Jeff Lawrence: ACTU Organising Conference speech

Speech by Jeff Lawrence to Organising Conference
Sydney Convention Centre
27 April 2010

Thanks Jenny and our sponsors Members’ Equity Bank and Industry Funds.

Thank you Sharan for welcoming us.  It is a great honour that Sharan has been elected unopposed General Secretary of the ITUC– the first woman ever to be so. It is a testimony to Sharan and the strength of the Australian unions.  

It has been a privilege to work with Sharan.  Her commitment to organising and growth agenda in under no doubt: she will now pursue it on the world stage.

I will also welcome our president-elect Ged Kearney this afternoon, and will have an opportunity to say a few words then. I look forward to working closely with Ged and ensuring a smooth transition.   Ged will be a great president of the ACTU.

On behalf of working Australians and their families, thank you Sharan for your dedication and hard work.
It is fitting that after your long struggle – 30 years – for paid maternity leave, it is now about to be legislated as your final legacy for working women - what an achievement.

Introduction
All I’ve ever wanted to do or intend to do is work for unions. I never stop being moved by the people that we have the honour of representing, their lives, their stories.  The difference that being in the union makes for them.

At my national press club address last month, I met Luzia Borges, a member of the LHMU, who has been cleaning the PMs office since new Parliament House opened – she’s outlasted 3 PMs – and many more opposition leaders. 

For as long as Luzia’s worked at parliament house she’s been on a minimum wage.  Proudly she’s raised 3 children.  To send them to university it meant working 2 jobs, 7 days a week.

Being on the minimum wage was a struggle – especially when the Fair Pay Commission shamefully awarded NO increase last year. ZERO.

A month ago – Luzia, her workmates, and union signed their first collective agreement.  It meant an 8% pay rise: a voice at her workplace.

Would this have happened under WorkChoices? No.

We all know what happened to workers on minimum wages under the Liberal party’s laws.  Twice their wages were frozen. Reducing real wages by $10-$25 a week for Australia’s lowest paid.

Workers were pushed onto take it or leave it AWAs with poor wages, worse conditions.
Employers were encouraged, advantaged, by not negotiating collective agreements.  Workers’ voices were silence.

We must not forget what a difference we’ve made to workers like Luzia.  To have a clear agenda – to grow unions.  Only strong and growing unions will give people like Luzia power.

Fair Work Act
A lot has changed in 3 short years since our last organising conference. Last time we met we were under the worst attack Australian workers had faced in a generation. This time we have an opportunity.  

We must use this opportunity.  We owe it to the people we represent – to people like Luzia.
These laws have the worst offending companies under WorkChoices running to The Australian saying it’s end of the world.  Good.

They hate these laws.  They hate that they now have to listen to their workers.  That they have to talk to unions. We are seeing that the safety net, such as recently with overtime, is protecting fundamental workers’ rights, as it should.  We will be vigilant, as employers test the boundaries.

Under the Fair Work Act - any agreement can be a union agreement.  An opportunity to organise.
Employers have an obligation to bargain with the union in good faith.  Workers have NEVER had this protection before.

For ten years mine sites in the Pilbara have locked unions out of the negotiations.  Now were seeing union agreements being made.

For the first time, workers have access to a low paid bargaining stream – what an opportunity! But we need to use it. Let’s use these laws to organise.

Award modernisation
The safety net needs to be strong. Australia has a unique award system, we must ensure it’s strong into the future.

Reducing over 5000 awards to 122 was never going to be easy.  I know it’s been a tough process – and not all of the decisions we agree with.

We now need to focus on protecting and enhancing the wages and conditions of workers on awards during the transition.  The March ACTU Executive endorsed an action plan to:

  • Secure bargaining, including using low paid bargaining stream
  • Secure commitments that employers retain conditions above the award
  • Obtain take home pay orders
  • Enforce common claim orders
  • Make sure employees know their rights
  • We will hold employers to account who use this process to reduce workers’ conditions.  The best option is to bargain.   I don’t underestimate the problem for unions – many of you have had to fight to preserve what we have got.  But we can turn it to our advantage.  We must stop any attempt by employers to reduce pay and conditions.

    More work to do
    It’s true, the Fair Work Act doesn’t give us all the rights we wanted, that we believe are necessary for working people and their unions. We can’t wait until the laws are perfect. If we do, we will fail the working people and their families who we represent.

    That does not mean we do not continue to fight for improvements to the laws.  We will. But, delegates – we owe it to the working people we represent – not to miss this opportunity in front of us.

    This Organising Conference has to drive forward our agenda.  It’s about sharing the best things that are happening in our movement.

    Social and economic policy
    We have a broad agenda in social and economic policy I believe working families need stronger job and income security.  Too many workers are casual, short-term contract, labour hire, dependent and independent contractors – with little or no job security.  Most without any paid leave: these workforce changes must be tackled. Too many employers still think they can get away with not paying workers’ entitlements when a company goes bust – that is not good enough – we need entitlements protected.  In full.

    I believe working families need dignity in retirement. It’s been 30 years since unions first bargained for superannuation.  Over 15 years since the superannuation guarantee, that ensured all workers – not just the wealthy, or white collar – might retire in dignity.   To achieve this the end game was always 12 and then 15 per cent.  It’s time to finish the job.  

    I believe working families need stronger protections in the workplace Delegates, when I hear workers are being compelled to have their meetings under surveillance, I know something isn’t right.  The recent decision in the Pilbara was wrong and is being appealed.   This was never the intention of the laws.
    Workers need stronger protections, not less.

    Our delegates deserve positive rights – right to paid training and meetings. To represent and be represented. These are rights that give a real voice, democracy to working people.   Delegates, we must continue to campaign for better laws.

    Unfinished business
    We still have unfinished business with the Government:

  • Improvements with the Fair Work Act
  • Getting rid of the ABCC – construction workers deserve the same rights as all other workers
  • OHS
  • Independent contractors
  • Pay equity
  • Award modernisation

  • The government has now agreed to meet with AEU over the use of tests for MySchool comparisons.  Now we want the Deputy Prime Minister to listen. Our teachers deserve more respect. The ACTU supports the AEU’s attempt to get improvements and a more open and equitable school’s reporting mechanism.

    Threat of WorkChoices
    I have no doubt if Abbott and the Liberal party are elected they’ll make life worse for working families.  For the Liberal party WorkChoices is an article of faith.  
  • They want to remove unfair dismissal protections
  • Return to individual contracts.  
  • We need to talk to our members about this.  Australians voted once to get rid of WorkChoices, they shouldn’t have to vote a second time. It’s time to go forward –we can’t go back to Abbott and WorkChoices.

    Organising
    Most of all we need to growth campaigns.  Each union can do it.  Need to research, resource, plan, proper structures, strategies.  And we will grow.

    Much has changed in the almost 3 years since the last Organising Conference – but there is still: bad employer; difficult economic structures for bargaining; the need to campaign. To activate our members. To engage the community. To win.

    Great work is being done in unions.  Never before has there been so much unity and union alliances.  Who would have thought that AWU and AMWU, AWU and MUA alliances.  What’s next?  

    Unions and workers are driven, empowered, by the work you do as organisers.  You’ve created a great opportunity for workers – now we have to use it.

    I hope you enjoy this conference put on by our Organising Centre along with Member Connect.  I hope you network, share, learn from each other. More over I hope the value of your work is re-enforced.  

    When I was a new official, after a workplace meeting one of our members, a small Greek woman, approached me and told me that my job was very important to her. I asked why? She said she didn’t speak much English – that I was her voice. That’s stuck with me.

    Don’t underestimate how important your job is.  It’s a hard job, but there is no more worthwhile job. We are the voice for working people and their families – we will continue to be the voice for a fairer Australia.