Speech by President-Elect Ged Kearney to the ACTU Organising Conference
Tuesday, 27 April 2010
Sydney Convention Centre

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet here today. I cannot tell you how privileged I am to be President Elect of the ACTU.

The two previous ACTU Presidents, wonderful women, Jennie George and Sharan Burrow, have certainly blazed a trail for women leaders and have set a very high bar for those of us who follow them.
Jennie of course led the ACTU through the election of the Howard Government and the 1998 waterfront dispute.

This was a challenging time for unions to say the least.

Sharan led the highly successful Your Rights at Work campaign which defeated the WorkChoices legislation and of course played the major role in the election of the Rudd Government. Sharan’s contribution to the union movement has been phenomenal. A great leader and she will leave a great legacy.

She and Jeff have worked tirelessly to lay the groundwork under a Labor government for the union movement to now leap from.

I reckon there are great times ahead for us in the union movement and what we stand for and we have to grasp those opportunities.

I come from a less conventional background for an ACTU leader. My father was a small businessman, a publican in fact in the then working class Victorian suburb of Richmond.

I am the second youngest of nine children – six of whom are girls – meaning that I was essentially invisible unless I managed to shout the loudest which might explain a bit.

It was there in Richmond that I learned my political values, from my mother and father.

We were a large family in a largely working class suburb. It was there that I very much learned the power of the collective socially and politically.  In fact we nine children, as employees of my parents in the pub, formed our own union, The Kearney Family Union, we paid dues and even elected a secretary, and often took industrial action, which always ended when Mum refused to give us dinner!

And about fairness, I learned from that environment, from my parents, the customers, and the general hubbub of life in Richmond, the importance of sharing wealth; of charity without fuss; of respect for everyone, no matter what their occupation, status, education, how much they drank, or where they lived.

My childhood in that pub was filled with parish folk, knock about blokes, hard working women, but also with politicians,  academics, lawyers, journalists – pretty much all drinkers but nonetheless, all were treated the same, and they in turn respected my father and his family.

I went to university to do an economics degree, and then did my nursing.

Not counting the Kearney Family Union, the ANF was the first and only union I have ever been in. I joined initially because I instinctively knew that you joined the union. That was 1985. During a heated dispute about shift lengths at my workplace I became a job representative, and helped organise a successful outcome.

I again felt the power of the collective to make change and was hooked totally. I was elected to Vic Branch council served as both Branch and Federal President, then Assistant Federal Secretary and Federal Secretary.

I worked full time as a nurse right up until my election as Assistant Federal Secretary in 2003 when I started working full time for the federal office. I have four children and have had to work through their lives juggling job and household.

I tell you, being a nurse taught me a great deal about priorities, about what is worth fighting for and what simply isn’t.

The values I have learnt and the experiences I have had as a nurse will along with those of my family, shape the type of ACTU President I would like to be and influence what I want to contribute to the trade union movement.

My time with the ANF has been successful and incredibly rewarding. The Union has 175,000 members, it is rivalled in size only by the SDA and the AEU. We are a campaigning union, that builds on values that are important to our members, those of social justice of professional advocacy and leadership and of course industrial outcomes.

Running campaigns based on values and broader social policy is successful on many fronts. It achieves policy changes that benefit society as well as industrial outcomes that protect and enhance our members working lives.

Being valued is incredibly important to our members and I am sure for all union members and listening to and delivering on what they value is just as important.

Upon my election as President of the ACTU, I spoke publicly about the need for greater respect for the role unions play.

For 30 years Unions have been unfairly demonised by those that oppose us from the business lobby and by various governments and some media and political commentators.

Even the current labour government has great difficulty mentioning the word union in a constructive manner.

I say it’s time to put the ‘U’ back into Labor. Back into their conscience, back into their policies, back into their vision and back into their public comments recognising the great work that unions do.

Because we know Unions are a force for good in society.

We promote universal and progressive change.

We campaign to protect and advance the rights of our members and, by extension, the rights of all working people.

Yes we promote decent employment, job creation, better pay and conditions, safety at work, but we also play an enormously important role in social issues such as health, education, public services, pay equity and fairness, industry planning, development and sustainability, and winning decent retirement income.

Unions deserve a great deal of respect for what we do and have done, yet too often our politicians find it an easier option to adopt the frame that those who oppose our values have painted us in. Of course our members respect our achievements , and keep fighting with us, but I want to see a whole shift in the way unions are recognised for the role we play in Australian society:

  • For what health unions, teachers unions and public sector unions have done in protecting standards, quality and access to the vital services they provide to the community.
  • For what construction unions have done in building our cities, protecting our heritage and making the building industry safer.
  • For how manufacturing unions have protected jobs in Australia and continue to fight for the survival and evolution of our important industries.
  • For what the finance sector unions do, making banks more accountable and fighting for regulations that protect our wealth.
  • We know that unions can be places that make you feel secure, productive and proud. I want every Australian to know that and I want them to feel the need to join.

    And I am determined to fight for more respect for unions from all our political leaders and commentators.

    My message is this: If you want to know what’s best for jobs, for public services, for our industries – ask the people that work in them, speak to unions and their members!

    I see the role of the ACTU as not just being concerned with the experience of people at work. The ACTU’s role, if it is doing its’ job well, is to be an advocate for change that improves the lives of all Australians in all aspects of their life. All Australians be they young, aged, single coupled, with or without families.

    The union movement has always been prepared to engage in constructive dialogue about how to build our nation – after all it is in our members’ interest to have a prosperous country. And we stand ready to do the same today.

    But often to achieve change we need to campaign. Campaigning, as you all know, is about engaging our membership, educating people about our cause, growing our movement and creating an undeniable momentum for the changes we seek.

    It is our job to convince politicians, of all ilks, that our policy is the right policy, and it’s up to us to put enough pressure on them, to show there is so much support for our policy that it would be detrimental to them NOT to implement it. 

    We must develop good social policy that connects not only with our members, but the wider community, and be prepared to take the debate out to the community and ask for their support.

    If you think about it our movement, and the ACTU in particular, is at its best when it is engaging with the community and leading a policy debate to improve the lives of Australians. Whether it is the minimum wage, social policy or workers rights, when the ACTU is out there putting its case to the public, it really shines.

    We cannot lose sight of the importance of campaigning to our movement. Governments, whether Labor or Liberal, will not simply implement change because unions ask them to.

    Of course, strong advocacy does not mean you have to be about finding conflict for conflict’s sake.

    We can and should reach out to government, business and the wider community to work together cooperatively wherever it is possible to achieve the outcomes desired by members.

    The introduction of superannuation in Australia was developed as a union initiative but ultimately delivered through tripartite consensus.  

    I am resolved to ensuring that with renewed energy, a strong commitment to the principles of fairness and social justice, and a willingness to seek out partners for change, the ACTU will continue to be at the forefront of public debate in this country.

    That is what we strive for and I am grateful that I will get the opportunity to continue that work with you over the next few years to achieve a fairer and more prosperous Australia.

    Congratulations to you as organisers, you are the frontline of our work. You are educators, facilitators and mentors. You are both leaders and followers of your members as they bring about change.

    I see my role and the ACTU’s role as building respect for unions. For what we do and what we stand for.

    By succeeding at this and by successfully campaigning and achieving better outcomes for working people, I hope to contribute to making your roles much more rewarding for you personally and the millions of members you work with each day.

    In solidarity my friends.