Staying-power and our collective commitment to a better future keeps the union cause bright and burning says ACTU Secretary Greg Combet in his speech on the 75th Anniversary of the ACTU.

The place of unions in society

Today we are celebrating much more than the first 75 years of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Much more than a celebration of our past, this is an affirmation of our future.

We are here to stake the claim of the union movement to its central place in Australia’s future.

Because Australian unions belong at the very heart of the work, life and aspirations of Australian people.

That is our history and it is also our future.

We have learnt from our history that the desire for a better life, for a fairer sharing of wealth and opportunity, can never be met through individual action or personal effort alone.

It requires collective action.

And collective action, through union organisation, is the way Australian working men and women best achieve their aspirations – not only for themselves and their families, but for a fairer and more just society.

The right to organise

That is why we keep up the fight for the fundamental principles of unionism – the right of people to organise, and their right to bargain collectively.

It’s a struggle almost as old as Australian history.

Take the example, given by Timothy Coghlan in Labour and Industry in Australia, published in 1918:

In 1822 …. a convict servant was brought before the magistrate at Liverpool near Sydney, charged with the offence of inciting his master’s servants to combine for the purpose of obliging him to raise their wages and increase their rations.

The magistrate took a very serious view of this attempt at labour combination and the prisoner was sentenced to solitary confinement on bread and water for one month, to receive five hundred lashes, and to pass the remainder of his original sentence at a penal settlement.

Even seventy years later, the core issue at stake in the Great Strikes of the 1890s was the right to organise.

This is not just ancient history. Even today, workplace delegates from the call centres of Melbourne to the iron ore mines of the Pilbara, are sometimes victimised and lose their jobs.

And all of us who lived through the waterfront confrontation of April 1998 know that the right to organise cannot be taken for granted.

The New South Wales Premier Bob Carr got it absolutely right when he said about the attack on the MUA:

‘These sackings are not about reform, they are not about restructuring – they are about driving unions out of the Australian workforce. By this action, the dogs at midnight, the mercenaries trained abroad, the special legislation, the $250 million dollars of taxpayers’ money – the Howard Government has declared to the world that in Australia, union membership is a sackable offence.’

The establishment of the ACTU

We can see now that 1998 dispute was one of many key events in union history.

Tonight we celebrate another key event – one of the most important – and that is the foundation of the ACTU.

We salute the founders, the leaders, the officers, the affiliated unions, the staff, and most of all, the millions of Australian working men and women who have marched under the banner of the ACTU for the past 75 years.

We recall the initiative of E.J. Holloway, the Secretary of the Melbourne Trades and Labour Council, who invited all federal and state unions and the Trades and Labour Councils to attend an All-Australian Trade Union Congress.

It opened at the Melbourne Trades Hall on the 3rd of May, 1927. Its purpose in Ted Holloway’s words, was “to create the oft – expressed desire for a more complete form of organisation of the Trade Union Movement of Australia.”

Present were 157 delegates representing 108 unions. The biggest union of all, the Australian Workers Union, was a notable absentee, and was not to join the ACTU until forty years later.

The first President of the ACTU was the President of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, W. J. Duggan, elected unopposed. Charlie Crofts narrowly defeated the communist nominee Jock Garden for the position of Secretary.

The ACTU’s first test came almost immediately.

Early challenges

It took place against the background of an economy heading for the bust we know as the Great Depression.

There was a militant anti-union Federal Government under Stanley Melbourne Bruce, orchestrating an attack in the metal trades, construction and maritime industries to break down awards and ultimately the Federal arbitration system.

There was a Federal Labor Party bruised by four successive election defeats.

Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

The specific issue in 1927 was the drive by metal trades employers to introduce piecework payments, revert to the daily hire system and reintroduce the 48 hour week.

The ACTU mobilised the fight in the streets, in the factories and in the Arbitration Court. The combination of public protest, industrial action and advocacy before the courts won a decisive victory for the ACTU and the workers it was representing for the first time.

At its first test, the ACTU had shown firm leadership.

ACTU leadership

The Council was fortunate in its early leadership. And I believe that good fortune never deserted us in the decades to come.

How else could the ACTU have survived and overcome the devastation of the Depression, the challenges of the Second World War, the heartbreak of the 1949 Coal Strike, the Great Labor split of the fifties, and the Menzies era?

It would be impossible to let this occasion pass without special mention of Albert Monk. He more than anyone held the ACTU together during those difficult years, working to maintain unity in the face of Cold War ideologies.

And perhaps the best tribute to Albert Monk comes from the man he recruited in 1958 to become the Council’s first research officer and full-time advocate, Bob Hawke.

And Bob has written:

‘To my mind in his 40 years service both as ACTU Secretary and President, Albert Monk made two outstanding contributions which have served as a permanent monument to him within the trade union movement and the nation as a whole. First, he kept the ACTU as the one central trade union organisation against successive threats from the Left and the Right to establish rival bodies. This was a tribute to his quiet, patient negotiating skills in times of crisis.’

Bob Hawke continued:

‘Second he gave strong courageous support to the Chifley Labor Government’s massive post war immigration program against the initial opposition of many sections of the trade union movement. Many union leaders and workers saw waves of migrants as a threat to jobs. Without the far-sighted leadership and commitment of Albert Monk, it is arguable that the immigration program would not have done so much to change Australia for the better.’

I cite Bob’s words about Albert Monk at some length because they also capture the essence of the ACTU’s role from 1927 and into the 21st Century.

It’s about responsibility. It’s about leadership. It’s about involvement in the wider affairs of the Australian community. It’s about helping to build a nation which is fair and decent.

And you only need to ask a simple question to measure the ACTU’s achievements.

What kind of a country would we have without them?

ACTU achievements

Take first the bread and butter industrial issue – wages.

From the beginning in 1927 the ACTU took responsibility for running the basic wage case.

Since then, through the award system and the national wage case in all its forms, we have been the driving force in achieving one of the world’s best minimum wage systems.

The fact is that wages campaigns driven by the ACTU and by unions have improved the living standards of many millions of Australian working families over the last 75 years.

Within the wages system there have been important battles – most notably the ongoing struggle to achieve pay equity for women.

The big breakthroughs came in 1969, when the “equal pay for equal work” principle was achieved in the Female Rates Case run by Bob Hawke; and then in the Equal Pay Test case in 1972 – which secured an equal minimum rate for men and women.

Curiously enough, these cases came hard on the heels of an event illustrating the ACTU’s somewhat undeveloped feminist consciousness – the Miss Trade Union Competition.

Yes, you’ll be pleased to hear that in the last known contest in 1967, Miss Electrical Trades Union stormed home. The runner up? The contestant with the unlikely title – Miss Federated Engine Drivers’ and Firemans’ Association!

But the achievements of the ACTU and its affiliated unions extend well beyond wages.

Here in Melbourne where the fight for the 8-hour day was first fought and won 150 years ago, it is fitting to recall landmarks in the continuing campaigns on working hours and leave.

The 40–hour week became law on 1 January 1948, after a three year campaign, 126 days of court hearings, 440 exhibits, 228 witnesses and the appearance of 26 advocates.

The 38–hour week was delivered as part of the 1983 national wage case.

And only this year, we made an important break-through by winning a right for employees to refuse overtime on the grounds of family commitments or health and safety concerns.

It’s hard to imagine these days, but it wasn’t until 1941, that watershed year when John Curtin formed the Labor Government that saved Australia, that the ACTU was able to establish the right to paid annual leave. One whole week!

Three weeks was won in 1963, and four weeks in 1970.

Sick leave was another achievement of 1941.

Building on these gains

We must always remember that all these gains, now taken for granted by all employees, met bitter resistance at every stage.

Predictions of doom and ruin have greeted every major ACTU claim – whether it was long service leave in 1952, or for unpaid maternity leave or basic redundancy pay in the 1980s.

There will continue to be a crescendo of false arguments as we lead the case for paid maternity leave, and better workplace rights for parents.

But we have a just cause, and an undeniable record of achievement.

And there’s no better example of this than our quest for a universal right to superannuation. Unions campaigned on the job, in the Commission, and in the Parliament, eventually achieving a minimum 9% employer contribution.

It’s a stand out triumph for the ACTU and the labour movement.

The stark fact is that compulsory saving through superannuation is now the only factor mitigating against the widening wealth gap in Australia.

Fifteen or so years on, workers have tens of billions of dollars invested in their own accounts, in super funds which return all profits to members.

It’s a unique and remarkable achievement.
And here I pay tribute to my predecessor as ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty.

Many people worked to build super, but the ACTU’s work in this area exemplifies Bill’s many attributes.

His passion about an issue, the intellect to conceive a strategy, the daring to inspire others, and the capacity to deliver practical outcomes. These were the elements of Bill’s success as a leader, and with them he delivered gains which will endure for generations.

And when you consider the history of the ACTU, leadership is an enduring theme.

Leaders such as Albert Monk and Harold Souter were pivotal up to the seventies. But over the last 30 years the dominant ACTU leaders have been Bob Hawke and Bill Kelty.

The Hawke years

During the Hawke presidency, I think it’s fair to say that the ACTU began to reach its full potential as a national institution – as a recognised and widely respected advocate for working men and women.

When he was elected president in 1969 Australia was still in Vietnam, and apartheid reigned in South Africa. There was a movement for change amongst younger people around the world.

In Australia we were still in the grip of two demoralising decades of Menzies, Holt, Gorton and later McMahon.

Bob Hawke shook the place up. He helped to breathe life and optimism into the labour movement. He threw out challenges.

As ACTU President he challenged unions to begin the process of modernisation.

He looked beyond traditional union approaches to improve the lot of workers. As well as lifting income through wages he tackled living costs by attacking prices.

And that’s how Bourke’s Store, ACTU World Travel and Solo Petrol came about.

Hawke also helped to establish union education and Clyde Cameron College, and unified the movement by bringing CAGEO and ACSPA into the ACTU.

He continued to build the ACTU’s international standing at the ILO and in union forums.

And for good measure the ACTU banned the South African Rugby team, the French over nuclear testing, and stuck up Frank Sinatra for insulting our female journalists!

Bob helped to get the show on the road, and laid the basis for a sustained period for Labor in Government in the 80s and 90s.

The Accord

As Prime Minister, Bob Hawke presented the ACTU with the challenge of an historic partnership.

Unions accepted the challenge.

It went beyond the Accords, because in those years, the Australian economy, its infrastructure, and the industrial relations system itself underwent a radical often painful transformation.

In many ways the Accord years were extremely testing for the ACTU leadership.

Because the opportunity to influence Government involved the acceptance of responsibility – the responsibility to advocate change, and to work in the interests of the nation as a whole.

It has led to profound change in this country.

The Accord period paved the way for the sustained economic growth of the last ten years, the record productivity gains, and low inflation and strong jobs growth.

And it produced Medicare, superannuation, family payments, minimum rates adjustments, training and career opportunities – there’s a list of achievements as long as your arm.

And they are real and enduring changes which have improved the lives of Australian people.

They are a credit not only to the Hawke and Keating Governments, but also to the quality of the ACTU leadership.

Bill Kelty was there throughout. But he worked with some great people – Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Garry Weaven, Iain Ross and Bill Mansfield – to name just a few amongst many good people.

There’s a few blokes in that list, but many women also made telling contributions.

One in particular stands out. She was the first female Executive member, the first woman elected as ACTU President, a fighter for working men as well as women – Jennie George was a trail blazer in ACTU forums for over two decades.

She ensured the equal representation of women on the ACTU Executive, and changed the ACTU for the better.

This evening, with the unusual opportunity of having so many of these great people together, I want to say thankyou to all of you for what you have done.

The challenges ahead

In our 75th year the ACTU faces challenges as great as any we have faced in the past.

We have experienced a change greater in the past decade than in all the years before.

Economic change has transformed the workforce and the workplace.

Macro-economic prosperity has tended to disguise the gut-wrenching micro-picture – of widening inequality, casual jobs, and intensifying work pressure.

Political change has led to vicious attacks on the right to organise.

And at the same time we have been involved in a historic decentralisation of the industrial relations system.

The change to enterprise bargaining has taken unions out of the industrial tribunals and into tens of thousands of workplaces. Where once we needed court room advocates, we now need workplace campaigners.

More than any time since the Australian Federation, the most important places for the unions to work are the places where our members work.

It is, in a sense, a new beginning for our movement.

And, most importantly, there is optimism about the future.

And it’s because our cause is just, and there’s so much to do.

We want to lift the wages of low paid workers.

We want to overcome inequality and poverty.

We want a better deal for our two million casual workers.

We want people to feel confident about being parents as well as workers.

We want to reduce death, injury and disease in the workplace.

We want to improve super so that people can retire with a decent income.

And we want to rebuild great Labor institutions like Medicare and bulk billing.

And then there’s education, justice for indigenous people, the case for a republic, a fairer tax system.

No one in the labour movement should lack motivation, because there’s a lot to be done.

And it’s not just staying-power that keeps our movement alive.

It is our collective commitment to a better future.

And for the challenges ahead, we draw on a matchless resource – the accumulated knowledge and confidence that comes from the lessons of three-quarters of a century and more.

We will best keep faith with those who have worked and sacrificed to build the ACTU, by keeping our faith in the union cause bright and burning in the years ahead.

This speech was given by ACTU Secretary Greg Combet

On the 75th Anniversary of the ACTU

26 November, 2002

State Library of Victoria