This is what we stand for
Opening address by ACTU President Ged Kearney
ACTU Congress Day One
Sydney Convention Centre

I would like to pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet – the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

My fellow elected officers of the ACTU – especially Secretary Jeff Lawrence, who is attending his final Congress – the ACTU Executive, delegates…

Welcome to ACTU Congress 2012. Over the next three days, the eyes of Australia will be upon us – Australian unions –  the largest social movement in our country.

There are close to 1000 of us here today to:

  • celebrate our wins,
  • demonstrate our unity,
  • show our commitment to our members
  • and make serious decisions about how we will respond to the challenges we face as a movement and as a nation.

To those of you who are attending Congress for the first time – a special welcome. Soak up every moment, and take pride in being part of a movement of more than 2 million working people. A movement that has existed for well over a century, and endures despite whatever challenges are thrown at it.

For the history of Australia from white settlement is in many ways a history of the union movement.

Workers acting collectively have a proud history in this country and the union movement has been the clearest and strongest expression of the values of ordinary Australians.

We have fought for fairness at work and equal opportunity, for the wealth of the nation to be shared to the benefit of all.

We fought for a society that gives the brightest and best a fair chance to realise their talents, and for the less fortunate to be treated with compassion and dignity.

This is what we stood for then. It is what we stand for now.

We have recognised that no man or woman is an island. That we can achieve collectively what we could never achieve on our own, and that solidarity is a virtue. These values transcend the issues of the day.

They are universal and timeless.

From the 8-hour day battles, through the establishment of fair wages, of aged and disability pension, through to the modern achievements of Superannuation and Parental Leave, unions have been at the forefront of building this nation.

This is what we stand for.

None of these battles was won easily. And the history of the union movement is also a history of attacks on it. Of attempts to break our spirit and reduce our power.

We have often faced an unequal struggle, against vested interests with deep pockets and political influence.

We have fought off attacks from billionaires and business groups and the slurs and misrepresentation of the right-wing media, and come back stronger every time.

Unions connect us all. All of us are here today because we made a decision to join a union.

We did so in different circumstances, at different times, and in different workplaces.

But we did so because we recognised that workers not only need a voice to defend their interests, but that society needs the voice of workers to be heard.

We understood we have an obligation to help those in need.

We also understood that change does not just happen, it has to be fought for.

For me, as a young nurse in her early-20s, the decision to join the union was a no-brainer. The values of Australian unions had been well and truly established around the dinner table in the Kearney household.

And on joining the union, it did not take long for me to become active. During a heated dispute about shift lengths at my workplace I became a job representative, and helped organise a successful outcome. And I learned from the famous Victorian nurses’ strike the power of the collective to make change and was hooked totally.

I’m sure there are 1000 stories like that one within this room today.

This is a critical time for Australian unions.

Mirroring international trends, membership has been on a slow decline for several decades, although the innovative work of many people in this room has seen it increase in recent years.

While the traditional male-dominated industries are still important, union membership has shifted towards more female-dominated, public and community sector workers.

Despite recent increases we face the problem of being a collective movement in an individualistic age.

We hear that people are no longer “joiners”, and every other organisation is facing the same challenges we are facing.

The mistake that our opponents make is assuming that in some way raw numbers are a reflection that our values and beliefs are no longer supported by the Australian people.

This ignores the fact that our work helps all workers. Our campaigns on the minimum wage directly benefit 1.4 million people, while there are more than 4 million workers on collective agreements.

The magnificent campaign for equal pay for community sector workers, run by the ASU, will benefit hundreds of thousands of workers, union members or not.

It will also benefit thousands of vulnerable Australians who depend on the community sector.

More broadly the values of fair pay, of the right of workers to bargain, and the belief that workers have a right to be treated with dignity in the workplace are still embedded in the Australian political DNA.

The success of the Your Rights at Work campaign should remind all politicians that the broader Australian community, not just union members, will stir and respond to unfair attacks on working conditions.
Concepts like unfair dismissal laws, penalty rates, and paid leave remain popular, despite the best efforts of the Business Council.

The Australian people recognise what we recognise:

That workers should not be treated as cogs in a machine, that they are people with needs and responsibilities beyond work.

They understand that work is a third of our lives, and that the values of fairness and decency should not be left at the door when we walk into our workplace. They believe that workers must be treated with fairness and dignity in return for their labour.

They recognise that the relationship between boss and worker is an inherently unequal one, and that without the support of fair laws and strong unions, workers are at risk of exploitation.
This is what we stand for.

Like all of us, I have been deeply disturbed by the scandals emanating from the Health Services Union.

The report of Fair Work Australia reveals behaviour that is shocking and deplorable.

I know I speak for everyone in this room when I say that the misuse of members’ money, the arrogance and contempt shown for accountability to members, are unacceptable.

Whether it is a union, a company, or an agency of government, misappropriation of funds, corruption or poor governance cannot be tolerated.

The actions depicted in the Fair Work Australia report may be those of a few individuals, within one branch of one union, but we all bear responsibility for ensuring our movement has integrity, is governed properly, and is transparent and accountable to its members.

We know we will always be held to a higher moral standard because of the workers who put their trust in us.

I want to make sure that trust is not broken.

It was a difficult decision for the ACTU Executive to suspend the affiliation of the HSU, because we know the majority of officials, delegates and members of that union are decent, committed people of integrity.

But it was the right thing to do. The HSU case does not reflect our values, and we now must and will re-double our efforts to ensure the highest standards of governance and accountability are upheld throughout our movement, and that zero tolerance for corruption is enforced.

The workplace has changed hugely in recent decades. The forces of economic liberalisation have shattered many of the old certainties about a job for life, or the nine-to-five working day.

The new international economy has delivered new opportunities for some, but massive downsides for others.

The Working Australia Census told us that modern work is less physically demanding but there are new stresses and pressures.

The trend in recent years is for an increase in overtime, often unpaid, and for work to bleed into family life.

We see women juggling multiple jobs and caring responsibilities, while at the same time a group of older men struggles to find work at all.

If there is one issue of the new economy that cuts across so many industries and affects so many of our affiliates, it is insecure work.

Many workers float between unemployment, under-employment and brief periods of work, with no certainty, no career structure and no ability to plan for the future.

The modern business model is built on shifting risk on to the shoulders of some of our most vulnerable workers and their families

Such as the cleaners who find out an hour before their shift if they’re needed that day, the TAFE teachers on February to November contracts, and the labourers, forced to work as contractors so their employers can avoid paying super or Workers’ Compensation.

These workers who keep our society going deserve some certainty in their lives.

Insecure work is part of the broader issue of inequality in our society, and the challenge of how we retain our egalitarian nature while remaining competitive.

The theme of this Congress – Secure Jobs. Better Future – represents our enduring values.

Workers deserve secure jobs, and unions will always fight for them.

And we will continue to cast forward for a better future, at work, at home, and in the community.

We live in an age where economic rationalism often appears to have won the day. The orthodoxy that measures the success of our economy by the size of company profits dominates the media.

We have allowed global mining companies to convince us that their operations are more important than the national interest, and to write our tax laws for us.

Tax reform is seen solely in terms of cutting the top rates of income tax or company tax, not in making the system fairer or easier for low-income earners.

Low productivity is seen as the fault of the workers and unions, never of management, or a lack of investment.

In this view of the world, reduced pay and conditions, and attacks on the power to bargain collectively are seen as the only way we can compete internationally.

Social equality and solidarity have been replaced as cardinal virtues by aspiration and material wealth.

Deregulation, and the privatisation of government services are seen as the only way forward and the public service is not seen as an asset, just as an expense to be cut.

Overseas the shock of the Global Financial Crisis, and the rise of the Occupy Movement in the USA, has seen a questioning of these orthodoxies.

Recent results in the French presidential election, Greek Parliamentary elections, and local elections in the UK and Italy show that the people of Europe are beginning to question what they are being told by their political leaders.

Despite this, Australian political debate is still dominated by these orthodoxies.

To the point where, failing to cut company tax, and giving money to families to help pay school costs, is described as “class warfare”.

The voice of workers is rarely heard in this debate. That is why we must advocate for an economic alternative and to push a broader social agenda based on equal opportunity for all. We need to fight for an alternative vision of how our society and economy can function.

Where opportunity and reward for effort can be balanced with a strong safety net and a genuine compassion for the vulnerable.

Where our economic growth can come from genuine improvements to productivity, not simply cutting wages or forcing workers to work longer hours.

This is what we stand for.

The role of unions in pushing this economic vision will become even more important if the global economic situation worsens and drags Australia’s economy down with it.

All of us are here because we believe in the power of acting together. We have seen the benefits or being organised, and of campaigning for what we believe.

The network we have, that stretches into so many workplaces and unites so many people, is unique and irreplaceable.

There are some fights that can’t be won just by clicking “Like” on Facebook or watching a YouTube video. They must be won by people working together.

The union movement remains the best vehicle for the organised interests of Australian workers.

We will continue to modernise. Yesterday, we held the first-ever Youth Congress, with well over 100 delegates. We have a renewed commitment to young workers, the future of our economy and our movement.

But in modernising, we must never forget our successes and what has made us strong.

There are many people who don’t see their values reflected in the rhetoric they hear from business. Who do not accept that our future is longer hours, less security, lower pay and less equality.

If we do not speak for them, then who will?

We are strongest when we are fighting for something we believe in. Whether it is fair pay for community workers, the battle to keep good, secure jobs in Australia, or for justice for the victims of asbestos.

The labour movement has uplifted Australia.

It has provided a standard of living and a fairly shared wealth that is the envy of other nations.

It has tempered the harshness of life by fighting for social welfare and public services to mitigate against bad luck.

It has amplified the quiet voices of everyday people, and allowed them to be heard by those in power.

All of you in this room are inheritors of that proud tradition.

We also inherit the knowledge that if we don’t do it, then it will not get done.

We know that if there is to be any move towards a more progressive Australia, towards a society based on equality of opportunity and social justice, then it must come from us.

So much can start from the drive and the passion of all of us in this room.

We have the chance to build on the mighty foundations that have been laid by the shearers, the engine drivers, the nurses and the factory workers of this country, and ensure that the voices of workers continue to be heard.

This is what we stand for.