ACTU President, Martin Ferguson in his last address to Congress as ACTU President, as a committed unionist speaking directly to hundreds of committed unionists at the ACTU Congress 1995.
Delegates, Visitors, Observers, International Guests.
Whatever the future may hold for me personally, there will never be a greater privilege than serving as your President and as an official of my old union, the ‘Miscellaneous Workers Union’, which is now a new union, the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union.
I feel very proud of the Australian union movement. To my mind it has no equal in the world as a movement that has achieved so much for working men and women and their families.
Speaking: for the bafflers; the ordinary working person, the disadvantaged, the sole parents, the workers with family responsibilities, the unemployed.
Speaking: for migrants struggling for their rights in their new home; for those that are most vulnerable against greed, exploitation and victimisation.
Speaking: for those who often struggle to have any voice at all in our increasingly competitive society; and for those thousands of young people, women and migrants who just do not know the rights and entitlements that have been won for them by the unions in our long struggle.
Increasingly, delegates, this means that we have to be the voice – often the only voice – for non-unionism as well.
The voice and protection that only the Australian union movement can give all workers and their families has never been more important.
Our detractors, particularly the anti-Labor politicians, claim that we have not changed since the fifties and sixties.
But it is they who are living in the past. Their anti-union policies and propaganda belong to the past.
Others claim that we have changed too much, that we have lost sight of our great traditions. They regret and resent the changes we have had to make in a rapidly-changing world.
To them I say, that without change we could never have survived.
But the real tradition – the never-ending battle for the workers we represent – is as strong as ever.
In the twenty years of my involvement in the movement beginning as an official of the Miscellaneous Workers Union in 1975 as a green 21 year old, we have come a long way – particularly in the last 12 years during which we have achieved an enormous amount for working people in this country – in real wage growth, in our responsible approach to economic growth and in the advances in social justice for working people through family payments, child care, increased pensions, family leave, maternity leave and other family friendly initiatives.
We have also achieved a tremendous amount of internal change, particularly in the last decade, due to the long term vision and strategic planning of a movement determined to remain relevant and vital in shaping the society of the next century.
We were right to reduce the number of unions through amalgamation and to face up to the internal restructuring of unions, but I also believe that process is largely complete. The focus must now be to turn outwards to the challenge of taking unionism into the next century as an energetic movement with purpose, commitment and heart.
I am proud to be associated with those achievements.
It has been a period of unprecedented change, for both the movement and the community it serves.
I believe the union movement is a vibrant, progressive force in Australian society. Unfortunately, we sell ourselves short, because not enough ordinary people understand what we stand for and what we have achieved.
This I believe is the real challenge facing the union movement over the next few years – to demonstrate the connection between the major advantages for working people achieved through an award system and the Accord, and the vital role played by a strong and united union movement.
The union movement, unlike many movements in today’s complex society, has persisted in playing a powerful role in reshaping the Australian community as a major force driving micro-economic reform – pursuing the agenda of change with compassion, ensuring safe workplaces, and protecting standards of living for the most vulnerable in our community.
In the last 12 years Australia has changed dramatically – and the move to a modern economy has placed enormous pressures on the union movement.
The process of change and adjustment has involved pain and sacrifice. It has meant discipline and restraint.
It has meant a willingness to negotiate in a spirit of give-and-take.
Again and again, our members have demonstrated those qualities when some other sections of the community have tried to grab what they can while the going was good.
We have continued to exercise discipline and restraint in the face of deliberate, politically motivated provocation.
We can predict with absolute certainty that the provocation will increase in the months leading up to the next Federal election.
What is happening in Victoria and Western Australia is just a warm-up for the big event.
The anti-Labor opposition in Canberra has made it their deliberate strategy not to have any policies, or at least, not to announce any policies before the election.
Except for one area – industrial relations. That’s the battleground they have chosen.
Let me quote the words of the present Leader of the Opposition John Howard.
He said two months ago:
“I would like to see throughout Australia the kind of industrial relations law evolved in Western Australia.”
That is, delegates, the Howard/Reith recipe, it is the same as the Court/Kennett recipe.
And it is a recipe for disaster.
What is it all about?
Why this new onslaught, at a time when, nationally, industrial disputes are at an all-time low, and the profit share is at an all-time high?
Why now? when co-operation between unions and most employers has never been more productive.
- when Australia’s productivity is rising faster than most comparable countries
- and when the union movement has embraced enterprise bargaining in a way few of us could have dreamt of a decade ago? .
Why are they staging this attack now, when the restraint and responsibility shown by the union movement through the Accord has been the biggest single factor in producing record low inflation?
The answer is clear:
This is the last-ditch attack on the whole award system.
And their purpose is just as clear, stark and deliberate.
To drive the unions out of the work-place, and to drive wages down.
It’s that simple. There’s no other explanation.
So, delegates, the stakes at the next Federal election are enormous, not just for the Australian Labor Government, but for the whole Labor movement, the unions themselves and, above all, for the men and women we represent.
But, delegates, this brings me to the central message I want to leave with you today.
We have to ask ourselves this question:
Why is it that the anti-Labor forces in politics could ever begin to think that an all-out attack on unionism and all we stand for could pay off politically in 1996?
When we have achieved so much, where have we failed?
When the history of the 1980s and 90s is written, industrially and politically it will be one of record achievements – in medicare, education, reconciliation, workplace reform, family policies, retirement incomes and superannuation, lowering inflation savings and investment – in all of these areas the union movement has played a pivotal role.
But we have not projected ourselves well enough. The ordinary worker, the sole parent, the retired worker, the recent school leaver, the new parent, know little of the union movement’s role in the improvements in their standards of living. Why? Because while we are good at identifying the needs in society, and the workplace, we are not so good at communicating our role and our aims, to the people we represent.
In 1995 it is our challenge to re-orient ourselves, to re-focus on the major challenge ahead – selling the message about what we stand for to all Australians. We must search for a new balance in society in which to position the union movement of the next century.
In the short term the focus must be on drawing more members into the movement. In order to do that we must be able to clearly articulate what the union movement stands for.
Our research tells us that, we have not made headway with younger workers because they don’t see unions as relevant in their working lives. We have failed to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation. In order to regain that lost ground I believe we must address the fundamental perception that unions are out of touch – we are already doing this with the initiatives of Organising Works, bringing new blood into the unions and re-invigorating our recruitment strategies.
It also means that we must play a role internationally.
What happens nationally will be determined in part by what happens regionally and internationally.
Industrial developments and the emerging social needs and rights of workers and their families internationally demands that the trade union movement respond with imagination and determination.
On that note, I am pleased to say that today for the first time in our history we have both policies and strategies, for the first time we are setting priorities; for the first time we are recognising that the international program of the ACTU is an extension of our national industrial and social justice policies.
Unions in the food sector, for example, finance, transport and communication sectors, are increasingly confronted with not only national industrial demands but with the implications of regional and international developments.
As trade unionists we must remain committed to the development of independent unions in the region, determined to see that the rights of workers are recognised in any emerging trading block in Asia, and to continue to collaborate with community organisations and churches in campaigns such as those against French nuclear testing and child labour.
The international program is integral to the national role of the ACTU, it is a logical extension of our national industrial and social policy commitments.
Australia’s future industrial developments are being shaped at the regional and international level.
To position Australian trade unions internationally, is to ensure that Australian trade unionists will effect the future shape of work and industrial policy in our own backyards.
As I said we must show that we stand for real issues, that unions are not just being run by the best technocrats. If we have no heart, we are no better than the average salesperson moving from company to company plying our wares, our results based on who has the best selling pitch or the most competitive rate. That’s not what the union movement is about. We offer a special service, one that no other movement or organisation offers in society. We act on behalf of working people – we have their interests at heart, we are working for a better deal for them, and we must never lose sight of that.
We must never loss sight of what we stand for. And we must acknowledge that we will not always be popular in society when we decide to fight for an issue – sometimes to fight hard. We are not out to win a popularity contest and that is why we sometimes sacrifice our public image for the sake of a greater cause, a decent cause. Unions are never going to be welcomed as part of the mainstream of society, but we will always be a part of that society.
Working for the union movement will never be just a job, with a few career prospects – a 38 hour week with a rostered day off once a fortnight. Working for the union movement is a commitment, sometimes a lifelong commitment, with long hours, high pressure and extraordinary responsibility.
My message to you today delegates, is that you are the future of unionism in this country – you are the committed few charged with ensuring the Australian public hear our messages loud and clear. Our priorities are clear – to recruit more members. But our long-term survival is about more than this. It’s about ensuring that we address the needs of those we wish to recruit – the young, women, the workers in new emerging industries, the new migrant workers, and the indigenous population, through fighting for social change to develop better working conditions, better wages, and family friendly conditions of work. It’s about a union movement committed not only to recruiting new members but also ensuring that they become part of a dynamic and relevant union movement.
These are the goals we must set as we take the union movement into the Australia of the 21st century.
But there is another lesson we should learn .from the current political and industrial situation.
And the lesson is that the union movement and Australian workers can never take anything for granted.
The struggle to defend our gains never ends. Sure, in the drive for new members, we will talk about the long, hard fight for basic standards, things that Australian’s accept as part of their way of life.
- health and safety laws, annual holidays, English language training, long service leave, sick leave, workers compensation ………
Yet all these gains, and the award system which underpins them, are again under threat.
The Australian union movement has responded magnificently to the need to change and adapt.
In the past decade, we have transformed ourselves because we have had to play our part in the transformation of the Australian economy.
It’s been a privilege to have been part of that decade of change with you.
But the fight for the basics is as important as ever.
And the need for a strong, united union movement is as important as ever.
As we have done for more than a hundred years, the Australian Labour Movement continues that fight at both the political and industrial levels.
In making the transition, I seek to carry on the same fight for the same goals.
- for the betterment and protection of the working men and women of Australia.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve those working men and women of Australia.
Opening Speech By ACTU President Martin Ferguson To ACTU Congress 1995, Re-Union, Re-vitalise, Recruit, Represent. Wednesday 27 September 1995 Melbourne