SALLY McMANUS, ACTU SECRETARY
NATIONAL PRESS CLUB
WEDNESDAY 28TH SEPTEMBER, 2022
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I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on – the Ngunnawal people, and pay respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.
The Australian union movement supports the Statement from the Heart calling for voice, treaty and truth telling. We are humbled and proud to live on the country of the oldest continuous culture on this planet and believe it is time to give First Nations people truth, respect and a voice.
The last time I addressed the National Press Club was December 2020.
Looking back, it seems that I thought - with many others - that the worst of the pandemic was over.
I reflected on how lucky we were that Australians believed in the positive role of Government and that our sense of community meant most of us agreed to action for the common good.
Of course, Covid was not over, and the worst was still to come as the pandemic continues to play havoc and many lives have been tragically lost.
I will use this platform again to thank our frontline and essential workers for continuing to sacrifice so much; but they also deserve much more than thanks.
One of the lessons of the last few years is that we as a country are better, stronger and happier when we work together.
Doing something for others, pulling together as a community, committing to something greater than yourself is the glue that held us together when the virus was at its most life threatening.
This preparedness to act as a community is a precious national resource that we should celebrate and empower.
The instinct to want to work together, to look after each other, act for the greater good and build community is not however, an inevitability.
It can be nurtured, or it can be diminished, and the actions of political leaders can take us one way or the other.
At the last election, the Australian public affirmed they wanted an end to the politics of division.
And they wanted a government that better represented the diversity of our country.
Voters sent a strong message of support for a different kind of representation, clearly believing that better decisions come when more voices are heard.
We have started to experience this change.
The new Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit was a glimpse of Australia at its best.
Different views and perspectives being bought together to consider what is needed for the greater good.
This marks a big change from the last Government.
One of the things I remember about the emergency phase of the pandemic in 2020 and the almost daily meetings with the then Government was that nearly every meeting was almost exclusively, men in suits.
I remember asking myself - where is everyone else?
And why couldn’t they see this problem?
It was so stark – nearly all the pandemic leaders and decisions makers on zoom, in the safety of their comfortable homes making decisions for people whose lives are so different from theirs - the essential and frontline workers, the people stood down, the families suddenly without an income, the people risking their own health to go to work.
The Government was doing something it had not done before - taking advice from the representatives of frontline essential workers, from unions.
This was a huge difference after decades of marginalising workers’ voices.
Apart from the occasional tripartite meeting to tick a box for an international treaty, most Ministers in the Federal Government were meeting the leaders of unions who represented the working people of their portfolios for the very first time.
There were no pre-existing relationships or experience of working together outside of this crisis.
I remember how surprised some in the Government were at the attitude of union leaders.
They were continually confounded about our responses and our commitment to working together for the common good.
Some of those in Government even assumed we would use the crisis to organise disruption and set up a high-level rapid response group should this occur. This group was a distraction and a waste of time as it had nothing to do.
It was clear that they had come to believe their own rhetoric about us, which meant they did not understand us at all – fellow Australians who wanted to serve the common good and work together to save lives, jobs, and to keep people safe.
It surprised me how big the gap was between reality and their imaginations.
One day they thought we were Marxist ideologues looking for an opportunity to cause rebellion; the next day we were secret Labor Party operatives who might leak to the media.
The gap between reality and fantasy was huge and a product of not respectfully engaging with us for so long that they had come to believe their own caricatures.
What a loss for our country when the perspective of key parts of the community are shut out, their ideas and views ignored.
The change in 2020, for the briefest of time, benefitted everyone.
The most popular act of Prime Minister Scott Morrison was to bring together the National Cabinet and work across political lines. Their most popular policy was JobKeeper, proposed by the union movement who then helped implement it.
When our country faces challenges, big or small, bringing the strengths and perspectives of the diversity of our community together makes for better decisions and builds national unity.
And it is not just working people, it is the full diversity of our community and the different experiences of life in Australia – across cultures and lived experiences.
The recent Jobs and Skills Summit could not have been more different than the normal operations of the previous Government.
And this is a very good thing because the challenges ahead now for our country are significant:
- Continued global insecurity.
- The impact on our economy from war in Europe.
- Attacks on democracy and the rise of autocracy.
- The increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people.
- The existential threat of climate change
The Jobs Summit didn’t aim to provide solutions to these enormous problems.
But to those who wished its failure, be warned.
The nation heaved a sigh of relief to see the halls of Parliament House being used to create consensus, constructive discussions, and not conflict.
The Australian public voted for the change the Summit represented – listening, talking to each other, multiple voices, different opinions, a diversity of backgrounds and lived experience.
First nations people.
Different classes and backgrounds.
And working people.
The last national economic summit which bought unions and business together was 1983 – and that Summit consolidated the Accord – which delivered Medicare and the path to Superannuation. Long lasting nation building institutions.
I want to keep us in 1983 for a moment. Because a countervailing political idea was published that year.
One which has made its way to the heart of the Liberal Party, and has never left.
And one that explains how we got to a situation where the voice of workers was locked out for so long and how we were portrayed as caricatures so divorced from reality.
We saw it in the stated reason given by the Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton when he refused to accept the Federal Government’s invitation to the Job & Skills Summit. It boiled down to this:
He. Would. Not. Sit. Down. With. Unions.
It is clear the Opposition can find little internal consensus on the major issues facing Australia - gender equality, integrity and climate change.
But there appears to be one remaining safe space for the Liberal Party - denigrating people who join unions and continuing to call people who represent workers – “Union Thugs”.
The anti-union stance of the new Opposition leader is not new, and certainly not original. This hyper-aggression towards and demonising of unions had its genesis in 1983.
In that year, Gerard Henderson, a soon to be staffer to John Howard, wrote an article attacking the system of co-operation between employers and unions, and called for the dismantling of bodies that fostered agreements and regulated the different interests of workers and employers.
This call was taken up a few years later and became a campaign proper with a meeting organised by four men in Toorak in February 1986 – a meeting which led to the creation of the HR Nicholls Society. Those four men were John Stone, Peter Costello, Barrie Purvis and Ray Evans.
To quote from an article from 2007 by Michael Bachelard in The Age, “In Evan’s words they wanted nothing less than "freedom in the labour market". Their agenda involved abolishing the commission, the award system, and possibly minimum wages. If there was to be a minimum wage it would be set very, very low. Anything above that would be agreed by bargaining in an environment very unfriendly to unions. Voluntary individual contracts would be encouraged, and would take precedence over collectively negotiated agreements.”
At the heart of this campaign is the belief that employers should have free reign to decide everything - so workers’ rights, and any body, such as the Industrial Commission, that gets in the way must be removed. The very existence of unions goes against their idea of absolute employer prerogative.
To impose their ideological view on Australia they had to demonise unions and union members because we would resist any attempts to weaken workers rights. They needed to weaken the opponents of the change in every way they could, but especially in the eyes of the public if reducing workers rights could ever be politically achievable.
In a speech in 2014, the then Employment Minister, Eric Abetz compared the call to destroy workers rights to the moment that Martin Luther pinned his revolutionary leaflet to the door of a church, ushering in, as Mr Abetz told the audience - the “30-year war”.
This was not a view that bubbled up organically from the Australian public, from social trends, or even from employers.
Neither was it the natural consequence of globalisation.
This was an idea born in 1983, formed into an organisation in 1986 and pursued by elements of the Liberal Party ever since. Their “30 year” war.
Nick Minchin, giving a speech to this society in 2006 actually said the quiet bit out loud - " ..the great majority of the Australian people do not support what we are doing on industrial relations. They violently disagree."
Their 30-year campaign has seen WorkChoices, many Royal Commissions, special legislation to target unions and workers, and relentless demonisation.
It has delivered what it was designed to deliver:
- Falling real wages
- Workers not sharing in productivity
- Profound levels of job insecurity
- Growing and glaring income and wealth disparities
- One of the most gender segregated workforces in the OECD, a major part of our shameful gender pay gap.
Campaigns by the union movement to abolish WorkChoices and the introduction of the 2009 Fair Work Act helped to stem the tide but not reverse it.
But the legacy of the attack on unions has become starker in the last decade – ten years of wage stagnation and now dramatically declining real wages which low unemployment, increased productivity and bumper profits are not shifting.
I have revisited 1983 because in the coming months, we will see the Liberal Party and some of its supporters in the business lobby press play on the same old rewound cassette from the 80s.
Relentless, repetitive, ridiculous anti -union rhetoric.
As we try to fix the wages crisis, job insecurity and the gender pay gap, we will be subject to the language of the ’30-year war.’
Peter Dutton and Michaela Cash will try to rely on the caricatures to create something scarier than people not being able to pay their bills.
The old cassette player will be turned up to 11.
Here’s three vintage tunes you can expect to hear:
Firstly – The “Wage price spiral”.
This one is straight out of the 1970’s.
This has been completely disproven but they will still pump this up. It is clear that wage increases have absolutely nothing to do with our current inflation problem. In addition, a repeat of the 1970s is impossible because the economy is totally different, and the wage system of that time has been comprehensively dismantled, impossible to recreate and no one is even proposing its return.
Secondly, the hypothetical scenarios of strikes across small “mum and dad” businesses.
This one is pure fantasy.
The facts are that such strikes have never occurred in our history. Even when union membership was at 60% and when days lost to industrial disputes in our country was at its highest - it did not occur. It will not occur now. The truth is the public can see the rising profits of big business, and the increasingly obscene pay packets of CEOs. So, some big business lobby groups have to manufacture ridiculous scenarios regarding threats to small business because they do not want the public looking at them.
Lastly, the use of the term “Union thug”.
55% of union members in Australia are now women. The average union member is a 36 year old nurse and the largest union is her union, the ANMF.
Consider the facts and how divorced from reality these claims are.
Anyone who wants to understand who the union movement is in 2022 has only to look at the faces of those who have actually been on strike this year – teachers, nurses, aged care and childcare workers. Many are young women of colour. Workers who have been disrespected and under paid.
The facts and the reality are very different.
Australia is experiencing the biggest drop in living standards ever recorded; real wages had not increased for a decade and are now going backwards.
Labour productivity has increased 13% in that time, and those gains have nearly all been banked by capital.
The CEO’s of Australia’s top 100 publicly listed companies had an average pay increase of 17 per cent last year. They now earn 134 more than the average working Australian.
The truth is workers’ rights must be repaired and upgraded if they are to fix these problems.
Those of us that are advocating this are not thugs, we are fellow Australians who want fairness back so there is a better future for everyone.
The repair to the Fair Work Act must start as a matter of urgency. This Act sought to redress the damage done by the Howard’s Government’s WorkChoices legislation.
But it was drafted before the full impact of the Global Financial Crisis was known, and before the expansion of the gig economy and the other forms of work which have been used to avoid paying employee entitlements.
It was introduced before wage theft became a business model and has done nothing to help stem our collapse from 12th to 43rd in the global gender gap rankings.
As work and the economy has changed, the Fair Work Act has become more complex and inflexible. It does not provide adequate mechanisms for workers to achieve fair wages increases or to improve conditions.
It has not protected workers in the rapidly changing economy, and it certainly has not provided appropriate mechanisms to ensure compliance with workers’ rights.
The Fair Work Act generally applies to traditional employment relationships at a time when those relationships are being undermined by labour hire, sham contracting, the gig economy and other legal relationships that reduce pay and conditions.
The emphasis on enterprise level agreement making, at the expense of other forms of collective bargaining or other means of regulating wages and conditions no longer delivers pay rises with productivity growth.
The Act promotes one form of bargaining – its one size fits all. In their book, “The Wages Crisis Revisited”, Professor Andrew Stewart, Dr Jim Stanford and Dr Tess Hardy show that the proportion of employees covered by agreements is down to just 15% in late 2021 – compared to 27% in 2012.
It is a system that is failing workers and failing Australia. It is overly complicated, time consuming and too easily gamed by too many employers to drive down wages.
It needs fixing.
And the changes we need are not unusual or radical. They exist in many parts of the world in growing, competitive, wealthy economies.
Firstly, to tackle the wages crisis, we must make bargaining more accessible to more people and to stop wage theft.
The more collective bargaining, the more pay increases and the fairer work becomes in many other ways.
Large parts of the modern workforce have been effectively locked out of collective bargaining or face narrow and outmoded notions of productivity that have little meaning across many sectors – think education, health, aged care, childcare, disability and community care.
Far from encouraging innovation and productivity, enterprise only bargaining has too often encouraged and rewarded a race to the bottom, with decent employers who negotiate fair agreements being undercut by businesses who will not.
The current enterprise bargaining system often entrenches conflict and division because bargaining is drawn out far too long with unnecessary hurdles, legal complexities, and an ineffective independent umpire.
The classic example of this is enterprise bargaining at Sydney Trains.
This dispute has gone on for so long because the umpire – the Fair Work Commission – under the Fair Work Act is mainly a bystander, only allowed to assist in very limited circumstances or to enact the nuclear option of cancelling agreements which only benefit one side.
This bargaining dispute, with claims and counter claims, the Government agreeing one day and walking away the next, no one agreeing on what was agreed – shows just how broken bargaining is. It would have been resolved six months ago if we had a properly functioning bargaining system where the independent umpire could oversee difficult disputes with the power to guide it to a conclusion by ensuring everyone played by the rules.
The limits in our current law on multi-employer bargaining also hold back cooperation.
Employers in many sectors and industries face common problems such as the under-investment in skills development, technological change, climate change adaption and energy transition.
Many employers I’ve spoken to want to work together to find solutions to advance the future of their industries.
They want to attract workers to their industry. They want people to have a career and to stay. These are areas where employers and workers should and could work together.
This is exactly what happens in highly productive economies in Europe where there is multi-employer bargaining, and these issues are part of the bargaining process.
That’s why a recent report by Associate Professor Chris Wright from the University of Sydney into Australia’s skills crisis has recommended industry wide bargaining as a key solution to encouraging all employers in an industry to invest in developing the skills of their workforce.
The self-interested scare campaign about multi-employer bargaining will not mention that this system exists in many countries, countries that are highly productive and successful. In fact, even in the US the world’s 7th largest economy, the State of California has just passed laws that will allow multi-employer bargaining in the fast- food industry.
The other ridiculous scare campaign is about industrial action.
If workers have no access to protected action, bargaining power is reduced to almost zero.
When this occurs those who sit opposite you at a bargaining table walk into the room knowing you have no options. So, pay offers are low and they are “take it or leave it”. No one can effectively bargain if they start with no options and the other side knows it. But having the option to take industrial action and actually taking it are two different things. A functioning bargaining system sees more bargains and fairer workplaces as a result.
Let’s look at the facts. Many countries that have multi-employer bargaining do not have high rates of strike action. Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden – developed nations with the right to bargain with multiple employers, strong conciliation and mediation – these countries ALL lost less working hours to strikes per person than Australia. Where countries have high levels of disputation, this has more to do with the behaviour of their governments towards people, disrespect towards workers, and the history and culture of political strikes in a country.
These facts won’t matter to Michaelia Cash. She has already made wild and ridiculous claims. As previously stated, these should be seen for what they are.
I believe the argument for legislative change to fix our broken system is overwhelming. Everyone agrees the bargaining system is broken. There must be action to stop the excessive casualisation of the workforce, to support equal pay and to stop wage theft.
Our workplace laws have simply not kept pace with the changes to work, the gaming of the system by too many employers and ten years of inaction have left us with now chronic problems.
If we do not make change, wages will not get moving.
People voted to change the Government to get wages moving.
This will not stop the fear campaign by the Opposition.
Evidence and data will not sway them.
It is their 30-year war – what has become an article of faith which has not served them or the country well.
When they say there should be no modernising, it is because they support wage suppression continuing.
They will use the old anti-union caricatures as a device so they don’t have to defend their system of keeping wages low.
Australia can be and must be – so much better than this.
We have seen the economic impact of the ideology of the four men in Toorak.
But the damage it also does to our society and country when we are deliberately divided, when good people are demonised and denigrated, is significant.
Most union representatives are volunteers supporting others.
Many people belong to their union for protection, advice, legal support and access to professional and career training and development.
Others join out of a commitment to make work and society better for all.
This is what drives perhaps our oldest union activist, Joan who is 88 and involved in her local union group Unions Shoalhaven. Joan is still active, campaigning for better public services, supporting young workers and raising money for the homeless.
And this is the story of Theo Seremetidis, TWU member and the health and safety delegate who was sacked by Qantas for asking for protective equipment at the start of the pandemic, when cleaning planes from countries with Covid.
This is Bernie Banton’s story, who campaigned for justice until his last dying breath. Breath that was stolen from him by asbestosis while working at James Hardy, a company that knowingly put him and so many others in harm’s way.
It’s the story of nurses in NSW who are striking for patient ratios to ensure safe standards for every person who needs hospital care.
It’s the story of building unions who got together, cleaned up and rebuilt the houses of people affected by fire and floods.
These stories of ordinary Australians helping each other is the story of the union movement and is repeated, out of the public eye, every single day.
You could call this mateship, or solidarity; call it whatever you like.
Call it being a good community member.
Its joining up. Signing up. Turning up.
Being prepared to put yourself forward when there’s a job to be done.
Giving a voice to others and those in need.
Acting to make life better for not just yourself but for others.
All of these instincts make us stronger as a country and a community.
We should call time on the 30-year war of the Toorak men which has caused ugly division and declining living standards.
That song and that old cassette has had its time – and we must now begin to correct the deep problems it has delivered for working people.
We should be encouraging cooperation and supporting the work of unions.
Australian can do so much better.
For all the working people now struggling to keep up, working three or four jobs.
For all the frontline essential workers who deserve more than thanks.
For the women in jobs that have been undervalued for so long.
For every Australian family sitting around the kitchen table working out what to cut back on to pay the bills.
For everyone who believes that each generation should hand on something better to the next.
We have got to get this job done.