Unions NSW secretary John Robertson lifts the lid on The Nine Myths of Modern Unionism

A State of the Union Speech is a timely initiative for ALP Conference and I congratulate those who came up with the initiative.

A State of the Union Speech is a timely initiative for ALP Conference and I congratulate those who came up with the initiative.

This year, more than most, it is important for Conference delegates – particularly those member delegates – to get a first hand briefing on the challenges facing the union movement.

You would all be aware of the Prime Minister’s plans for industrial relations;

– you should be aware of their impact on workers rights

– you may even be thinking about their political impacts.

It is not exaggerating to say that the union movement in Australia is about to engage in a campaign that will rewrite our nation’s industrial, political and even our social history.

This attack on work rights from the Howard Government is based on a series of myths.

They are myths that Howard pushes for his own political purposes.

They are also myths that we in the labour movement – both the political and industrial wings – allow to flourish – often to our detriment.

It is for this reason that I have called my inaugural State of the Union speech ‘The Nine Myths of Modern Unionism’

Myth Number One: Unions Are A Movement of Blue Collar Blokes

I come from the building industry and I respect the contribution blue-collar unions have made and continue to make.

But the average union member today is more likely to be a teacher or nurse than a builder’s labourer.

In fact, Unions NSW’s four largest affiliates are all white-collar, female dominated unions – the shoppies, the teachers, the nurses and the ???

Myth Number Two: Unions Are A Dying Movement

Unions are continually being accused of being in decline – and it is true that our number diminished in the 1990s for a number of reasons – economic change, more casual and contract work, employer aggression.

What you don’t hear that numbers have stabilised in the past four years – and that last year numbers in NSW grew by a net total of 12,000 to 660,400

The union movement is the largest mass member organization in Australia – there are no conscripts left, all our members choose to join.

On the contrary, our regular polling finds that nearly 50 per cent of all workers – double the current number of members – would join if they were free to choose.

Myth Number Three: Union Officials Sit In Their Office Doing Back Room Deals

Our opponents love to talk of union hacks – but few would have any idea of the real work of unionisms.

Our focus is our members and our workplace

– and the challenges are growing each year as workplace get smaller, work more tenuous and employers more aggressive.

A union like the SDA must now re-recruit half their membership each and every year – that’s something like 100,000 new members signed up annually.

Any one after a few tips can talk to Gerard Dwyer out the back later in the day! .

Myth Number Four: Unions Are An Adjunct of the ALP

I am proud of the union movement’s partnership with the ALP

– but we need to recognise this is not a given.

Many union members are losing faith with labour – at the last election only 49 per cent of union members in NSW voted Labor – with 31 per cent voting for the Coalition,

More alarmingly, fewer than 50 per cent of people think that Labor cares about working people even ‘somewhat more than the Liberals!

This is an issue the party must confront by choosing good policy and not being seduced into simply being a party of economic managers.

Myth Number FIve: Unions Are Bad for the Economy

Our enemies would paint unions as barriers of change.

But through Australia’s economic transformation unions have played a constructive role – often to the detriment of our institutional self-interest.

Where we have made the case for applying the brakes for change – it has been because we are the early-warning system when the impact of economic change becomes too severe.

And let’s end this superficial debate about economic management

– the issue is not who can manage the economy

– the issue must be who is the economy being managed for?

Myth Number Six: Unions Have a Narrow Self-Serving Agenda

Union representation and advocacy goes beyond the workplace.

Our members are working people, but they are also:

– commuters – who have an interest in transport issues

– home owners – who have an interest in the planning of our cities

– and members of families and communities – who have an interest in the type of society we are building.

We have a broad political agenda – representative of the view of workers from across the economy.

We are Australia’s largest functioning focus group!

Myth Number Seven: Unions Do Not Have the Support of the Wider Community

Much of the public debate around industrial relations – particularly from our friends in the media – is based on the premise that ‘the bloody unions’ are public enemy number one.

After nearly a decade of public polling – this just doesn’t standing.

When asked whether Australia would be a better place without unions only seven per cent say yes.

Whether they are in a union or not, people want to know the movement is there to fight for what is right.

Myth Number Eight: Unions Are Full Time Officials Like Me

People like me are merely the custodians of the movement.

The union movement are the thousands of workers who make a commitment to each other – to stand together to make each other stronger.

Workers like the maintenance workers at Boeing at Williamtown whose job is to maintain the F-111s that keep our borders safe.

They have been locked out of their workplace for the past xxx weeks for refusing

They are the heroes of the union movement

– and I want to call on them to stand up now and receive the support from you they deserve …

Finally, Myth Number Nine: The Howard Government Laws are An Attack on Trade Unions

This is the most damaging myth of all – if we let the upcoming campaign become a war between Howard and the unions we play into his hands.

This is a battle for the working rights of all Australians – unionised or otherwise.

It is an attack on their rights:

– their right to a decent minimum wages

– their right to conditions like penalty rates that we have taken for granted for 100 years

– their right to redundancy and dismissal laws

– and their right to bargaining collectively rather than being picked off one by one in a race to the bottom.

We do not come to the ALP Conference seeking favours or protection.

We come because we are faced with a common fight – to protect the working rights of the working men and women that are our very reason for existing.


If we bust these myths we will have an honest debate about the future of the Australian workplace.

If we bust these myths we will put the rights of working people back on the political agenda.

And if we bust we myths we will finally expose the Prime Minister for the snake oil salesman he has always been.

I look forward to working with the ALP – the branch members, the office holders and the elected officials – to bust these myths and protect the people we have always stood up for.

Thank you