Greg Combet, ACTU Secretary-Elect on his view of what unions stand for in our society, strategic priorities we must consider and the immediate future for the ACTU.

This is a very special day for me. It is my first working day as secretary-elect of the ACTU. To become ACTU secretary, when Bill Kelty leaves the job in February next year, will be a great honour. For the position carries much responsibility – particularly during difficult times such as we are now experiencing.


But it is also an honour to have achieved such broad support amongst unions.


And I would like to thank this union, the SDA, which is the largest in this country, and to thank Joe in particular, for the confidence that you have expressed in me.


I thought that today I should deal with several issues:



  • My view of what unions stand for in our society
  • Some of the strategic priorities we must consider
  • The immediate future for the ACTU.



Personal background But firstly, given the occasion, I thought it may be appropriate to make a few comments about myself. Because few of you here know me very well. And I would like to build a better understanding between us in the future.


Recently a journalist was ringing around trying to find out about my life away from work, my interests and my family. He didn’t have much success. Even those officials who know me best couldn’t help much. Doug Cameron concluded that work was my hobby. Peter Reith, who does not know me at all, advised that I should smile a bit more.


Please be assured that I do have a life.


But I value and protect my time with my family, and our privacy, very closely. My partner also works full-time, and we have three children between us. My family is my first priority, and it will continue to be.


What is more important in a public sense are my values and politics. They have been fashioned by my experience.


I grew up and was educated in Western Sydney, at rooty hill. My father, grandfather and great grandfather were wine makers for Penfolds. My mother came from a farming family in northern nsw. At home I was exposed to both Labor and conservative political views.


After completing school I worked in a garage for a year, and then studied mining engineering. I worked in coal mines around Lithgow and became a member of the miner’s federation when I was 19. The local lodge officials went to work on my political and industrial education straight away.


Although I finished my degree there was little doubt by that time that my commitment was to the cause of working people, and not the mining companies.


I did many different things before arriving at the office of the waterside workers federation in 1987. I worked for community organisations, on projects for long-term unemployed people in Western Sydney, and at the worker’s health centre in Lidcombe.


I studied economics and labour law.


I don’t like injustice, inequality or poverty.


I have always seen unions as vital institutions in a democratic society, institutions that fight for justice and better living standards for working people, and I was tremendously proud when Tas Bull gave me a job at the WWF. It’s hard to imagine a more rigorous grounding as a union official than my time with the Wharfies.


I have had many opportunities as a union official, and have enjoyed the support of many great people. People like Tas and John Coombs, Martin Ferguson and Jennie George, as well as many others.


But I think none greater than Bill Kelty.


With bill I have had the privilege of playing a part in some momentous industrial events – such as the aftermath of the 1991 National Wage Case, the Weipa dispute, and last year’s waterfront confrontation.


And also the things that don’t attract so much attention, such as winning a $30 a week increase for many thousands of workers in motels.


I want to publicly record my admiration for bill’s achievements, and my gratitude for his support.


Unions and society My vision for unions and the ACTU has grown out of all of these experiences, but particularly from my experience during last year’s waterfront dispute – a dispute I managed for the ACTU.


It made me think about the direction in which our country is heading. It brought home to me how disenfranchised and powerless many people felt, and how deceitful the government was prepared to be. It affirmed my belief that unions and the ACTU can assume a mantle of community leadership and provide a strong voice for the ordinary working people of this country.


During the dispute we mobilised many thousands of people, and won the sentiment of the community. People will support a just and fair cause.


And unions have always fought for justice and fairness, for better living standards, for safety at work, for better job security. And our record shows that we deliver. Even if we only consider the issue of wages, and put the many other benefits of union membership aside, union members earn 15% more on average than other workers.


The process of change which is taking place means that unions are more important than ever.


Australia is a much different place now than it was even 10 years ago. It is wealthier, more outward looking and has a rapidly changing economy. It has a cultural richness and social diversity that has not significantly undermined the harmony of our social relations – that’s the positive face of this country.


But Australia is also a country where there are now winners and losers. It’s a country where the national government has no commitment to creating a fairer society, where one group is favoured over another group, where the business lobby exerts disproportionate influence, where the concerns of ordinary people are ignored. It is a country where the values of the market place have come to intrude into every corner of Australian life – witness the latest proposal for higher education fees.


As a result many Australians fear the future. They fear their livelihood is no longer secure. Many people are in low paid, insecure jobs.


During a process of rapid economic change social values, a sense of community, and an effective safety net are more important than ever.


And yet the Howard government is pulling these things apart. Rather than protecting or helping people who have been hurt by economic change the government has driven the process -attacking awards, eroding job security, imposing an unfair new tax, attacking the protection that unions can provide. In the workplace they have swung the balance too far in favour of employers.


In this environment the electorate is volatile – ask Jeff Kennett.


In recent times unions have begun polling the attitudes of both their members and the general public on key issues. The ACTU has recently conducted a poll of working people in this country. Do you know what it found? It found that the top four issues in the country at the moment were job security, education, health, and unemployment – and they believed the Howard government was doing a lousy job on all of them.


These working people also had a message for the ACTU and unions. They want us to speak out on these issues – to be their voice in the community. And we will continue to take up that challenge. We will speak for all working people.


The fight starts with the government’s attack on the award safety net, job security, and the right of workers to organise and fight for their rights by joining unions. In the coming weeks Jennie George and I will step up our campaign against Peter Reith’s 2nd wave of industrial laws. We will broaden our public campaign against this legislation, using polling, advertising and free media campaigning – as well as traditional union protests.


Our aim is to demolish this unfair legislation. However, if the democrats let parts of it through we will make sure that the responsibility for the further erosion of award protection and job security is well and truly worn by this government all of the way to next polling day.


Campaigning against Peter Reith’s proposed laws is one immediate priority, but unions have also got work to do on other fronts.


Strategic priorities Recently the ACTU released a report, unions@work, which set out a program for the future. Understanding the context for the report is important.


There has been a dramatic change in the labour force during the 1990s. Employment in the services industries has become dominant. Jobs in the public sector, and in a number of other industries in which unions have been traditionally well organised, have declined.


Casual employment has been the fastest area of jobs growth. Competitive pressures have been felt in every workplace.


Decentralised workplace bargaining has placed enormous demands on union resources.


On top of this there has been a concentrated effort by conservative governments to wind the clock back on employee rights.


The unions@work report that Joe and I, along with others, put together took account of this difficult economic and political environment. It argues that action is needed by unions in a number of key areas:


Strength in the workplace – boosting workplace organisation and union education so that delegates can play a greater role in bargaining, recruiting and union activity in the workplace. Growth in new areas – investing in the recruitment and organisation of new members in the non-union growth parts of the economy. Technology for the times – using information technology and new servicing methods such as call centres to better communicate and meet membership expectations. A strong union voice – enhancing union media, communication and campaign capacity.


When we were overseas preparing the report we became convinced that these changes are not only necessary but that they can succeed. We visited the iron and steel trades confederation in Great Britain – a union that had been fading away as the steel industry declined.


But the collapse in membership from over 100,000 to around 30,000 is being turned around. There is a renewed focus on strength and membership in the traditional union workplaces.


And a radical recruitment and organising plan for non-union workplaces is working. 10% of the national union budget is spent on a specialist organising team, which uses meticulously planned methods for building the union. Information technology, new communications strategies and modern campaign tactics are all being successfully adapted.


The key argument of the unions@work report is that to maintain our ability to achieve justice and fairness for working people, and to achieve better living standards, we must build strength and expand into the growth parts of the economy.


It is a program for active and modern unionism.


If we are to meet the challenge of change in the workplace, if we are to grow as the labour force grows, if we are to provide the most professional service to individual members, and if we are to counter the impact of hostile laws, we must be prepared to embrace the priorities outlined in unions@work .


It is a program that each union must consider. The SDA is already well advanced in some areas, and I encourage you to keep going. You are such an important union, in many ways representing the future – a growing industry in the services sector, where many young people and casual workers are employed.


The ACTU The task before us is to modernise our operations in public campaigning, in organising and recruitment and in the provision of services to members. But these must also be harnessed to the idealism that created and sustained the labour movement. Part of that idealism embodies the concept of the living wage.


The living wage will continue to be an ACTU priority. I can announce today that the claim for the next increase will be lodged in November. Unions will be seeking an increase in minimum award wages of $24 per week. This claim aims to lift the federal minimum wage to $409.40 per week, or $10.77 per hour.


Our case will show that life at such low income levels, especially for casual workers, is pretty grim.


Low paid people in the community must not be left behind. They deserve to share in the nation’s wealth.


Despite strenuous opposition from the Howard government, the ACTU has won living wage increases totalling $36 a week since 1996. Mr Reith has described these increases as ‘relatively generous’.


Now, according to media reports, the government is proposing to give increases of more that $300 a week to federal MPs. Mr Howard says this is justified because politicians haven’t had a rise since 1996.


Proposed pay rises of $300 per week or $16,000 a year for federal MPs demonstrates the Howard government’s appalling double standards. If $36 is ‘relatively generous’ for the low paid over 3 years how is $300 to be interpreted? No doubt we will hear all the usual bleating from Reith and the employers that our claim will cause the sky to fall.


But the ACTU believes that a claim of $24 is both reasonable and economically responsible. Economic growth remains strong, inflation is well within the limits sought by the reserve bank, and productivity growth has been sustained. The claim will not cost jobs.


In the coming year the ACTU will also concentrate on the rights of casual employees, job security and working hours.


The cornerstone of a cohesive and successful society is the family. Long hours, increased workloads, unpaid overtime, the pressure of both work and family commitments, the casualisation of jobs – these things are making people’ lives harder and eroding family life.


These will be key areas of ACTU attention.


But my most immediate organisational priority at the ACTU will be the establishment of the ACTU organising centre, which was foreshadowed in unions@work.


The organising centre will focus on union education and on organising and recruitment strategies. It will incorporate organising works and TUTA. To bring about this change I will need to review the location of the ACTU staff and offices in Melbourne. Some ACTU staff are currently located in Swanston Street, and others are at the Victorian trades hall.


The establishment of the organising centre will require the co-location of ACTU staff and offices.


Conclusion There is much work to be done.


But I approach the task with optimism and enthusiasm. With the knowledge that I have your support and the support of so many others throughout the labour movement I believe we can make great gains for working people.


And in closing, can i comment upon what I believe to be the critical, and often spoken of, but sometimes overlooked priority. And that is unity amongst unions.


There is always some apprehension when there is a change of leadership, especially following the resignation of an outstanding and long serving leader such as bill Kelty.


But i want to assure you of my commitment to consult with you and more broadly throughout unions. And to assure you of my commitment to maintain unity and to respect political balance at the ACTU. I consider it fundamental.


I thank Joe for his support, his work in developing our strategy and inviting me to speak with you today.


ACTU Secretary-Elect, Greg Combet

SDA National Council, Carlton Crest Hotel, Sydney