The union movement must maintina its independence, give strong support to the Accord process, but also speak out when circumstances require says ACTU President Martin Ferguson, in his address to the ACTU Biennial Congress 1993.
Delegates, Visitors, Observers, International Guests
It gives me great pleasure to open the 1993 Congress.
I welcome you to Congress and on your behalf thank the Sydney Koori community for their warm welcome to their land.
The ACTU and our affiliates have actively supported the aspirations of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
This year, we have had a particularly active campaign counteracting the conservatives racist propaganda, by educating our membership about the real implications of the High Court’s Native Title decision.
On Wednesday we will be hearing a report on the ACTU’s successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unionists seminar `Partners For Justice’ held earlier this year.
Australian unions today have a good reputation for not only standing up in support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities but also defending and extending the anti-racist multicultural ideal.
We have a large non-english speaking background membership so we are active in defending their rights to equitable treatment both in the workplace and at home. On that note, I remind you that today is the last day of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s annual Different Colours, One People Week – an important anti-racist event on the political calendar.
There is no doubt the ACTU Congress is one of the most important events in our national political calendar.
The wide representation here – among delegates and in the visitors gallery – as well as the media interest, is testimony to the importance of the occasion.
It is now ten years since we first embraced the Accord process with the Labor Government.
The re-election of the Labor Government last March is an added bonus to the labour movement – whether you come from the industrial or the political wing.
For that, I congratulate the trade union movement. Never before in our history have we worked in such a unified and determined way for the Labor Party. No stone was left unturned, and I believe that if it hadn’t been for our army of workers the difference of 1,500 votes, between Labor winning and losing would not have been achieved.
That’s not just my view, it was a view echoed by every Labor member as they stood in the House of Representatives to make their first speech. On behalf of those members and the labor movement at large, thank you for all your hard work.
A Labor Government can give us opportunities to influence policy and the direction of change in ways that we can never expect from the generally unsympathetic and hostile conservative parties. But that’s not to say that we will always agree with the Government.
The union movement must maintain its independence, give strong support to the Accord process, but also speak out when circumstances require. The recent budget is one such example. We were obligated to stand our ground. Yes there were good things in the budget, but the cost of achieving the gains fell far too heavily on those doing it the hardest at the moment.
This newly elected Labor Government also presents us with a further period of grace to strengthen, consolidate and build our great movement.
We have the opportunity to lock in the creation of new style unionism for the 21st Century; a new style of unionism, the outlines of which we are only beginning to see clearly now.
It will be a better unionism, one that is capable of meeting all of the challenges of the 21st Century, one that is ready to recommit itself, as our theme for this Congress states, to People and Progress.
There are policy options for consideration at the Congress that will determine whether we will complete a process which I broadly describe as “putting our house in order.”
In that context Delegates I also believe, we should take time out this morning to reflect on our history, a period of achievement, wonderful achievement.
Just sit and imagine a militant trade union leader who’d lived and died struggling with the capitalists of the Industrial Revolution, coming back to life in the 1990’s. Despite our undoubted problems, despite unemployment, which is intolerably high and the understandable anxieties of those with jobs, he would simply not believe what has been achieved. He would see Australia as something like Utopia. Imagine it, he might even think there was nothing left for the trade union movement to do.
He would marvel at the salary levels, at the holidays, at the working conditions, at the workers’ compensation schemes, at the pensions, at the welfare net, at the extraordinary breadth and depth of what has been achieved in years of struggle. He would remember the endless working hours of his era, the wretched conditions of the factories, the employer’s total lack of responsibility in the event of accident or injury, the lack of political clout of the working class.
He would marvel at the fact that Labor Governments, backed by the union movement, had dominated the political landscape at State and Federal level for a very considerable time. He would wonder at the technology available to ordinary men and women, of the way they lived, of the cars they drove, of the health and education systems available to their families, and at the quality of leisure working people enjoyed.
Yes, what has been achieved is beyond the wildest imaginings of a worker of the last century. The union leader might very well feel the task of the union movement was complete.
Of course, that’s certainly the view taken by many in the Big Media and Big Business. Oh, they’ll support the union movement in Poland – even Ronald Reagan, that well-known union basher, gave stirring speeches supporting Solidarity. But, by and large, Western Capitalists have been arguing that the era of the trade union is over, that the idea of the union movement is as old fashioned as the steam engine. That, in this era of electronics and computers, when robots are displacing human workers on the assembly lines, when modern capitalism can be trusted to be socially responsible, unions are and should be, a thing of the past.
It’s true that union membership has declined and, if we’re not very careful, will continue to decline in certain industries. It’s true that entire new industries have developed where union representation is negligible. The industries spawned by the communications explosion are the best known examples. But it is also true that, even in the U.S., where trade unionism has never been as strong as it is in Australia, where ultra-conservative Republican regimes have been determined to put unions out of business once and for all, trade unions are making a comeback..
You know why – because the more things change the more they stay the same.
People have learnt, during the Bush-Reagan years, during the Thatcher years, that unprotected workers slowly, but surely, lose the wages and conditions won by the workers that went before them. They have learnt that workers without collective clout will fall victim to the rule of divide and conquer, that only organised labour has a hope of standing up to the might of modem business, with their global tentacles, with their ability to move their manufacturing around the planet, seeking the cheapest and most compliant labour force.
If you’ve got any doubt about that just ask workers in Victoria. Ask workers in Western Australia. Let’s not kid ourselves, the award system is of paramount importance. It is the responsibility of the labour movement, both politically and industrially to defend it, to defend it forever and a day.
Friends, as companies have got more powerful, escaping national borders and becoming global, workers have become less powerful and far, far more vulnerable. Now, after years of retreat, unions are on the march again. And the brighter companies welcome this – because they’ve learnt that unions are not the enemies of good business practice, but its strongest allies. Because at the end of the day, unions and business can share the same ambition. The ambition of success.
The best enterprise agreement are those that involve unions and their members as active participants. It is about enterprise bargaining underpinned by the award minima, the safety net.
Increasingly, progressive companies are welcoming unions back. They’re no longer chanting the old, sterile slogans of the union basher. Because in times of accelerating change, companies have found that a sophisticated union, a truly progressive union, a union with a forward thinking executive, is the best business partner you can have. By no means a sleeping partner, a thinking partner. An active partner, changing companies and structures and approaches and attitudes and products and services for the better.
But the unions we’re describing are, of course, new style unions. Unions that have reinvented themselves. Unions that have been as critical of themselves as they have of the companies.
In Australia, the sounds of union bashing have been deafening. We live in a country where people have been taught, trained, persuaded, brain-washed into blaming the unions for just about everything. If exports are down, that’s the unions’ fault. If production is down, that’s the unions’ fault. The unions have been blamed for just about everything. It’s a wonder we haven’t been lumbered with the ozone hole and the greenhouse effect.
The fact is, Australia’s union movement has been energetic in change, proactive in change, ahead of the game. Whereas Australian business has been characterised by laziness, by negativity, by cowardice. Businessmen who spend more on a lunch than their best workers get paid have sat around complaining about trade unions for decades, when it’s their own performance that has been truly regrettable.
In the US, there are dozens of corporations who, all on their own, spend more money on research and development than all the companies in Australia combined. The lack of research and development in Australia has been a national disgrace. The lack of market research has been a national disgrace. The lack of export initiative has been a national disgrace. The lack of courageous, inventive investment has been a national disgrace.
The one thing about being involved in the ACTU is that you get to see the insides of just about every Australian company. You get to know them well, top to bottom. And while there are some that you can respect, run by managers you can admire, it is my sad duty to report something that experienced Ministers like John Button and Barry Jones confirm – that Australia’s business leaders are, by and large, a mediocre lot.
They’ve taken big salaries, squealed about the fringe benefits tax, and have not given their companies, or their country, much in return. Instead they have blamed everybody for their failure. Rather than blaming themselves for their gutlessness, for their laziness, they’ve blamed the government and they’ve blamed us. And this buck-passing, this blaming has been picked up and echoed by the Liberal and National Parties, and by the employer organisations who are unwilling to admit to their own second-rate standards, their own awful ordinariness.
Yet where has the impetus for change come from in this country? One of the driving forces has been hard-thinking, hard working unionists who have realised that their jobs, their futures depend on change. That change in inevitable , nothing can stop it. But that change can and must be managed, directed, used properly to make this a better society, a better society for all.
Moreover, the pace of change is going to accelerate. This is one of those moments in history when new technologies create social earthquakes, when it’s impossible to protect yourself by old-fashioned means. But the ACTU believes that change should be carefully controlled, and not allowed to crush people.
In Thatcher’s Britain, in Reagan’s America, the ordinary workers paid for change whilst the rich got richer. The result has been alienation and social problems that take the breath away – a soaring incidence of drugs and violence and disease that have been turning America’s promised land into a nightmare. In the ghettos of the US diseases that we thought were ancient history are making a comeback. Tuberculosis is rampaging in New York and in Los Angeles kids are dying from epidemics like measles. Why? Because the long-term unemployed are being treated as sub-humans, as human junk.
The ACTU will never let that happen here. We will never let big business or inept government allow that sort of social deterioration and decay.
In London, the city streets are choked with the homeless and people are now begging around Buckingham Palace. Today’s London is getting more and more like the London of Charles Dickens. Thanks to the failure of conservative policies, thanks to deregulated big business running rampant and not giving a damn about the social consequences, the social structure has been disintegrating.
As to Australia, well we’ve got problems. Problems of unemployment and long-term unemployment. And, yes, we’ve got more homeless people than any decent society should tolerate, more social problems than we’d like. But we also have a culture that believes in social justice and equity, we’ve also got a people who, by and large, are more tolerant and caring about each other. And that doesn’t come from the top down.
That comes from the bottom up – from traditions that have been nurtured by the labour and union movements in this country for much of its history.
You and I know more than anyone, not all change is comfortable. But not all change is bad. Let’s face it, many of the jobs that are disappearing were appalling jobs that no human being should have been expected to do. That’s why wave after wave of different migrant groups were brought to Australia. Jobs that destroyed people’s dignity and wrecked their health. Jobs that were deadeningly repetitive, boring beyond cruel. No society should want people to do those jobs if machines can do them. But the people dispossessed by those machines must be looked after, must be given alternatives, better education and quality leisure time. If they are, then society will truly improve. If they’re not, society will deteriorate, society will collapse.
Australia has seen these transitions before. When the tractor arrived in Australia, most employment was in the rural sector, in the bush. Most people worked on farms and, suddenly, there was a machine that was stronger than a hundred horses. Overnight that enormous amount of farm employment evaporated, and the great rush to the cities began. Times were tough but people managed to cope, and Australia came out of the era in pretty good shape, stronger and more productive than ever before. And that reminds us that we shouldn’t resist change like the Luddites who wrecked machinery in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. What we must do with change is make sure that the change is managed, that it doesn’t run amok, out of control.
Knowing that change must be managed, unions have managed to change themselves. Oh, we have pockets of resistance where union leaders cling to the past like mussels to the pier. But, by and large, the union movement is transformed. Union leaders are better educated, more imaginative, better at thinking, at negotiating, at communicating. If the management people in companies were half as good as the union counterparts, Australia would have far fewer economic difficulties.
We’re approaching the end of the century. We’re approaching the end of a millennium. Things are happening so fast that people are getting very frightened.
You see this in many ways. In the increased power of superstition. In the retreat to religious fundamentalism, here and around the world. In the retreat into racism and bigotry. Yet changing times can be the best time to be alive; to be alive and kicking in the ‘90’s is an extraordinarily exciting thing. In medicine, miracles are an every day occurrence. So we live longer and healthier and an increasing list of diseases are being conquered.
We have more choices in almost everything from education to entertainment, to food to travel. Our kids have that we, as kids couldn’t have imagined. The landing of man on the Moon is now ancient history, and there are spacecraft now leaving our solar system. What we know through telescope and microscope is unprecedented. One by one the secrets of the universe are being unravelled. Science fiction is now science fact, and no sooner is something imagined than it seems to come true. Not only do we enjoy greatly increased life expectancy, but our expectancy of life is greatly increased. And so it should be. We should never settle for less in any way. Not less freedom, not less influence, not less reward for what we do.
But, moreover, the new unionist understands that there’s more to negotiation than a pay packet. The new style unionist knows about environmental issues, about sustainable development, knows that racism is as much his or her enemy as the toughest aspects of capitalism. We know that it’s no longer enough to fight the bosses, to demand more pay and shorter hours and longer holidays.
Now we must set the agenda, to make businesses responsible for the water they use, for the air we breathe, for the trees they cut. We know that we have to work globally, so that one country can’t be played off against another. We know that the working conditions in third world countries are as important to us as our own – because they affect our economic outcomes. The modern unionist has to know about GAT and the G7 meetings and US and Japanese and European trade policies. The modern unionist has to know about what’s happening in science and technology, has to take an interest in every aspect of politics, not just a local industrial stoush.
And we have to do this because that’s our jobs. And because change is becoming faster and faster. And no matter how disturbing change is, how frightening it can be, we cannot stop it. All we can do is steer it. Oh, perhaps we can slow it down from time to time, while we have a good hard think. But basically, it can’t be stopped. It can only be steered, so that it doesn’t run over too many human beings.
A lot of change that Australia is facing is exhilarating change. At long last there’s a chance that we can dump the last vestiges of a colonial mentality, and have a flag of our own. At long last there’s a chance of making friends with the nations in our region, with people we were told to ignore and despise for generations. At long last we can affect reconciliation with Australia’s Aborigines. At long last we might even get a common railway gauge from Brisbane in the North to Perth in the West.
But let’s hope that some things don’t change. Never change things like Australia’s commitment to a fair go. The idea of mateship might sound a bit old fashioned, but it involves an underlying value system that can, and should be preserved and developed. These days, of course, mateship has to embrace people who are born in a hundred different countries, just as it has to apply to women as well as men. But these underlying principles of mateship, which were given their most powerful expression in the union movement, and subsequently the Labor Party, are much more Australia’s birth right than the values involved in singing God save the Queen.
Far from holding Australia back, the trade union movement has been pushing Australia forward for as long as it’s existed. But never so effectively as it has in recent years. We accept the challenge of change. We welcome it. But we insist that the challenge be met by our business organisations as well, and by our governments. If they turn their back on change, and try to reintroduce the brutalities of the 19th century, if they try to use the ideologies of economic rationalism and deregulation to justify social savagery, the union movement will stop them in their tracks. On the one hand, we can see some distance into the future. On the other, the union movement has a very long memory. We will not accept a future that brings back a past of deprivation and injustice.
A new century is about to begin. A new millennium is about to begin. A new world is appearing around us. And a new union movement is ready to face the challenges. Its not the future that we fear. It’s not the future that we’ll fight. It’s any attempt to return to the past.
I leave you with that thought.
It’s not the future that we fear.
It’s not the future that we’ll fight.
It’s any attempt to return to the past.
Thank you Delegates – All the best for a successful Congress.
Opening Speech To ACTU Congress 1993 Martin Ferguson – President, ACTU Towards 2000 People and Progress.