Jennie George's Speech At The Light On The Hill Memorial Dinner

ACTU President Jennie George outlines the goals and vision of our movement at the memorial dinner in memory of Ben Chifley.

Introduction

I am very honoured to have been asked to speak at this memorial dinner in memory of one of the very great men of our movement, and of our nation - Ben Chifley.

 

Speaking here tonight in Bathurst is particularly significant, for Bathurst is the place with which the name Ben Chifley will forever be identified. He is truly your city's famous son.

 

In the current politically conservative and global economic environment, Chifley's memorable words about the goals and vision of our movement have a particular resonance.

 

You recall what he said

 

"I try to think of the Labor Movement .... as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind, not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand."

 

Whether we are active in the political or industrial wing of the movement, we are surely motivated in wanting to secure a better life for ordinary working people. For people just like Ben Chifley, who began his working life in a local store, then in a tannery before embarking on his career with the railways.

 

It is for people like the Ben Chifley's of today's world, that we must remain an effective and representative movement, committed to the principles of social democracy and collective representation of working people.

 

And the more our opponents want to dim that `light on the hill', the stronger we must fight for the rights and interests of those who have placed their faith in our Parry and in the union movement.

 

Let me outline tonight some of the challenges and opportunities facing the union movement.

 

With the election of the Howard Government we knew from the start that we'd be operating in a hostile environment. We knew everything that could be thrown at us would be, in their attempts to destroy the effectiveness of our movement.

 

Despite their pre-election rhetoric with their superficial concerns for the 'battlers' and 'family values' their agenda is so patently clear.

 

Their ultimate goal is to deregulate the labour market thereby exposing the most vulnerable workers to the mercy of the market place - and to achieve this they need to reduce the capacity of the unions to collectively represent working people. Their industrial relations laws transfer the upper hand in the bargaining process to the employers, coupled with the promotion of individual employment contracts. The powers of the industrial umpire, the A.I.R.C. have been reduced and the award system is to be stripped back, reducing current conditions and entitlements. If this were not enough, their new laws facilitate the financial crippling of the union movement with a range of fines and sanctions and easy recourse to common law action against unions and unionists.

 

Their promotion of individual employment contracts, which is at the heart of their strategy, is the antithesis of everything we stand for and the means by which we have secured improvements in the standard of living for ordinary working people - and that is through our commitment to collectivism.

 

The simple union message "United We Bargain, Divided We Beg" expresses the essential nature of our movement. We achieve what we do through our collective efforts and none of our gains has ever come easily, nor without a struggle and in many cases through great sacrifices by those who preceded us.

 

The union movement remains opposed to their unjust laws, but we have not allowed ourselves to be paralysed by the new legislation.

 

If they thought their laws would break our spirit, our resolve and our capacity, then they have been proven wrong.

 

Each and every day unions are out there defending and improving the pay and conditions of their members. Whether it be in the construction industry, in mining, in teaching, in the retail sector or in manufacturing and transport workers are seeing the benefits of being in the union and what can be achieved through collective effort.

 

And beyond our primary concerns for the wages and conditions of workers, we continue to play our part in mobilising against their economic and social policies. Already we have helped to roll them back on tariff reductions in the vehicle and T.C.F. industries and we continue to campaign against their policies in education, in child care, aged care and cuts to community and public services.

 

I'm sure the Government thought and hoped that we would become ineffective and paralysed. But we haven't, nor will we be.

 

We have been tested on a number of occasions already and we've stood up to those tests.

 

Neither the calling in of trains in their attempts to break our picket lines, nor the threat of troops on the waterfront, nor the blatant collusion of companies like Rio Tinto with the Governments agenda is going to deter us.

 

In the words of Ben Chifley –

 

"If I think a thing is worth fighting for, no matter what the penalty is, I will fight for the right, and truth and justice will prevail."

 

It's that same spirit, that sense of purpose that keep the morale of our workers high on the picket lines at the coal mine in the Hunter Valley and at the Port of Cairns.

 

That's not to say the intensity of the challenges are not daunting - for they are, but its often in times of adversity that we bounce back with greater determination and strength.

 

There are many challenges ahead for the union movement and I'd like to comment on just two of these - The Living Wage Case and Union Membership.

Challenges: The Living Wage Case

The union movement accepts that there will be some groups disadvantaged in the new industrial relations environment. Those without industrial strength and workplace organisation may not be in a position to withstand the assault on their wages and conditions planned by the Howard Government. It is these workers, without industrial bargaining power, for whom we have the greatest concern and obligation.

 

As you know, it is Australia's unique Award System which has provided a secure set of minimum wages, conditions and entitlements for the many workers who would not otherwise be able to secure them. This is particularly the case for workers in the service sector and other labour intensive industries - the unskilled, women, migrants, young people, part time and casual workers.

 

If we were to follow John Howard's call for labour market de-regulation as in the United States and Britain, we would inevitably witness large increases in the "working poor" as part time, low paid, precarious forms of employment replace full time, secure, well paid jobs.

 

If we are not careful, Australia will go down the path towards the creation of an under class of vulnerable marginalised workers, as in the U.S., where over 4 million people work for the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, with virtually no access to health care or public housing, locked into poverty for generation after generation.

 

There is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost if we were to follow America and jettison our system which has provided proper industrial and social safety nets.

 

It is through the ACTU's Living Wage claim that we are attempting to raise the living standards of the low paid and to close the gap in terms of income differentials.

 

Evidence presented during the first phase of our Living Wage Case showed that Award wages were lagging well behind outcomes achieved through collective bargaining, well behind average weekly ordinary time earnings and more so behind growth in executive salaries. We argued that 12% of the workforce can be characterised as low paid, defined as earning less than $9 per hour or $342 before tax for a 38 hour week. This proportion rises to around a quarter in service industries, such as retail and hospitality and the female dominated clothing and footwear industry.

 

This growing disparity in incomes is not something which should be tolerated by the labour movement.

 

The ACTU was very disappointed with the Commissions decision to grant only a small $10 increase, bringing the minimum Federal wage to $9.56 per hour. The Commission was clearly spooked by the Reserve Bank's public opposition to the claim. They both got the economics wrong and robbed the working poor of the salary increases they deserved.

 

The economy could and still can, clearly afford a larger increase without threating inflation or putting pressure on interest rates.

 

We intend to pursue our claim with vigour and will re-present our arguments before the Commission very shortly.

 

The concluding sentiments expressed by Vice President Ross in his minority decision says it all.

 

"If we are to begin to address the problems confronting low paid employees and the widening gap between award and market wages we must do more than simply maintain the real wages of the low paid. Such an outcome simply preserves the status quo. A status quo in which income inequality is increasing and many low paid workers and their families have to go without food or clothing, is neither fair nor equitable."

 

"To deny sections of the community a minimum standard of living is to condone `poverty amongst affluence' a situation which is both personally humiliating and morally indefensible."

Recruitment

The other major challenge is in the area of union recruitment. You are all aware that union membership has declined in recent years. There are many factors contributing to this. The major challenge for us however is to find the means of attracting to unionism employees in those categories where we have not been all that successful in the past; that is, among young people, women, part-time employees and workers in the service sector.

 

We do need to turn around this decline and re-assert our relevance in a world that is quite a different one from that which saw our beginnings.

 

To a certain degree, the new Industrial Relations environment may well assist with recruitment. Some employees are turning to unions because of their fear that they will lose existing entitlements or be forced into individual employment arrangements.

 

Others are looking to unions to assist with bargaining at the workplace, in order to achieve the best results.

 

However, we need to do more than simply wait for Mr Howard and Mr Reith to deliver us membership.

 

I am on the record many times as stating that unions need to change and modernise in order to meet the needs of employees in the twenty-first century.

 

The first and most important role for unions is to effectively represent members in the workplace. The primary expectation which members have of their union is to improve their wages and conditions.

 

I believe that as unions are seen to achieve results in the workplace, the recruitment process will be greatly assisted. When union members negotiate and enterprise agreement, the results of union activity are more immediately obvious, and the issue of “freeloading” by non-members is highlighted.

 

Development of better workplace organisation is critical for effective workplace bargaining, as is the presence of union delegates on the job, a factor linked to higher unionisation.

 

The second key recruitment strategy is linking work issues with community concerns. The recent childcare campaign is a good example of this approach, where unions have linked the low wages of childcare workers, and their concerns about their jobs, with the great anger amongst parents caused by Government cut-backs and consequent reduction in services and closures.

 

By demonstrating a knowledge and interest in the totality of childcare issues, together with expertise in campaigning, the unions have been able to make significant progress in recruiting employees in the industry.

 

Another example is the successful outwork campaign, where the union has linked the concerns of its members employed in factories on award wages, with community concern at exploitation of migrant women working at home for as little as $3 per hour. The union has combined consumer campaigns, with action in the Commission, and a prosecutions campaign against employers who underpay outworkers, effectively put this issue on the nation’s social agenda.

 

The third major strategy is to develop the traditional role of unions in providing individual benefits to members. Funeral benefits and discount schemes of various sorts have formed part of union services to members since their inception. Today, the ACTU is working to develop a more sophisticated package of financial, legal and buying services which will take advantage of the customer power of our more than two million members.

 

New challenges create new opportunities, and are a spur for creative thinking and more effective operation. I am sure you will see a lot more of this from the union movement in the next few years.

Economic Rationalism

While our primary focus is an industrial one, the two wings of the labour movement have an important challenge in casting aside the mantra of the economic rationalists.

 

It is now becoming more fashionable to argue that we live in a society, not just an economy and that the purpose of the economic system is to serve the people.

 

“I start from a simple belief that people are not separate economic actors competing in the market place of life. They are citizens of a community. We are social beings nurtured in families and communities and human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each others.”

 

If we genuinely believe this, then it requires that the focus of economic policy changes, so that it is people who matter most, not adherence to the glib certainties of the economic text books and the global market players whose interests they express.

 

Two decades of experience with globalisation and the policies of economic rationalism now show that for the mass of ordinary working people, they have failed to deliver the promised economic benefits. More than that, there is mounting evidence that the social changes that have been the consequences of these processes have brought about a sharp decline in the welfare of ordinary people.

 

Ethan Kapstein, Director of Studies at the US Council of Foreign Relations, in a article last year put it in these terms.

 

“The global economy is leaving millions of disaffected workers in its train. Inequality, unemployment and endemic poverty have become its handmaidens. Rapid technological change and heightening international competition are fraying the job markets of the major industrialised countries.

 

At the same time systemic pressures are curtailing every government’s ability to respond with new spending. Just when working people most need the nation State as a buffer from the world economy, it is abandoning them."

 

For ordinary Australians the benefits of globalisation have been elusive. Mass unemployment has become chronic, inequality has increased, jobs have become insecure, working hours are longer, the extent and quality of services provided by the public sector has declined, real wages at the lower income levels have declined, more people are dependent on Government assistance, accompanied by a growth in the numbers of the ‘working poor’, and a generation of young unemployed people has been virtually abandoned.

 

In this climate of economic uncertainty, combined with changes occurring in their own communities, peoples sense of security and well being has been affected. It found political expression with the defeat of the Federal Labor Government at the last election.

 

There was a widely held view that the Labor Government was out of touch with the consequences of its economic agenda. The Government was seen as promoting the changes, rather than protecting its citizens from the inequality and insecurity they were experiencing. We can’t return to fortress Australia, we are part of a global economy, but we have to do more to address the pressing concerns of ordinary people – their anxiety about their existing employment and where the jobs will be for them, their children and their communities.

 

The appropriate goal of economic policy is surely to improve the lives of people – but the reverse has occurred. While some at the top end have benefited, the majority have not.

 

This is confirmed in the preliminary conclusions of the most extensive survey ever carried out of Middle Australia, by Dr. Michael Pusey, Professor of Sociology at the University of NSW.

 

What de he find?

 

 

  • The preliminary data indicates that about two-thirds of middle Australians have negative feelings about what is happening. The responses point to some bafflement about the first economic recovery in living memory that has yielded no obvious benefits for the broad mass of the population – and which may, more probably have produced a great many more losers than winners.

 

 

 

  • Middle Australians have a very clear idea of who are the winners and losers in the economic and social restructuring of the past 15 years. Most believe that big companies, rich people with assets and people on high incomes have been the main winners and people on social security, small businesses and people on low incomes have been the big losers.

 

 

 

  • Their anger and resentment is directed mainly at politicians, the economic system, big business and the media in that order. Immigrants, their own inadequacies, employers and unions are the bottom of the blame hierarchy.

 

 

 

  • The findings seem to show that people are not primarily materialistic or greedy. When asked what gives them most satisfaction in life, greater value is placed on social life, friendships, family harmony, interesting work and good health than on income.

 

 

 

  • Though most are coping with the economic changes in terms of their incomes, 50.7% reported that their quality of life was declining and 63.5% thought that the incomes and job prospects of Middle Australians were falling, not rising.

 

 

 

  • Most Middle Australian’s feel that governments can do “quite a bit” to change things for the better especially to improve health and social business pay fair wages.

 

 

Pusey argues that the data refutes the economic rationalist assumption that our Middle Australians will obediently agree to reduce their expectations of governments and throw in their lot with supposedly free market forces.

 

According to Dr. Pusey, the signals of “unsustainable social and economic” strain are clear. He feels that if peoples confidence in our institutions, communities, networks are too strongly eroded “anxiety and moral panic will fill the vacuum and spill over into social conflicts and scapegoating.”

 

We are currently witnessing this in the very divisive and cynical exploitation of the politics of envy and resentment.

 

In the 1995 Boyer Lecture series Eva Cox argued with force that there “is something wrong with making the market principles of social Darwinism the guiding principle of a civilised society.”

 

She stated:

 

“We should shift the debate from more and more competition to what levels of intervention are needed to sustain the social cohesion necessary for democracy.”

 

It is clear that the promotion of efficiency and competition in all spheres of our life has been at the expense of social cohesion and co-operation, and it is sounding alarm bells for the future.

 

Well, I’m hoping and am confident that the Labor Party is taking heed of these messages and is hearing the peal of the alarm bells. That is the major challenge for the ALP at its National Conference in early 1998. We need to draw up a blueprint for economic priorities based on concern for human beings rather than blueprints based on abstract theoretical, economic formulae.

 

To that end the ACTU believes that our policy responses must include consideration of issues such as:

 

 

  • setting targets for reducing unemployment and creating employment growth;

 

 

 

  • activate industry policy measures, including for the services sector;

 

 

 

  • regional development strategies to stop the death of many country towns and regions;

 

 

 

  • a boost for infrastructure development;

 

 

 

  • a national program of public works financed by low cost loans;

 

 

 

  • active labour market programs;

 

 

 

  • traineeships for the young unemployed, not Work for the Dole;

 

 

 

  • addressing the paradox of overwork, underemployment and unemployment;

 

 

 

  • a role for the public sector in job creation in areas of social infrastructure e.g. age and child care;

 

 

 

  • greater investment in education, training and lifelong learning;

 

 

 

  • retention of industrial and social security safety nets;

 

 

 

  • governments maintaining their core responsibilities in areas like health and education including ownership in ares with social impacts such as communications, power and water;

 

 

 

  • a tax system which is fair, progressive, based on wealth and which provides scope for hypothecated taxes – and not a G.S.T.

 

Conclusion

In the lead up to the next election it is more than ever important that the Labor Party re-affirms the basic principles and values that distinguish it as a social democratic party.

 

Let us pick up the best of what Paul Keating gave us – the big issues of Reconciliation, of our Regional realities, of the Republic. But let’s also make sure that we do not neglect the raft of issues that impact on peoples lives.

 

Our opponents both in the corporate and political world would not only want to dim the “light on the hill’, but extinguish it. Their society would be one illuminated by the neon signs of the great corporations and by the lurid Las Vegas lights of the Casinos.

 

In the memory of Ben Chifley, lets together, the industrial and political wings of our movement, makes sure this never happens.

 

Address by ACTU President Jennie George on the occasion of the 13th Ben Chifley ‘Light On The Hill” Memorial Dinner, Bathurst, Saturday 20th September, 1997.