AWU National Secretary Bill Shorten delivered the following address at the opening of the AWU’s 2005 National Conference at Broadbeach, Queensland on February 7, 2005.
Welcome delegates and guests. I think I am speaking for all you when I say
that we have come here in order that we may pause for a moment in which to
invigorate our beliefs, and to revive our boldness and nourish our values. I’d
like to thank all the AWU officials and officers here in particular because
today is a proud day for me. I am proud to be here together with you again after
another two years with the AWU. I think that we are right to be proud of our
work since our last conference in 2003. Just consider a few of our
All our Branches from across the country are contributing to these efforts.
Our National Conference this week reminds us how much stronger we are by
sticking together – How much our success depends upon our unity.
Whether it’s our WA Branch opening a new office in Kalgoorlie, or forcing a
new safety regime on BHP Billiton’s mines after their scandalous record of
deaths and serious safety breaches. Or new organising campaigns in growth areas
like our Newcastle Branch’s push into industries from hairdressing to airline
maintenance. Or our Queensland Branch establishing real career paths and
opportunities for public sector workers who’ve never before had access to
training. Or our Tasmanian Branch consistently chipping away at extreme and
unsafe hours of work in the mining industry. Our Greater New South Wales Branch
setting new standards of organisation and representation in civil construction.
Our Tobacco Branch, locking in conditions with another strong EBA. Or our South
Australian Branch standing up for the jobs and entitlements of Ion workers after
mismanagement plunged yet another strong export business into insolvency. Or our
TAPS Branch securing $600,000 in outstanding entitlements for redundant AGTS
workers. Or our Whyalla Branch – making sure steelworkers didn’t have to pay the
price for the company’s shutdowns over problems with the furnace re-line. Our
Port Kembla Branch standing up to the US-style anti-union tactics of BlueScope
Steel. Or our Victorian Branch resisting attempts by one of the biggest energy
companies in the world – Esso – to force family-killing rosters onto its
contract workers in Bass Strait.
You all know your achievements, you know the value of our work, and you know
what a fight it is to deliver against the odds. We will no doubt have plenty of
opportunities to celebrate our accomplishments in the next few days, and I look
forward to talking with you then.
I would also like to extend a very warm welcome to all our international
guests here – too many to name each and every one of you. I think it’s a very
positive sign for the future that we have so many of our fellow unionists here –
the United Steelworkers of America from North America, the Danish Metalworkers
Union officials, Michael Leahy from Community in the UK, our Global Unions
guests from the International Metalworkers Union and the International Union of
Foodworkers, and our many union leaders from China – welcome to you all. It is
in the spirit of international unionism that later today we will be signing the
first stage of a new alliance with the 600,000-strong United Steelworkers of
America. We’re very privileged to have the USWA’s Leo Gerard with us today. When
you consider the companies that we have in common – BlueScope, BHP Billiton,
Alcoa, Pilkington and Exxon for starters – I’m sure we’ll be able to assist each
other and that by working together in campaigning or organising, bargaining and
exchanges, both of our unions will be the stronger.
One of the best demonstrations of our increasing global consciousness has
been the response of Australians to the Tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia.
We’ve heard a bit about the generosity of the business community, but the
contribution of unions and union members has been extraordinary. Our operators
at Shell’s oil refinery at Geelong have donated an incredible
$100,000 on their own. Our union has donated $25,000 and offered our services
in providing skilled volunteers for the rebuilding task ahead. As of last
Thursday, Union Aid Abroad had received more than $540,000 in donations from
trade unions and individual members and workers.
Now looking ahead I would like to talk about the challenges we face. And I
would like to put forward a few propositions about the attack we are under from
the federal government.
The first fundamental principal that too many people do not understand is
that the legislative and political attacks we face from the conservatives and
their business allies, are in no way necessary for the kind of prosperous
society we aspire to. In fact, a strong contrary case exists that the
Government’s changes may well harm productivity by discouraging investment in
training and participation in work – two issues that are going to become more
and more important to our future economy with an aging workforce with family
responsibilities. The obvious and overwhelming evidence for this proposition is
our economic experience of the last decade – unprecedented periods of economic
and labour productivity growth and falling unemployment coinciding with an
expansion of collective bargaining and annual national wage cases. This growth
has come in the face of the gloomy warnings to the contrary of the major
employer groups who are now demanding draconian anti-worker laws.
The second proposition is that the government’s changes – in their
restrictions on basic worker freedoms – are positively undesirable for any
democracy of empowered citizens. Our commitment to civil liberties and human
rights demands otherwise.
And the third proposition is that the challenges we face can be overcome by a
strong and united union organisation. That will require creative, strategic and
adaptable responses for changing circumstances.
None of us should underestimate the attack being planned against us. Many of
us have experienced how the increasingly fragmented labour market means that the
odds are already stacked against us. Our opponents are seriously determined to
exploit that prevailing economic environment to legally destroy our ability to
Of course, their ultimate aim is to extinguish our capacity to exercise
political power. Their attack is politically motivated, they are our ideological
enemies and they are opposed to our values for social reform. Our history tells
us we should not be surprised. For our union, it has been forever thus. The
anti-Labor, big business conservatives have been trying to stop the AWU since
our first incarnation as the Amalgamated Shearers Union in 1886.
We have been facing this opposition since before Australia existed. The
united position of the pastoral employers from at least 1890 onwards was to
refuse to even recognise the rights of the union to represent shearers and
shed-hands. Doesn’t that sound familiar to us – even 115 years later? We should
remember that the blind opposition of the pastoral employers to even recognising
union rights continued for another 17 years. It was not until 1907 that the
government forced the pastoralists association to comply with the
new Pastoral Award and recognise the union. Now, 98 years later, employers
recycle the same old arguments about unions not being legitimate representatives
of workers. No wonder they want to erode the Award system even further, to the
point where it would be entirely voluntary and without any real judicial
It’s a similar story with the government’s new laws for fast-tracking AWAs –
that is to make it easier for AWAs to get around Award requirements. AWAs
themselves are just a contemporary expression of the age-old industrialists’
demand for so-called “freedom of contract”, an issue at the heart of the great
pastoral strikes in the early 1890s – then the biggest industrial conflicts yet
seen on our continent. Against the background of that looming showdown, the
pastoralists drew up a new shearing agreement in December 1890 that defined
their key aim in this way:
“That an employer is to be free to employ whom he pleases, and an employee is
to be free to engage, or to refuse to engage, to work as he
(Pastoralists’ proposed shearing agreement 1890)
Nothing could be closer to the current propaganda from the Office of
Employment Advocate about the so-called “freedom” to choose AWAs. Both leave out
the important details about determining wages and conditions, as if every right
depends upon the employee’s so-called freedom to refuse the job. That is still
the justification Howard and his ministers’ use today in defending AWAs – they
blithely advise unsatisfied jobseekers to go and get another job. There is no
acknowledgement of the imbalance of power in the workplace
between employers and workers. It’s the same old anti-union tactic of
offering people a contract job and telling them to TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT. A union
agreement is not an option.
The injustice of the conservatives’ case for individual contracts was exposed
very early on by the father of conciliation and arbitration in Australia – Henry
Bournes Higgins – still years before the foundation of the Arbitration Court
that he went on to lead. In June 1900, while officiating at the opening of our
union’s new Victoria-Riverina Branch at St Arnaud in western Victoria (at the
invitation of our pioneering organiser Edward Grayndler) Higgins extolled the
workers’ argument against individual contracts as being:
“simply because there could be no contract if only one man made it.”
Yet still today – 105 years later – the take it or leave it approach to
bludgeoning workers into submission lives on in Howard’s AWAs. Let me make it
perfectly clear that there will be no backing away or compromising in our total
opposition to Australian Workplace Agreements, whatever some members of the
media might say.
Perhaps the most publicised of the government’s upcoming legislation is its
removal of unfair dismissal laws from small businesses. What the Bill proposes
is in effect a return to the 19th century principles of Master and Servant –
that is, an absolute power over firing including the right to sack people
without any recourse, regardless of the justice or merits of the case. This leap
back to the future is premised on the fictional promise of job creation. In the
real world everyone knows that employment growth in small businesses is driven
by increasing demand, not the degree of difficulty of sacking people. But the
job-creation furphy was always just that – a trumped up excuse to hide their
real motive, which was the same as their antecedents who fought to retain
dictatorial powers over employees. They simply do not want unions or laws
getting in the way of the employers’ unfettered ability to treat workers however
they like. It was part of Britain’s rotten class system that working Australians
were proud to be rid of, and that working Australians still reject today.
We can also expect a return to the past with a new version of the penal
clauses that were associated with so much social division and industrial
disputation last century. The government is likely to increase all kinds of
fines and penalties for workers and union officials, not just to send us broke
but to scare working people into submission. It is another outdated and
class-ridden promotion of a workplace of fear and intimidation.
Our right to strike, our ability to organise in the workplace, our use of the
Industrial Relations Commission to maintain decent minimum standards, are all
under attack. As you know, these changes involve serious offences against
internationally recognised human rights according to the International Labour
Organisation. Many would be unlawful in the European Union. They offend against
our democratic principle that a person’s choice to engage in union activity in
the workplace is the expression of a fundamental right of citizenship.
The actions of our opponents have already exposed their agenda. They won’t
support a better deal for working families. They oppose our increases in minimum
wages. They refuse to recognise workers’ rights to better safety conditions.
They fight against higher super contributions to give retired workers a decent
living. They won’t force failed companies to pay their redundancy debts. They
won’t agree to better hours for working families and their children. They’ve
don’t support adequate investment in education and training. They’ve done
nothing about infrastructure development, innovation, and research and
development or tax reform. And now they are planning to drag us further
Well, the challenge is not insurmountable. We can take heart from our history
governments come and go, while our union is a constant. And importantly, the
values of our union and our movement for more than 100 years – to bring justice
and dignity to working life – are motivated by more powerful forces than those
that drive the government’s legal manouevours. We have the commitment of
idealism of people working together for a good cause. No government can
legislate against the good will of its people. And we know that laws which
undermine our popular values as unionists, laws which are socially undesirable
in their consequences, laws which have no economic justification – will attract
the opposition of many Australians.
After June we know we will no longer be able to rely on our Labor allies and
minor parties and independents in the Senate. We will be engaging more directly
with our members about the issues and policies they want pursued, including at
the political level. But let me say that despite our disappointment at the last
election result, the AWU is very pleased to have Kim Beazley back in the federal
leadership of the ALP. All our branches supported Kim and we know he will listen
to the needs of working people and their union representatives in redeveloping
More than ever before we should ensure that our relationships with the Labor
State Governments can assist us in achieving our objectives. A case in point is
the Federal Government’s plans to ban funding of major road projects unless they
meet the government’s provocative building code. It is clearly in the interests
of the citizens of all the States and Territories not to have important
infrastructure projects jeopardised by this kind of political misuse of
taxpayers’ funds. The States and Territories and more sensible contractors
should be our natural allies in continuing industry agreements in civil
Another major challenge looming before us is a possible Free Trade Agreement
with China. While there were clearly some benefits as well as disadvantages with
the US FTA, we remain to be convinced that any such deal with China could be in
our national interest. We see the China FTA as posing a serious threat to
Australian industry, jobs and employment standards.
We have already been through a period of major reform and adaption to the
modern economy. We have survived by doing our best to deal with the challenges
of casualisation, globalisation and deregulation. So now is no time to deviate
from our basic cause – growing our union, building union power, saving jobs,
securing wages and conditions, making workplaces safe.
We are increasing the AWU’s investment in growth to 20% of the union budget –
that is, dedicated to organising and recruiting new members. More and more we
are working on an industry level to build up recruitment in new businesses and
in previously unorganised sectors of the economy. We will continue to hold more
off-site, home visits, and blitz campaigns to reach new members. We will step up
to train more delegates than ever before. We are increasing our communication
with members with more meetings, information bulletins, letters, e-mails and
websites. We will step up our corporate and strategic campaigning to create
greater awareness and pressure over workplace issues at the boardroom and
So let’s move on with our conference. I’ve touched on some of the key issues
we’ll be debating, but there’s a lot of work to do. We know what it’s all about.
About securing Australian jobs. About winning decent wages. About locking in
conditions for the long haul. About stopping the death toll in our workplaces.
For all of this we know we are stronger, together.
(Here I would like to acknowledge borrowing from the concepts of the famous
US Labor leader John L Lewis, President of the United Mineworkers Union)
In conclusion, at our convention, we shall tell our story, not in the quiet
voice of impotent individuals, but in the booming yell of a massed multitude
demanding the entitlements which Australian citizenship bestows.
The BCA, the ACCI, the editorial writers at the conservative newspapers
representing industry and financial interests are performing a disservice to the
Australian people in their attempts to frustrate the organisation of workers and
in their rejection of collective bargaining as one of our economic
The AWU will not be diverted in our purpose to play our natural and rational
role in the evolution of the economic, political and social life of Australia.
Unionism assumes the employment relationship. It is based upon the wages system.
We recognise fully and unreservedly the institution of private property and the
right to investment profits. It is upon the expansion of collective bargaining,
the growth of union membership, the impact of union experience that the
institutions of Australian democracy rely.
Our members, free at work, productive partners of production, securely
employed, enjoying a growing standard of living in their own homes, drive
Australia’s prosperity. Why does the Howard government fear the voice of the AWU
and unions generally in Australian workplaces and democracy? Does the PM fear
our influence will be exercised, for shorter hours, for more secure employment,
for well paid jobs, for tax relief, for a fairer distribution of our national
income, for decent retirement incomes for older Australians.
We are organising our members to ensure they do have a voice in the creation
of a fairer Australia. The AWU seeks peace at work. We seek co-operation and
mutuality of effort. We would avoid strikes. We want our rights determined under
fair laws and by the peaceful negotiation and contract that characterise
Australian commercial life.
The AWU goals, at today’s convention, are those we had in 1886: to organise
unorganised workers; to gain acceptance of collective bargaining as an