement in a disputes settlement procedure.
  • A $33,000 fine for asking for the right for people to attend union education courses.
  • A $33,000 fine for asking to protect jobs against contracting out.
  • A $33,000 fine for asking for a commitment to collectively bargain.
  • And a $33,000 fine for asking for anything else the Government might like to ban.
  • These are scandalous abuses of democratic rights.

    But we will not be intimidated.

    Unions must continue to stand up for people.

    As a union leader let me make this clear.

    I will not pay a $33,000 fine for asking for people to be treated fairly.

    Because the Government has gone too far.

    On such a fundamental issue we must look the Government in the eye and stare them down.

    I will be asking other union leaders to do the same.

    We must be disciplined and responsible. There is no place for foolhardy or reckless behaviour.

    But we must also be firm in our resolve to stand up for people.

    It is true that it will take time for some people to be affected by the laws.

    But the rights of every person will be diminished.

    And for many the change will come quickly - particularly the most vulnerable.

    When these laws have done their job there will be only five minimum standards to protect people. The award safety net will be gone.

    To get anything above the five minimum standards the Government wants you to negotiate an individual contract.

    We all know what that means - take what's on offer or get lost.

    No negotiation. No choice.

    John Howard should have the guts to come out and say what he's really up to - to argue his case.

    Instead the Government spends tens of millions on slippery, deceitful ads.

    The claim that people's rights will be protected by law is the most expensive lie ever perpetrated in Australian politics.

    It would be a mistake for anyone to be conned by their ads, to think 'I'll be alright - it won't happen to me'.

    Even the best employers can be driven by competition to force down labour costs using individual contracts.

    Why, during a 14 year economic boom with record business profits, do Australian people have to be put under this pressure?

    We will never compete with China and India by driving down labour costs.

    We will simply end up with an army of working poor and widespread inequality - a society like the United States.

    That's not the sort of society unions want to see here.

    A decent democracy should be improving opportunities for people, reaching out to those who need a hand, and ensuring that basic rights are protected - making Australia more fair not less.

    Unions believe in fairness and justice, in prosperity for all not just the few, in people having a say at work.

    We believe these are democratic rights - rights that are worth fighting for.

    And fight we will.

    We will fight until we win.

    We will campaign for as long and as hard as it takes to overturn these laws.

    Anyone who thinks our campaign will fade away had better think again.

    These past months have only been the warm-up to the main event.

    The real campaign starts now.

    After the Government rams these laws through Parliament we will work right up to the next election to hold them to account for what they have done.

    There are two key things we must achieve in this campaign.

    Firstly, to build our strength in the workplace so that we can protect job security and pay and employment conditions.

    Only by sticking together can we achieve this.

    That is something within our power.

    Because the laws cannot take away our commitment to each other.

    If you're not in a union - join - and ask others to join - because the best protection will be achieved by standing together.

    The second thing we must do is win the support of the wider community.

    We must invite Australians to join a movement for change - not just a movement to achieve rights at work, but a movement for fairness and justice, a movement for democratic rights.

    We must build a broad coalition of people committed to a better future.

    Be part of it. Contribute in practical ways. Get involved by registering on our website or by filling out the postcard.

    Help us raise funds so that we can take the experience of working people into every home with our advertising.

    Ask others to do the same. Take the issues into your local community.

    Lobby politicians. Get active in marginal seats.

    Put at risk the job security of politicians who don't support worker's rights.

    Help build a wall of opposition to laws that place business interests above family and community.

    Because Australia needs to change.

    We need to reward effort not exploitation.

    To encourage cooperation not division.

    To build a sense of community not isolation.

    Compassion not intolerance.

    To inspire hope not fear.

    I believe that the values for which we stand beat as strongly in the hearts of Australians today as they have done for generations.

    United by these values, we will not be defeated.

    We will see off bad laws and bad Governments.

    We will deliver justice for working people.

    Let this great event, broadcast across the nation, the largest meeting of working people ever held in Australia, mark the beginning of a movement for change.

    I am confident that if we have the courage to stand up for our values, to provide the leadership, to fight for our cause, to reach out to others and invite them to join us, we will win.