Unions have been modernising for years amid massive economic and political change and they have an agenda to improve the lives of working people in the future argues ACTU Secretary Greg Combet in this National Press Club speech.

Personal background

The ACTU commissioned some focus group work recently, from which I received some sobering news. After two years as ACTU Secretary I am recognised more by my spectacles than for the issues I have publicly argued.

I can take some heart though. After seventeen eventful years in the job my predecessor Bill Kelty was still better known for his unruly hair.

With this in mind I thought I would begin today by telling you a bit about myself – how I came to be in this position and what I am committed to doing.

I grew up in Rooty Hill, in the western suburbs of Sydney, until my father died when I was a teenager. He was a winemaker for Penfolds, a craft which had been handed down from father to son since the first Combet migrated from France.

My mother’s antecedents were mainly Italians who settled in north-east NSW. They were Country Party people, but my father’s lot were Labor.

After leaving school I worked for a year, then studied Mining Engineering. This took me to Wallerawang Colliery near Lithgow, and at 19 I started to learn about unionism when I joined the Miners’ Federation.

I completed my studies, but by that time I had decided to work for the labour movement.

Like lots of young people I tried my hand at different things – I worked for community organisations, informed myself about economics and politics. I gained a lot of workplace experience while working for several years with unions on occupational health and safety.

When the Waterside Workers’ Federation offered me job in 1987, I had little idea that I was about to confront a very steep learning curve. I was the first industrial officer employed by the union since the early 1950s. The union was just a tad behind the times, but they recognised that change was coming.

During the six years I was at the WWF we dealt with a commission of inquiry, a radical restructuring of the industry, the redundancy of half the workforce, the renegotiation of every work practice and employment condition, an amalgamation with the Seamens’ Union to create the MUA, plus a few disputes and union elections thrown in.

Fortunately, respect for some important traditions were upheld, like the occasional long lunch.

I was greatly influenced by the culture of the WWF, which was industrially tough but pragmatic, and I retain a deep affection for my colleagues and the union.

I started at the ACTU in late 1993, at a time of dramatic change in industrial relations. Ninety years of centralised wage fixing had been replaced by enterprise bargaining.

My early years at the ACTU took me to the negotiating table in many industries, and I developed relationships with people on both the union and employer side of the table.

It helped me appreciate the commercial imperatives confronting many businesses in an open economy, as well as the impact this has on working people and their families.

My time at the ACTU has also involved me in the totemic industrial disputes of the last eight or nine years.

Waterfront dispute a turning point

Principal amongst these disputes was the gripping 1998 waterfront struggle against Patrick Stevedoring and the Government. This was a vicious, high-stakes confrontation which tested many of us to the limit, and which took me into a more public role.

I am proud that in the resolution of the dispute we achieved every single objective we had set ourselves – principal amongst which was defeating the corporate restructuring which tried to rob 2000 people of their jobs and their entitlements.

Had the Howard Government succeeded in crushing the MUA it would have inflicted a demoralising blow against unions and working people in this country. The Government failed.

Instead the waterfront dispute has become something of a turning point for unions and their members.

New leadership and confidence has emerged. Unions have begun the process of rebuilding following years of membership decline. We are shifting attention to the contemporary concerns of working people.

And we have successfully campaigned against each subsequent attempt by the Howard Government to wind back workers’ rights in the Parliament or in the field.

In a nutshell, unions have started implementing a plan for the future.

Modern context for union strategy

To explain contemporary union strategy I need to touch upon the changes which have transformed industrial relations in Australia over the last five to ten years.

There have been three key dynamics – political change, the shift from centralised wage fixing to enterprise bargaining, and the economy.

These powerful dynamics have demanded a complete rethink of union organisation, policy and tactics.

Political change

Political change at the national level has had a significant effect on unions. Australian unions had a lot invested in the Accord with the Hawke and Keating Governments.

When the Howard Government was elected in 1996, and set about attacking unions and employee rights, we had to identify alternative means of influencing public policy.

Employer attitudes also hardened in response to political and commercial pressures. There is now a heightened hostility to unions in many workplaces.

These changes have led not only to new tactics, but also reconsideration of our political relationships.

The current debate about the ALP-union relationship, for example, should not be understood simply as an expression of Simon Crean’s desire to modernise Labor. It also represents a long-overdue opportunity for unions to redefine their relationship with Labor in a post-Accord environment.

The impact of enterprise bargaining

The second dynamic I identified, the change from centralised wage determination to enterprise bargaining, has involved a dramatic departure from decades of compulsory arbitration.

Pay and employment conditions are now fundamentally a product of bargaining power at the workplace. Only 23% of workers rely upon minimum wages set by the award system, and they are paid only 12% of the national wages bill.

Enterprise bargaining has taken unions out of the industrial tribunals and into tens of thousands of workplaces. Where we once needed court room advocates we now need workplace campaigners.

This alone has been a big challenge, but it is the transformation of the economy that has impacted the most on unions and employees.

Economic change

Over the last 10 years Australia has experienced a historic combination of economic expansion, low inflation, high productivity and structural change.

GDP growth has averaged 4.7% per year for 10 years, which has added $200 billion to the economy in real terms. Australia’s growth far outstripped the G7, OECD and European average.

The economy has accommodated 1.6 million extra jobs.

Average earnings have increased by 4.1% a year over ten years, and we recently overtook Germany and Japan in GDP per capita.

Strong growth has been sustained despite some dramatic external shocks – a recession in Japan, the Asian economic crisis, and September 11 to name a few.

These features are some of the positive elements of the engagement of the Australian economy with the world.

But the statistics conceal the character of the change which is taking place, and how it is impacting upon people. Many people and regions are not sharing in the benefits of prosperity, and inequality is in fact widening.

The key impact of economic change for unions has been membership loss.

A lot ill-informed comments have been made about the reasons for declining union membership in the 1980s and 1990s.

The simple fact is that economic change, and particularly the transition to a services based workforce, has been the key reason that membership has fallen.

Employment fell during the 80s and 90s in almost every part of the workforce where union membership has historically been high.

Just think of Ansett, bank branch closures, the shut down of manufacturing and steel plants, the dismembering of the CES, and you start to get the picture.

Hundreds of thousands of union members have been downsized, contracted-out, casualised and privatised. Union officials have been professional redundancy negotiators.

At the same time employment has expanded in new areas where unions have traditionally had little presence. In call centres, for example, job numbers grew by 12% during 2001 alone, to reach 225,000 employees.

There trends have been experienced by unions in other advanced economies.

The need for an organisational response

In the lead up to my election as ACTU Secretary I reflected upon these issues at some length. In late 1999, with the support of my colleague Sharan Burrow and other senior leaders, the ACTU set out an agenda for change in a report titled unions@work.

We argued that, to meet our objective to lift the living standards of working families, and improve the quality of working life, unions must build collective bargaining power at the workplace.

To do so required unions to be more relevant to the aspirations and concerns of workers and their families than ever before – we clearly had to develop stronger grass roots support.

The report also argued that to grow unions needed to organise employees in the growth sectors of the economy – areas like telecommunications and call centres, health services, hospitality, casinos and tourism.

To be more effective advocates for employees, we said that new communications and campaign tactics were needed, such as using corporations law – something we did successfully in the courts in the Patrick’s dispute, in our shareholder campaign against Rio Tinto, and more recently during the Ansett administration.

The unions@work report represented a major shake-up.

It involved significant changes in how unions operate, in the allocation of staff and resources, the skills that are needed, and the relationship of the union with people in the workplace.

Union successes

Significant progress has been made, but there’s a long way to go. We are only two years into a five to ten year program. Some examples will help illustrate what is happening.

In NSW the shop employees union has defeated an attempt by corporate giants Westfield and AMP to make retail workers pay for car parking at their workplaces (shopping centres).

The average before tax income of a retail employee in NSW is only $262 per week. Most are young, female and part-time. The cost to them of car parking fees would have been more than 2 weeks pay, in the case of most working mothers almost 3 weeks pay.

In the past the union would likely have dealt with this by seeking arbitration. Instead the union commissioned polling of employee attitudes, initiated petitions, involved employees in lobbying and campaign events, built community support, and won.

Councils in both Warringah and Liverpool have unanimously rejected applications by the companies. AMP has withdrawn an appeal to the Land and Environment Court. Union membership has increased. Even the Federal MP in Warringah, none other than Tony Abbott, got on board.

The Transport Workers’ Union is also trying new tactics and winning. When tax changes were mooted affecting self-employed couriers many of them faced a 20% increase in their tax bill.

These people typically work 12 to 16 hours a day for around $40,000 per year. The TWU provided a forum for people to get together, developed with them a campaign strategy, worked the issue onto talk-back radio, and supported seven courier drivers who walked in protest from Sydney to Canberra.

In Canberra they were joined by 700 couriers in a convoy stretching 5 kilometres. The campaign was won, and union membership amongst courier owner drivers has never been higher.

One of the keys to this success has been a change in the approach of the union to the owner driver status of the couriers – in the past we have felt hamstrung by the legal distinction between employees and owner drivers.

Unions are also running broad campaigns which benefit all workers. We have built the protection of employee entitlements into a major political and industrial issue over the last few years.

It is no small achievement that, after stumbling from one ad hoc scheme to another, the Government has been forced to guarantee all annual and long service leave, unpaid wages and 8 weeks redundancy pay.

In Ansett alone this represents about $320 million of workers money that we have saved. However, we will press on in our campaign until we achieve 100% protection.

As part of our renewal strategy the ACTU is also seeking to rebuild relationships with business. The most celebrated series of disputes over the past decade has been between unions and Rio Tinto, formerly CRA, over the issue of individual contracts.

In the last two years a dialogue with the company has settled a $70 million damages suit brought against the unions in the early 1990s, and resolved long running battles in the coal industry. In recent weeks an agreement has been struck which will see Rio Tinto pay $25 million in compensation to several hundred coal miners.

I see the development of relationships such as this as critical – relationships which sensibly reconcile commercial imperatives with respect for collective bargaining and employee rights.

Membership growth

Specific campaign successes such as I have described also add to encouraging signs at the national level.

For the first time in about 20 years there have been two successive years of growth in union membership. Unions now represent over 1.9 million members. The growth is small so far, but a very positive indicator.

Even more encouraging is the data showing that we are growing where jobs are growing – amongst casual and part-time employees, women, and in private sector service industries such as hospitality and retail.

In fact, a typical unionist today is just as likely to be a female shop assistant or nurse, perhaps even a journalist, as well as a male construction worker or tradesman.

And the fact that union membership is high in two of the biggest single workplaces in Australia, where the average age of about 10,000 employees is in the mid 20s – the Sydney and Melbourne casinos – demonstrates that young people will join unions.

And if you look at union representation more broadly, we consistently look after a much wider constituency than our direct membership. Well over 5 million people are members of industry super funds, we bargain for members and non-members alike, and our test cases benefit all.

A new policy agenda

Union renewal also involves the development of new policies. People fundamentally join unions if it helps them achieve their individual goals – a better living standard and an improved quality of working life.

This is why the ACTU and many unions have undertaken extensive research of employee attitudes. Our research demonstrates that the intensification of work is the hot-button issue.

It is evident that economic prosperity has not produced satisfaction at work.

The foundation for economic prosperity has been reduced staffing, higher workloads, longer working hours, less security, more stress, casual jobs, low pay and an assault on family life.

In this hard working environment many people feel unappreciated by their employer, and frustrated with their life away from work. One person in our research summed it up this way – ‘work ate my life’.

One untold consequence of Australia’s economic success is that people are too tired for sex. Perhaps this is just part of John Howard’s master social plan – the third term agenda we’re all looking for.

Another untold story is that, for all occupations other than managers and professionals, the net increase in jobs during the 1990s consisted entirely of part-time casual jobs (Borland, Gregory and Sheehan 2001).

Because they were casual jobs nearly 30% of the workforce now has no right to paid sick leave or annual leave, and no job security past the next shift.

The fact is that 87% of the net jobs created during the 90s paid less than $26,000 per year. An incredible 48% paid less than $15,600 per year. Middle income jobs actually declined.

No wonder that ABS figures released last week showed that 2 million households are experiencing severe financial stress. Many are working families unable to have a holiday, buy new clothes, pay bills on time, or go out. 195,000 households go without meals from time to time.

The future of work

The distorted impact of economic change demands a new debate about the future of work. People do not believe that the current pressures can be sustained.

Wealth creation should not lead to greater inequality, working poverty, insecurity and diminished quality of family life.

As a society we need to ensure that prosperity delivers better social outcomes. We should start by discussing the model of work and family life we would like in the future.

The Government has vacated any debate about the future of work.

The ACTU doesn’t hold all the answers, but we are working hard on a range of issues.

I will touch on just a few.

Working time

Tomorrow the ACTU will present its’ final submissions in the first test case on working hours in over fifty years.

The case aims to help by putting excessive hours, excessive workloads, health and safety concerns, and work-family balance on the agenda in the workplace. If successful, it will help employees and employers develop more reasonable working time arrangements.

You cannot overstate how deeply felt this issue is in many workplaces. It is flaring up everywhere. It was, for example, the subject of a major nursing dispute in Victoria last year.

The issue of staff to patient ratios, and the consequent quality of health care the nurses could provide, was sufficient to mobilise thousands of nurses across the state in one of the most significant disputes for many years.

I was at one mass meeting and it was as passionate as any meeting I have ever attended. The nurses won.

Family support

Policies which support families are also a key to the future of work.

Paid maternity leave is long overdue. Many couples have no choice but to work, and paid maternity leave will provide help at a crucial time.

But it needs to be backed up by a wider approach to family leave -to allow parents a longer period of unpaid parental leave, time off to care for sick kids, flexibility to cope with school holidays, and a right to switch between full time and part time work when it is needed.

Addressing inequality

Inequality and low pay is also a key focus of ACTU work. Recently we broke through with an $18 rise for people on minimum wages – the largest increase in the minimum award rate for 20 years.

But to make a real difference to inequality requires changes to the tax and social security systems.

Carefully targeted tax or social security relief for low-income households is urgently needed, as a complement to decent minimum wage increases.

I was recently in Great Britain and had a look at the system of tax credits implemented by the Blair Government – which by the way has already implemented 26 weeks paid maternity leave as well as rights for working parents to choose flexible hours of work.

British Labour has used tax credits to supplement minimum wages and guarantee a minimum total income for families.

You will hear more from the ACTU about targeted tax or social security relief for low paid workers in the months ahead. We want to make it a key political issue.

Political relationships

The uneven distribution of Australia’s prosperity, and the impact of work intensification, demand a response from Government and policy makers.

In times of rapid change, I believe it to be the role of Government to ensure that people are not left behind, that the society is guided by fair and just outcomes.

The Howard Government is failing to do this.

It maintains it’s political edge by focussing on issues which divide its’ opponents, and by exploiting widely felt insecurity or intolerance.

This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the ALP.

For Labor I think it requires the articulation of a program which continues to promote strong economic growth, but which is underpinned by credible commitments to improving social and economic fairness and opportunity.

This is how the current debate about the relationship between unions and Labor must be understood. Unions created the Labor Party, and have worked with it for over 100 years in the pursuit of social and economic justice.

The Accord was once the contemporary expression of this shared objective. A debate about its’ replacement is overdue.

The debate needs to be more broadly focussed than the so called 60:40 representation of unions at some ALP conferences.

It is not the responsibility of the ACTU to decide this issue, it is fundamentally the responsibility of unions affiliated to the Labor Party.

Some have signalled support for the proposed change to 50:50, and some are understandably frustrated. They are frustrated because they perceive the proposed change as reflecting negatively on unions.

But it’s important to keep in mind what Simon Crean himself has emphasised – that the relationship with unions will continue to be fundamental to Labor – that the debate needs to concentrate on the main game.

And the main game is policy – policies which benefit working families. At the end of the day policies based upon shared values and objectives will define the modern relationship between Labor and unions – not the 60:40 or a 50:50 rule.

I have touched upon some of the policies of interest to unions and to ordinary people today.

As the direction of Labor’s policy program is set, as the pathway to Chifley’s ‘light on the hill’ is remapped, I expect that a package of changes for the Labor Party will be worked through.


I would like to conclude by thanking you for the opportunity to outline the ACTU’s thinking.

Unions are by no means a homogeneous group – in many ways we reflect the diversity of the society – but we do have a demonstrated capacity to unite behind a strategy and to achieve great things.

I want to harness this capacity to ensure that unions do their best for working people in the years ahead.

If I could do something out of the ordinary for me, and adapt an expression from John Howard, I would describe myself as a conviction unionist.

And I can assure you that I will put all of my conviction into the cause in which I so passionately believe.