Julius Roe's Opening Speech To The AMWU National Conference Sydney 2004

The AMWU National Conference Sydney 2004 heard Julius Roe AMWU National President speak on wages, working conditions, protection of workers, pattern bargaining and the unions campaign for jobs and fair trade.

Delegates, welcome to the 2004 National Conference. A special welcome to our international guests.

First I wish to acknowledge that we meet on aboriginal land and to pay our respects to the traditional owners, the aboriginal people.

I want to pay tribute to all the delegates and officials of this union represented here and the thousands of delegates and activists of our union who are watching what we do. Yes what we do this week is important to them; it will make a difference to their lives, their dignity and their living standards.

You will hear reports at this Conference of the great successes achieved by our union. The good wage increases, the improved conditions, the protection of workers in difficult conditions, the strengthening of pattern bargaining and our campaigning for jobs and for fair trade.

You will also hear talk of how the proportion of workers in trade unions in this country and the proportion of workers in our own union has halved in the last 15 years. Since the last Conference the rate of decline in our membership has slowed. Our last Conference definitely moved us in the right direction. Your efforts are definitely paying off. But working people in this country cannot afford for us to simply slow the rate of decline. We must have a strategy for growth.

Unless we grow then the competition from non-union wages and conditions will continue to become greater. More jobs will move to the non-union sector - the incentive for the employers will be too great. Unless we grow the capacity for Australia to have a fair and democratic society will also be lost.

We will not be able to stop the growth of a privatized health and education system, the gap between the rich and poor and the huge but hidden unemployment and underemployment in this country. Unless we grow we will have declining capacity to influence political outcomes, including the policies of the Australian Labor Party.

When we say that we say that we must grow this is not a criticism of the huge efforts made by the delegates and officials in this room or in the union as a whole. If dedication and hard work was all we needed for growth then the AMWU would be growing faster than the wages of Chief Executives.

However when I say that we must grow I am saying that it is not acceptable to simply blame someone else: whether they be the bosses or the governments outside the union or whether they be some other group within the union. We have to take responsibility and be accountable.

A strategy to grow the union and to improve the conditions for working people cannot be based on individual enterprises or workplaces alone. We cannot succeed unless we can develop a real alternative to the free trade strategy of the multi-national companies.

The adoption of the free trade strategy in Australia particularly under the conservative Howard Government has meant greater income inequality, a massive increase in manufacturing imports, the fastest growth of casual and contract employment in the developed world, and real unemployment rates of at least 10% in the key industrial regions.

Almost all the new jobs under the Howard Government have been lower paid jobs – two thirds of them have been casual jobs. There has been a massive transfer of wealth from workers to corporations with the profit share of the economy at record highs.

The economic and social problems that we face in Australia are to a significant extent a result this international free trade agenda of the multi-national companies. Of course our Governments at State and Federal level could do a lot more to combat this themselves. For example casual employment has not grown as fast in many European countries or in Japan as it has in Australia because of Government policies. But action to challenge the dominance of corporate led globalization must also occur at an international level.

This is why we play a strong role in the International Trade Union movement. The AMWU is active in UNI in respect to our printing membership, in ICEM in respect to our packaging membership, in International Union of Food workers (IUF) in respect to our food membership and in International Metalworkers Federation in respect to our manufacturing industry membership generally.

In the past few years we have increased our involvement and I have been elected as a member of the international executive of the International Metalworkers Federation. The IMF has more than 20million members in more than 100 countries.

The agenda of corporate led globalization is not just about the economic, trade and jobs policies of Governments it is also about the power of unions to bargain with their employers.

We now face international trading rules which have kicked away the ladder for social and economic development for workers and their communities in many countries. The capacity for unions and democratic forces to spread the benefits of productivity growth has been dramatically weakened.

The best evidence of this is seen in the areas of the world where the multi-nationals have been sending their investment in the past few years. In China, Thailand, Eastern Europe and Mexico they have been able to achieve a combination of modern technology, infrastructure and skills without the pressure to raise wages and without having to contribute to the cost of higher social standards through taxation.

I have seen the consequences first hand. Before the North American Free Trade Agreement most TV sets bought in the US were made in the US. Within a few years 80% of all the TV sets bought in the US were made in Mexico.

The IMF Executive visited the area where many of the factories moved to. It is closer to San Diego California than Paramatta is to Sydney but it is a world away across the Mexican border. The factories are very modern but the workers live in a swamp below the factories.

They live in the packing cases used to ship the TV around the world. Their children play and they wash their clothes in a river fed by the discharge from the factory on the hill above them. A discharge full of deadly heavy metal pollution.

I spoke to the workers about the reign of terror which is preventing independent union organization in the factories. I visited the local democratic community organization which is fighting for better housing against tremendous odds. However, even these conditions weren’t good enough for the multi-national companies.

In the past few years more than half the manufacturing jobs which moved to Mexico under the NAFTA agreement have moved to China in search of even lower wages, weaker unions and lower taxation.

In our own region I have spoken to workers who have been part of an exploitation Olympic games where the multi-national companies benchmark cycle times and costs for particular production processes between similar plants in different countries. Those who loose the competition stand to loose their jobs to the inevitable winner – China.

Is it any wonder that the flow of investment and the growth in China is the fastest economic transformation ever seen in human history?

China’s economy has been growing at more than 10% every year for more than a decade.

The growth in the costal cities has been much greater. Growth has hardly touched three quarters of the rural population who live in the interior of the country. Within two or three years China will be a bigger car producer than Germany and a bigger producer of white goods and steel than the US.

Car component and electronic component production is flowing into China displacing workers in every industrialized and industrializing country. The level of exploitation in China is staggering.

More than 100 million people are temporary migrant rural labour living precariously in the cities. The health and safety and environmental standards are very poor threatening health of hundreds of millions of people.

Holden, Ford and Toyota have made it quite clear why they support the US Australia and the US Thailand Free Trade Agreements.

It is because it makes it easier for them to force workers around the world to compete for jobs in the car component sector.

Under these free trade agreements there will be more imported components in our cars.

Under these free trade agreements workers at Bosch, at PBR, at Unidrive, and at Autoliv will be told accept trade offs, work harder, and accept contracting out or your jobs will follow the jobs of our Electrolux members to China.

Every trade union in the IMF is reporting that they face five major challenges:

1. Increasing casual and contract work and jobs moving from large workplaces to smaller non-union suppliers

2. Companies moving jobs offshore especially to China and Thailand and demanding work intensification and cuts in conditions if you want to keep your job at home

3. Enterprise bargaining and attempts to break up pattern bargaining, corporate level agreements and industry level agreements. Enterprise bargaining is designed to isolate workers in one enterprise whilst the bosses are free to move their capital, their machinery, and their contracts anywhere in the world

4. Difficulties in recruiting young, women, and white collar workers

5. Capitulation by Governments, including social democratic governments, to the de-regulatory agenda of the multi-nationals.

To achieve an alternative to unfair competition we must act with trade unions and progressive forces around the world to achieve three objectives:

1. Stronger independent trade unions with a chance to win some share of the productivity growth currently captured by the multi-nationals

2. Collective bargaining at the international level to protect and extend labour rights in multi-national companies and their suppliers and to limit their unilateral restructuring. The start of this process is the International Framework Agreements which have been negotiated with some multi-national companies by the international unions.

3. Create an alternative model of international governance as an alternative to the World Trade Organisation and other institutions. A model which would end the race to the bottom in corporate regulation and taxation and ensure sufficient funds for education, health and social development. We need new global institutions with the authority to:

  • Promote and enforce human rights and core labour standards. Trading rights must be linked to enforceable social and labour standards. This must include proper protection for refugees and asylum seekers trampled on today by the Australian and other Governments.
  • Increase living standards in the third world through programs that promote both development and redistribution,
  • Reduce inequalities in developed economies,
  • Reduce armaments and stop unilateral military action such as that by the US against Iraq and
  • Take strong action on global environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, bio-diversity and environmental degradation.

    Delegates I urge you support the AMWU as an active participant in the international trade union movement. In the past few years we have:

  • Contributed to the development of stronger trade unions in Indonesia, in East Timor, in Vietnam, Burma and in the Philippines. We have contributed our expertise in union education, we have contributed to basic organizing resources and we have organized solidarity actions.
  • developed close relationships of mutual benefit with other unions
  • Implemented an exchange program with the Korean Metalworkers Federation which is developing trade union education and practical solidarity. Korea is a major trading partner of Australia and the KMWF is leading the fight against corporate globalization in Korea.
  • Received strong support from other International unions for our struggles. They have organized protests, they have held meetings on the job to make sure management are aware the world is watching and they have provided us with vital information on corporate plans for restructuring. The IMF is currently organizing support in our campaign against James Hardie which is avoiding its obligations to workers injured by asbestos.
  • Participated in each of the World Social Forums. The WSF is building a coalition for a better world and an alternative approach to globalization. The last forum in January in India had more than 50,000 participants.
  • Promoted international cooperation and activity in key multi-nationals with a strong Australian presence including BHP, Amcor, Nestle, Electrolux, and GM.
  • The AMWU has been working to make the International Trade Union Federations as active and responsive as possible. Sources not just of good ideas but also of practical solidarity.

    We are particularly pushing for more effective campaigning around International Framework Agreements with the multi-nationals and for a more energetic approach to the question of engagement with China.

    Delegates since the last Conference many of our former delegates and officials who bravely served this union have passed away.

    Many could be mentioned but John Halfpenny, former Victorian State Secretary is one who made a major contribution not only to this union but to working people as a whole. Can ask delegates to rise for one minutes silence in recognition of our departed comrades.

    Delegates once again can I welcome you to the Conference and urge you to participate in the debate in a positive manner.