Jeff Lawrence address to AWU National Conference 2011

AWU National Conference 2011
Gold Coast, 14 February 2011


Thank you for inviting me to speak today.  The AWU National Conference is always a big event. This year, 125 is a significant anniversary. 

I congratulate Paul Howes and Bill Ludwig and the AWU for holding this conference in Queensland.  It is an important vote of confidence in the resilience of the people of this state.

I also would like to acknowledge that for the first time an AWU official has become a full-time officer of the ACTU. Ged and I, welcome Michael Borowick and look forward to working together with him.

The AWU has had historic connection to Queensland and unsurprisingly you were one of the first to help out.  And the AWU gave generously to the flood relief fund – making the largest union donations.

The floods and cyclone Yasi have been a horrible tragedy for so many families.  For me being here in Queensland really brings this home.

For all the unions that pulled together and donated generously to help our brothers and sisters in Queensland – I would like to thank them.  

Our members in emergency services, community care, hospitals, deserve gratitude and thanks.  Our members were on the frontline during the disasters – our members will be on the frontline as we rebuild Queensland.

Unions in Australia
At this AWU conference we are celebrating 125 years.  Reminding us that unions have a long proud history in Australia that is older than the nation itself.

I believe that Australia grew into the nation it is today is because of unions.

Universal healthcare, education. Decent retirements. Mateship. A fair go. Rights at work.

Our early brother and sisters in the AWU, the shearers’ unions, unions all around Australia shaped this nation.  

Our values are enduring and define our national identity.  
 
Remember Australia was one of the first nations in the world:

  • With a national minimum wage
  • With an eight hour working day
  • With a workers’ party in parliament
  • One hundred and twenty five years later and Australians still need unions – and they need us to be strong.  To grow. To be active.

    The forces that wanted to cut the wages of shearers back in 1891 – are still here.  

    We have seen over the last few decades conservatives push for labour market deregulation.

    They’ve used code words of flexibility and productivity.  

    When we know what they really mean, don’t we?

    When they say flexibility: it means whatever the boss wants.

    When they say productivity: it means workers doing more for less.

    As countries around the world struggle to recover from the GFC the one thing that is clear – is that free-markets got it wrong.

    Compared to the US and Europe Australia emerged in better shape.  Due to a number of factors:

  • Our financial markets had proper regulations.  
  • We had a Labor Government who had the foresight and decisiveness to engineer an economic stimulus package that saw Australia through the global downturn.
  • We had got rid of WorkChoices.
  • We know what actually works.

    Ensuring workers have rights.  

    Making sure workers are heard.

    Allowing workers to stand together.

    It worked 125 years ago – it still works today.

    Employer opposition
    There will always be opposition to unions and workers’ rights.

    The big employer groups have been unable to hide their dismay at Tony Abbott’s small target strategy on industrial relations last year. They played along, but since the election it’s been a different story. They won’t let their agenda be sidetracked again.

    So you’ll see that recently AMMA declared the Fair Work Act a disaster. Again.  

    Then ACCI chimed in.  Using AMMA’s small report to say that productivity had fallen because of the IR laws.

    Where is the evidence of this?

    Even in the AMMA report companies say that the biggest productivity issues are: high staff turnover, lack of skills, poor management policies.

    But then again, after the mining tax debate last year, you would hardly expect an honest public debate from big business, would you?

    There are real issues in the Australian economy that do need to be addressed. Rather than charging down the same ideological cul-de-sac again, the employer groups could focus on these real issues and engage constructively with working Australians and unions about solutions.

    It is time there was a plan to address the skills shortage in Australia.

    The ACTU does not accept that employing people on short term visas is the solution.

    The ACTU does not accept that there are not Australians that want to learn skills.

    The ACTU will not sit by as big business puts the burden back onto workers and taxpayers while their profits and their executive salaries soar.

    The wages and profit gap – is back to being the largest it’s been since the record highs of 2008.

    Even before the shock of the global financial crisis had passed, employer groups were lobbying the Federal government to increase temporary migration.  

    It’s true that our 5 per cent unemployment is lower than other countries.

    However, in Australia, right now, over 1 in 10 workers – do not have enough work.  

    Workers who are unemployed and workers who would like to work more hours than they do.  Australia has an underutilisation rate of 12.4 per cent.

    Why don’t we start with helping these workers first?

    Why don’t we expand their skills before we look for a quick fix over our borders?

    We need to get the right workers, with the right skills, in the right places.

    We have to build infrastructure in remote mining communities – so families want to live there.

    We will have to invest in our workers.

    But it is time unions and the government, put the question back to employers –

  • What are they doing to increase the skills in their sector?
  • What are they doing to entice workers to their industry?  Their workplace? Their towns?

  • We understand that there are pressures from the unprecedented change in the terms of trade that are genuine.  On these issues we invite employers to engage with unions to create sustainable solutions.

    Where temporary migrant workers are used - these workers must be protected by the same rights, same conditions as Australian workers.

    We want laws that recognise migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

    Last year’s Federal Election
    Last year’s federal election was tough.  We knew what was at stake if Tony Abbott and the Liberal party won.

    The campaign was tough, because so many Australians were disengaged with politics.  

    I want to thank all of you who worked so hard during the election to make sure workers knew the facts, both on the mining tax and Abbott’s intention to bring back WorkChoices.

    I know that not everything went perfectly for the government or the union campaign.  There are many lessons to be learnt.

    After the election the ACTU commissioned an independent review of the union election campaign.  The Review Panel made a number of recommendations that we are now in the process of considering.

    There will be some debates in the union movement about how we engage in politics.  We have to have serious discussion about what we want to achieve for our members, how are we going to do it, and what resources we will commit.

    I do not believe that we can go back to a decade ago where we ran ad hoc campaigns where each union did their own thing in isolation.

    I see the key issues are:

  • How we coordinate resources on the ground and at a state level, including the role of TLCs.  
  • And what collective capacity and resources we need to run effective public campaigns.  Particularly as big business has begun running large scale public campaigns, such as their one against the mining tax.  

  • We need a longer term political strategy not just campaigning for survival in election years: but rather unions that are campaigning for a positive agenda about issues that will change workers’ lives.

    Our Agenda
    At the end of 2010 the Executive endorsed a full agenda for 2011.  We will be working through this through prioritising issues that will make the most difference to workers and unions this year.  

    This includes:
  • Giving workers a stronger voice
  • Increasing job security
  • Improving delegates rights
  • Making sure that collective bargaining is working effectively in our industries and workplaces
  • 2011 is going to be another big year.

    And I think it’s fundamentally important that Australian workers get a bigger say in the direction Australia is heading.  

    I believe it is our roles as unionists – from the branch to the national level – to see that workers have that say.

    We want to hear from working people and their families all around Australia.

    Like the AWU’s annual poll of members steers your campaigns and defines your priorities.

    The ACTU plans to conduct a national census of workers to hear from as many workers as possible.

    It will be more inclusive than a normal poll or focus group.

    To do this we will need your help.

    Think about it.  Union members are in nearly every workplace in Australia.  Your organisers visit hundreds of workplaces each year.

    No one knows the issues affecting working people better than unions do.  

    And give workers an even stronger voice in the national debate. And act on it.

    Working people need to be at the forefront of many important debates this year. Like:
  • Skilled migration
  • Climate change
  • Tax
  • Health
  • Infrastructure
  • These issues will have deep impact on working lives.  We cannot allow policy issues to get hijacked by big business or special interest lobbyists.

    Future of work – our industrial agenda
    Most importantly, working people need a say in the future of their work.

    Markets can’t be allowed to dictate how we work: what times we work: where we work.

    Recent trends – pretend that it’s ok for workers not to know when they’re working one shift to the next.

    To be casual for years on end.

    To be a contractor – pay their own super, workers’ comp – while they work for the one employer.

    To wait for the text message each morning to say whether you have work or not for that day.

    It’s not good enough.

    Nearly half of all Australian workers are casual or in other forms of insecure work.  

    Working life should not be dictated by the invisible hand of the marketplace.

    Working life should be equally shaped by the needs of workers, families, communities.

    The stories we hear from workers will shape the ACTU campaign.

    I believe the union movement needs to run a campaign that promotes good, secure jobs.

    There’s no one size fits all solution – and it’s not solely a blue collar issue.

    That it’s time to reverse the trend of casualisation and other forms of precarious work seen over the last two decade.  

    That we as a country need to stand up and define the future of work.

    We need:
  • To secure equal pay for workers in community and social services
  • To make sure we’ve got the best OHS laws in the country.
  • To get rid of ABCC
  • We must continue to improve our industrial rights.

    While the Fair Work Act is a good start; there’s more work to do, beginning with the rights of our delegates.
    Our workplace delegates ensure working people have a strong voice in the workplace. In our community.

    Delegates are there everyday for their workmates.

    Delegates need more than the right not to be sack.

    Delegates deserve support. Respect. And protection.

    Better protections would include greater consultation rights.  

    Resources and time.

    Training that is paid for.

    Delegates deserve these positive rights.

    We will also be working to improve collective bargaining rights to ensure bargaining meets the need of today’s economy.

    The idea that each workplace operates in isolation is a myth.  

    We should be able to bargain with the company at a level that makes sense.  On any matters that workers and employers agree.

    Furthermore, I believe that good workplaces deserve recognition and that workplaces that support workers’ rights and collective bargaining should be encouraged.  

    The Fair Work Principle Procurement Policy recognises this and we need to work on its implementation to promote decent jobs.  

    Organising for a better Australia
    To achieve what we need – in policy, in industrial laws, in the workplace - unions need to grow.  We need to continue to be the strong collective voice of workers.

    We needed to 125 years ago – when the AWU first formed.  We need to now.

    To grow, we must organise.

    In every state this year the ACTU – with TLCs – are holding organising conferences.  For the first time we’re even meeting in NT - tomorrow.

    We need to learn from one another.  Put in the resources.  Dedicate time to growth.

    2011 will be another big year. With a full agenda. Along with our President, Ged Kearney, we look forward to working with AWU and your members.