Australian unions belong at the very heart of the work, life and aspirations of Australian people. Fabian Society. Speech by Greg Combet, ACTU Secretary.
I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you that I dismiss the
question that we are to address as absurd. In fact I think that unions will be
increasingly relevant and important to people.
In summary these are the
heart of advancement for working people
environment, and will continue to do so
that unions will be even more important and relevant.
expand upon these arguments by referring to our history as well as the
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
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
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
That is why we fight for the fundamental right of people to
organise, and their right to bargain collectively.
It’s a struggle
almost as old as Australian colonisation.
Take the example, given by
Timothy Coghlan in Labour and Industry in Australia, published in
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.
How John Howard must pine for the
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.
that John Howard is on the cusp of achieving his great dream of radical
market-based industrial relations reform, we know that the right to organise and
to collectively bargain is at the heart of the labour movement’s fight for
workers’ rights in the 21st century.
These rights are
democratic rights, they are fundamental to strong and sustainable liberal
Recently I read an engrossing biography of US President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
During the early 1930s Roosevelt recognised
that people in Europe and the US were turning to organisations at the extreme
right and left of politics in the search for solutions to the despair of the
He realised that democracy was under threat.
His principal response was targeted government expenditure to create
jobs and lift economic activity – the New Deal.
introduction of labour laws was also a pillar of the New Deal and the defence of
democracy. The minimum wage and other important workers rights were legislated
in the US at this time.
Roosevelt aimed to engender confidence in
liberal democratic values by ensuring that workers’ had rights which would
act as a check on the power held by business, and help achieve a fairer
distribution of wealth.
He knew that collective rights for working
people were an essential element for the success of a democracy.
philosophy found its way into the post-war settlement through the International
Labor Organisation, which in 1948 and 1949 promulgated international conventions
recognising the right of workers to freely associate in unions and to
The labour movement had achieved these rights in
Australia well before Roosevelt and the inception of the ILO.
the 20th century the award system of minimum wages and employment
conditions, collective bargaining, rights of union representation, and access to
an independent tribunal to ensure a fair balance between employee and employer
interests, have been under-pinnings of Australian values of fairness – of
the ‘fair go’.
These labour rights, and these values, have
served Australia well.
We have a strong economy and a solid record of
respect for workers rights, both of which have contributed to the success and
international recognition of our democracy.
And while democratic rights
are a foundation, values give life to unions.
humanity, equality, dignity, justice and respect for all people –
that’s what we stand for. That’s why I’m a union
Those are the values we represent in the wider community. We
contribute to the economic, social and political life of the nation by drawing
on our values and fighting for practical outcomes which implement our
In the political realm unions created the Labor Party to advance
the interests of working people and the cause of social justice. The ALP is one
of the oldest social democratic political parties in the world. Fischer, Hughes,
Curtin, Chifley, Hawke and other Australian Prime Ministers have been union
Together with Labor we have created great things –
Medicare, social security, universal superannuation, institutions safe-guarding
workers rights, health and safety laws. The living standards of millions of
Australians over generations have been advanced by unions.
Who can deny
our contribution to the economy and the society? We have argued for jobs,
immigration, investment, and rights for women and justice for indigenous
We have strong views on the economy and we argue our case
and we influence public policy.
Perhaps this was most evident during the
Accord years, but even now, in the face of the Government’s industrial
relations assault, unions assert that IR is not the pressing economic issue and
we are determined to shift the focus onto the real economic
It cannot credibly be argued that industrial relations
rigidities are holding the economy back.
There have been fourteen
consecutive years of economic expansion with growth averaging 3.7% a year, low
inflation, and average annual productivity and employment growth of 2%. This is
a record performance.
Australia’s growth has outperformed the US
and the OECD average.
Profits have soared, increasing by 136% since 1991
– by 70% in real terms.
Average adult full-time earnings have
increased by 4.1% a year and Australia has risen to 11th in the OECD
for GDP per capita.
These are some of the positive features of the
engagement of the Australian economy with the world.
They have been
achieved with our present set of workplace rights.
is undeniably important to the economy, but it is not the pressing economic
The fact is that this Government is using industrial relations to
draw attention away from its’ failure to develop and modernise the
As I said at the National Press Club recently, for
this Government industrial relations is the dog that ate their homework –
the work it should have been doing preparing Australia for the 21st
Skills shortages have been neglected.
This is now not
just a headache for business but one of the most serious capacity constraints to
GDP growth. It will have significant long-term consequences.
ACCI survey of the top ten constraints on business investment identifies skills
shortages as the 2nd most important issue. IR doesn’t even
feature in the top ten.
Investment in research and development and our
national infrastructure are also critical constraints on growth.
recent study to model our under investment in economic infrastructure was
undertaken by the Australian Council of Infrastructure Development and Econtech
The study found that to clear the back-log of
under-investment in electricity, gas, road, rail and water infrastructure would
require $24.8 billion of capital expenditure. It also found that this investment
would result in a long-term increase in GDP of nearly 1% and of exports by
That is without consideration of the urgent need for
investment in social infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and child care
centres or the environment.
Australia’s trade performance is also
Exports have flat-lined for the past 4 years. Our trade deficit
last year was $26 billion and we have just recorded our 43rd successive monthly
Despite significant improvement in our terms of trade
Australia’s current account deficit is stuck at 5% – 7% of GDP. It should
be far lower given the boom in demand and prices for
Australia’s lousy current account and trading
performance has seen foreign debt rise to a record $425 billion or nearly
$21,000 of foreign debt for every Australian.
That’s a 195%
increase over the period of the economic boom.
And there has been an
over-reliance on household debt and consumption to drive economic growth.
The ratio of household debt to disposable income doubled from 70% to
148% between 1997 and 2003. The household savings ratio has gone negative, from
7% to –0.5% over the same period.
People are not saving, they are
borrowing and spending, and this has been the engine of growth. It cannot be
sustained. Even a modest rise in interest rates will bite and bite very hard.
Finding more sustainable drivers of growth is the most important
economic challenge for Australia in the medium term. And for this purpose
building savings and planning for an ageing population is vital too.
Over the next 40 years the proportion of the Australians over the age 65
will double to 25%. Without appropriate action the workforce participation rate
could fall from 64 to 56% over the same period.
Health and aged care
expenditure will have to multiply. How are we preparing for this? Where is the
investment for the future – the strategy to build retirement
Our view is that the level of contributions to superannuation
must be increased to 15% from the current 9%, and the sooner we start on this
strategy the better for the country.
These savings would provide a
substantial pool of capital for investment as well as providing for health and
living costs in retirement.
Simply put, Australia needs an investment led
reform agenda focussed on the supply side of the economy. That is what will
produce the next productivity revolution.
Instead John Howard is offering
the realisation of long-held industrial relations prejudice. His is a backward
looking agenda to cut labour costs, to find our economic way in the world by
preying on the weak and vulnerable, by attacking fairness and democratic
This analysis, and the policy prescription we will continue
to develop around it, drawing upon our values, is important to Australian
If unions were not contesting this field of ideas and endeavour,
who would? Do we want our society to be completely dominated by neo-liberal
And Australian people, whether they are union members
or not, have an elemental understanding of the role that unions play in
workplaces, in public debate, and in social justice. Research consistently
In recent research conducted for the ACTU:
And research conducted each year for Unions
NSW shows consistently that well over 40% of people would rather be in a
So we know we have a lot of support in the community, but clearly
much work needs to be done to build membership and strength.
about 2 million strong, and have had aggregate membership growth for 3 of the
last 5 years, which is a big improvement over the steep declines during the
But we are endeavouring to address the challenges we
We recognise the rapidly changing nature of the world in which we
live and we are working hard to adjust to it.
Since becoming ACTU
Secretary I have tried to accelerate a process of modernisation and
More than any time since the Australian Federation, the most
important places for the unions to work are the places where people
It is, in a sense, a new beginning for our movement.
decentralisation of the industrial relations system has meant that we need
workplace organisers far more than courtroom advocates.
ACTU strategy is
focussing on the following key elements of change:
development of delegates
that are of the greatest interest and concern to employees
education opportunities to assist career advancement
specialised organising strategies to recruit members and build collective
tactics including contemporary communications strategies.
of this has been in evidence in the current IR campaign.
It has been
evident in countless union bargaining campaigns, and major efforts like last
year’s drive to make James Hardie compensate victims of its asbestos
products, or the campaign to achieve the payment of the Ansett workers’
entitlements in 2001.
My message is that unions are alive and well,
albeit in a very tough environment.
Which brings me to the outlook under
the new industrial relations regime about to be imposed upon Australian working
which underpins workplace bargaining, replacing it with only five minimum
for employers to cut take home pay
safe haven for workers rights
When you cut away all the guff the
fact is that these changes will benefit business at the expense of many working
people, particularly the most vulnerable.
The Government says that we can
all trust business to use its power responsibly. Tell that to a James Hardie
Workers’ rights are not charity to be granted
at the discretion of business – they must be enforceable legal rights.
The Government’s industrial relations package is a tawdry,
distasteful affair. It lacks humanity and it will set Australia on a path of
widening inequality and exploitation.
Our opposition to the laws is not
just about unions and it is wrong for anybody to portray it as such.
opposition is about all working people, their democratic rights and living
standards, and the future direction of our country.
The changes offend
our values, they substantially undermine the right to organise and to
collectively bargain, they breach ILO conventions, and they trample upon
That is why we will fight them, and fight for as long
as it takes.
There is in fact no more important time for people to join
and be active in a union.
Life without unions will not be the new
reality. Unions will be around for a long time yet.
And it’s not
just staying-power that keeps our movement alive.
It is our collective
commitment to a better future.