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

  • higher pay rises for tens of thousands of our members
  • the 25% loading for thousands more casual workers
  • better safety on some of the toughest jobs in Australia
  • more delegate and safety rep training than ever before
  • employer superannuation contributions above 9% and up to 15%
  • better hours and longer paid maternity leave for working parents
  • representation and justice for those who are unfairly sacked
  • higher insurance pay for the seriously injured
  • and everything else we’ve accomplished for our members and other
  • 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
    Labor policy.

    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
    shareholder level.

    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
    Australian institution.