Jeff Lawrence: Speech to the Australian Workers’ Union National Conference

Introduction
Thank you for inviting me to speak at your national conference today. I would like to congratulate the leadership team for their re-election.

The AWU is an important participant in the ACTU.  Paul’s election as ACTU Vice President confirms this. Congratulations Paul.

During 2008 I said there were three priorities:

1.    Dealing with the economic crisis: jobs
2.    Getting the best IR legislation we can
3.    Growing unions

Today I would like to talk about these priorities and the progress the ACTU has made on them and our plan for the future.

I’m sure you’ve heard enough by now – the global economy, to use the official term these days, is buggered.  Even the most positive predictions are gloomy.  

  • In the US unemployment is already at 7.2%: with 500,000 jobs being lost a month
  • GDP in the UK fell by 1.5% in the last quarter – they’re shedding 100,000 jobs a month
  • The IMF has cut its forecast for global growth in 2009 from 2.2 per cent to 0.5 per cent – the lowest growth since World War II
  • China is not immune – over 20 million rural migrant workers have lost their jobs since crisis began

  • While the downturn is beginning to bite domestically, the Federal Government is doing its bit to make sure the Australian economy is not as badly affected as others overseas.

    Nevertheless, unemployment in Australia is expected to rise to 7 per cent by early 2010 – suggesting around 250,000 workers could lose their jobs.


    Economic stimulus package

    The ACTU has been at the forefront of the push to protect jobs since the earliest signs that Australia would not be immune from the global financial crisis. We have argued for stimulus measures, proposed innovative ways of preserving jobs while retraining and reskilling the workforce, and most recently, called for a jobs summit, to be attended by unions, governments and business so we can all be on the same page finding solutions to the crisis.

    The ACTU welcomes the Rudd Government’s second stimulus package yesterday.  It is a comprehensive package: with short-term support for working families and longer term infrastructure investment.

    But it is likely that more will need to be done.  To be in line with a global target, up to 5 per cent of GDP should to be spent on job creating initiatives. 

    Unions have already been successful in influencing the shape of the government’s response to the GFC but workers want to see these initiatives focus on job retention and creation. 

    We are strongly advocating for the Government to adopt a further plan to ensure employers retrain, retool, and rethink redundancy. 

  • We believe workers' entitlements must be guaranteed 100%.  There are many ways this can be done.  A universal scheme managed nationally or by industry; or a pay-as-you-go contribution plan.  At a minimum, the ACTU has said legislation is needed to rank employees’ entitlements above secure creditors, with guaranteed training and assistance to get back into the workforce.  

  • For workers without access to redundancy pay the ACTU wants to see the government invest productivity places in training, backed up with case management. These places would include income guarantee for 6 months at no less than 80 per cent of their previous income.

  • Australia cannot afford to let employers use this crisis to slash wages and conditions.  The Government stimulus plan should include a submission to the Australian Fair Pay Commission to maintain minimum wages.  Penalising low paid workers would be both morally and fiscally wrong.  The ILO warned last week that lowering wages would cause deflation, which must be avoided, if we are to avoid a prolong downturn.

    Futher big infrastructure may be needed or should be brought forward.  Infrastructure needed for future prosperity – rail, roads, ports, schools and health.

    The new National Broadband Network is a priority. This is infrastructure that creates and retains jobs. That builds new industries and growth opportunities for the future as well as supporting decent living standards for workers and our families.

    Local content in these new infrastructure projects must be maximised — as Paul Howes has said. There must be openings for apprentices and an ongoing role for skills development that sustains long term careers. And there must by fair IR policies.

    What is the point of taxpayers footing the bill for these big projects if the employers are able to outsource the work offshore or to allow contractors to undercut decent wages and conditions for the workers?


    New solution
    Beyond the immediate jobs crisis, there is another pressing issue: the reshaping of our economic architecture so a collapse of this magnitude cannot occur again.

    This means abandoning the selfish pursuit of greed we have seen in recent years. It means dumping the misguided ideology of neo-liberalism and let-the-market-rip of the kind we saw under the former Howard-Costello Government, and in the US, and other countries in recent years.

    We need to replace it with a more democratic approach.  Where the big investment decisions are not left to the boardrooms, but where there is a proper, strong, role for the government that is transparent and accountable.  And one that leads to a more equitable society, with a fair share of the proceeds of economic growth for all and, above all, respect for workers’ rights.

    If the global financial crisis has taught us anything, it’s that unfettered markets don’t work. They don’t work for the economy, and they do nothing for ordinary workers.

    There are positive signs that this message is sinking in. Barack Obama understands, and it appears that Kevin Rudd is beginning to.

    Last week Obama launched his Task Force on Middle-Class Working Families, he was unequivocal about the important role of unions.  And I think he makes an important point – just as relevant for Australia – when he says:

    … we need to reverse many of the policies toward organized labor we’ve seen these last eight years, policies with which I have sharply disagreed. I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem; to me, and to my administration, labor unions are a big part of the solution. We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests.
    Because we know that you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement. And we know that strong, vibrant, and growing unions can exist side by side with strong, vibrant, and growing businesses. This is not an either-or proposition between the interests of workers and the interests of shareholders. The American economy is not – and has never been – a zero-sum game.


    In Australia, workers, and their unions are an essential part of the solution to our current economic mess. 
    The labour movement must be both strident and progressive in advocating our case that the system needs to be fixed.

    We cannot vacate any space to the business lobby, where some will use this crisis to push their own self-interested agenda.

    We are already seeing this in the push back on the Fair Work Bill with the spurious argument that economic circumstances mitigate against industrial relations changes.

    For too long, workers have been forced to the wayside as unions were marginalised and denied a voice in public policy. Our warnings, that an economy could not be truly said to be prosperous if workers were left behind, went unheeded.

    Big business, meanwhile, needs to put on hold its obsession with profits if it wants to have a market to sell to in the future. Business needs to make jobs sacrosanct, because there won’t be a market without decent jobs and decent wages, and the time for workers to spend the money they make.

    While unions are prepared to be flexible and restrained in tough times, we won’t accept cuts to workers’ real incomes. We won’t accept a wages-tax trade-off. The Accord was right for its time, but today’s decentralised wage system is far different from that of the 1980s.


    Fair Industrial Laws
    The state of the economy only makes it more urgent that the Fair Work Bill – with the improvements we have called for – is passed by the Senate so unions can protect the wages and conditions that are under attack from employers. This protection is even more necessary in the current circumstances.

    I know not everyone is happy with the Fair Work Bill.  I too believe that we have substantial unfinished business, I want us to also remember what we have achieved.

    Thanks to the Your Rights at Work campaign – new AWA individual contracts that cut wages and conditions have been banned: no more Spotlight 2 cent an hour pay rises for loss of all conditions.  More work will be needed to stamp out the continuation of current AWAs (ITEAs) and the ACTU will need your union’s help.

    The new legislation will restore rights at work including protection from unfair dismissal.  Workers will again have the right to access information and representation in their workplace: through union right of entry and delegate rights.

    Wages and conditions will be protected through a stronger safety net – with both the national employment standards and modern awards.  The ACTU will be vigilant in the award modernisation process to make sure it does not leave workers worse off. 

    Significantly the new laws will have collective bargaining at its core.  The Fair Work Bill promises to restore the capacity of workers to stand together and negotiate with their boss.  And we will keep a careful watch to ensure this is delivered.

    The first test will be if workers, like those at Cochlear, Telstra, and Boeing – who have been denied the right to union collective agreement – will be able to sit down at the negotiating table with their union.  Some workers have been waiting since WorkChoices began. 

    None of what we have achieved has been given to us.  When the rights of working Australians were attacked – unions stood up.  Australian workers will not forget that we stood up for their rights.

    Lessons of the effective and unified Your Rights at Work campaign cannot be forgotten – the TV ads, the resourcing, the on the ground activities. 

    Nor can we forget – we won because of our values. The Liberals continue to talk about our multi-million dollar campaign – let’s not forget they spent far more of Australian taxpayers money – and it got them nowhere.

    Our values for decent work won.  We stood up against the prevailing wind of labour deregulation and free market free-for-all, that has now proven so devastating.   

    The ACTU will continue to stand up for working people and fight for improvements in the legislation.  Improvements such as:

  • True freedom of bargaining
  • Better industrial action provisions
  • Right to bargain across industries
  • Better right of entry 
  • And the abolition of the ABCC

  • Abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission
    All these improvements are important, none more so that the getting rid of the construction industry laws.  These laws should not exist in a civil society.  They most definitely should not exist under a Labor government.

    It is wrong that construction workers have fewer rights than all other workers. That a worker, or even an apprentice, can be called into a secret interviews for hours – one in three without legal representation - is wrong.  That a unionist could be hauled before a court & face jail sentence for not appearing in these interviews – is a disgrace. These laws have to go.


    Plan for the future
    I believe in this tough time – we need to be a strong voice.

    A new growth and campaign executive committee has been formed to guide the union movements, which the AWU will play a significant part in.

    After fighting hard to set a pro-active agenda – unions will continue to work to lead the debate.  This committee is about getting past the urgency of the present and to start planning for the future.

  • The ACTU is trialling new initiatives: already growth pilots are underway & we have began industry growth campaigns;
  • We will make sure we get the best possible IR laws and they are implemented in the most positive way;
  • We will be running public campaigns about key issues for workers and to grow our membership.

  • The ACTU will listen to the AWU and to what is needed.  And we need the resources to ensure we can do it.
    Not all can be achieved at the national level – equally so – not all can be achieved at the local or state level.
    I ask for your support in working together and being part of a united union movement that stands up and delivers for all working Australians. 

    I urge you to participate in developing the policies the movement will agree on at our Congress in Brisbane in June this year. 

    And I strongly urge you to do what you can to grow your union, and in doing so, help create a stronger union movement overall.

    This is a tough time.  It is not without opportunity.  My focus is on our priorities that I’ve discussed today and building consensus plan.  I look forward with working with the AWU.