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
reasons why:

  • The right to organise in a union and to collectively bargain lie at the
    heart of advancement for working people
  • These rights are democratic rights, and unions are essential institutions in
    democratic societies
  • Unions stand and fight for important values as well as democratic
  • Unions have helped shape the Australian political, economic and social
    environment, and will continue to do so
  • Unions have high levels of support within the community
  • Unions are modernising to meet the demands of rapidly changing
  • The industrial relations changes the Howard Government is making will mean
    that unions will be even more important and relevant.
  • Let me
    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.

    And now
    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
    Great Depression.

    He realised that democracy was under threat.

    His principal response was targeted government expenditure to create
    jobs and lift economic activity – the New Deal.

    But the
    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
    collectively bargain.

    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.

    Fairness, decency,
    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.

    Industrial relations
    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
    Australian economy.

    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.

    Even the
    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.

    The only
    recent study to model our under investment in economic infrastructure was
    undertaken by the Australian Council of Infrastructure Development and Econtech
    Pty Ltd.

    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
    nearly 2%.

    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
    trade deficit.

    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
    market spruikers?

    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
    demonstrates this.

    In recent research conducted for the ACTU:

  • 85% of people agree that unions should be able to enter workplaces to talk
    to members,
  • 84% disagree that Australia would be better of without unions,
  • 59% think pay and conditions are better in union workplaces,
  • 82% are opposed to changes o the laws which make it harder for workers to
    collectively bargain
  • 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.

    We are
    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:

  • workplace membership and organisation through improved education and
    development of delegates
  • modern workplace research and campaign techniques to identify the issues
    that are of the greatest interest and concern to employees
  • improved membership services including the development of vocational
    education opportunities to assist career advancement
  • the identification of priority unorganised workplaces and the development of
    specialised organising strategies to recruit members and build collective
  • the application of modern corporate, community and political campaign
    tactics including contemporary communications strategies.
  • Much
    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

    These laws:

  • remove unfair dismissal protection for over 3.6 million people
  • remove the safety net award system as the ‘no disadvantage test’
    which underpins workplace bargaining, replacing it with only five minimum
  • the new ‘no disadvantage test’ means that it will be possible
    for employers to cut take home pay
  • the principal way in which that will be achieved will be through the use of
    individual contracts
  • collective bargaining will be further undermined
  • the industrial tribunals will be further eroded
  • construction workers will be special targets
  • union representation and entry to workplaces will be more difficult
  • State industrial relations systems will be overrun to make sure there is no
    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
    mesothelioma victim.

    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
    democratic rights.

    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.