ACTU Secretary Greg Combet outlines the values and goals of a union movement again on the march at the launch of Future Strategies Unions Working For A Fair Australia.


Im going to start by asking you a couple of questions, which I encourage you to answer.

Do you want Australia to become a fairer place?

Do you want living standards to rise, for wealth to be distributed more equally?

Do you want people to have access to free, quality public health care and education?

Do you want workers to have better rights and protections at work?

Do you want to see tolerance and respect for human rights in our society, rather than prejudice and discrimination?

If you believe in these things, like I do, theres a lot of work to be done.

Trends to inequality

Because the fact is that Australia is becoming less fair and less equal.

Access to free public health and education is declining.

Workers rights are under great pressure, and tolerance is losing out to prejudice.

The trends are going in the wrong direction.

At the end of a decade of record economic growth, we find ourselves in a society with widening inequality, where unemployment will not fall below 6%, where nearly all of the jobs growth is in low paid casual part-time work.

Australias economic prosperity over the last ten years has been built on the back of inequality and poverty.

87% of the jobs created during the 1990s paid less than $26,000 per year and half of those jobs paid less than $15,600. Try to live on that.

At the other end of the scale the top 5% of income earners are doing really well. The total earnings of this group stands at $62 billion per year, and exceeds the entire national spending on all social security and family payments.

The top 5% also outstrip the combined earnings of the bottom 40%.

Amongst that bottom 40% are a lot of casual and part time workers. No less than 600,000 part time workers want more hours of work per week to make ends meet.

And 2.2 million workers have no sick or annual leave thats 27.3% of the workforce.

And now Medicare is to be converted into a welfare scheme. And as inequality begets more inequality, higher education will again be the province of the well off.

Australia is also a place where people fleeing from despotic, repressive regimes are scorned as queue jumpers and illegals, some being left to drown.

Im reading a book at the moment, Dark Victory, which details the events surrounding the Tampa incident. The book outlines how Australian authorities have been associated with sabotaging the boats used by people smugglers in Indonesia, in an attempt to stop them sailing.

This is John Howards Australia. It is not ours.

It is not the vision for this country that I believe is shared throughout the labour movement.

Choice not chance

To reverse these trends is a matter of choice it doesnt happen by chance. It never has.

Societies develop in a dynamic way through the battle of ideas and values, through political and industrial struggle.

To make progress, we as unionists have to be clear about our goals and build our power.

To play our part in making this society fairer and more just we have to build the strength and effectiveness of unions, and the wider labour movement.

And this requires us to make clear decisions about the future.

Our opponents certainly do.

Take the attack on unions in the construction industry. It is not an accident. It is a deliberate $60 million strategy to crush union organisation in one of our heartlands.

If successful, not only would it lead to lower wages and conditions and more deaths and injury in the construction industry, it will weaken the labour movement generally.

The fact is that the Howard Government and its supporters in the business community are clear about their values and objectives, and they set out to achieve them.

We must do the same, and be hard-headed about it.

We must link up with other like minded groups in the community, who bear the same responsibility to stand up and be counted.

That is why it is important in forums like this to debate the challenges faced by unions and working people, and to identify the way forward.

And a key foundation for moving ahead is to build unionism. We will not get stronger by getting smaller.

That is why the ACTU is today releasing a new report Future Strategies Unions Working for a Fairer Australia.


It builds on the unions@work report published almost four years ago. It seeks to stimulate debate about the future.

unions@work was published amidst a long period of membership decline, after the end of the Accord period, and in the context of the shift to enterprise bargaining.

Its essential message was that the future for unions was in the workplace.

It argued that we had to rely less on institutional support on things like compulsory arbitration, on payroll deductions and employer support, on our relationship with Labor – and rely more on our relationship with working people.

The circumstances at the end of the twentieth century demanded a historic shift in the basis of union organisation. It was my belief in writing unions@work that the survival of unionism was at stake.

And the survival and growth of unionism is vital if we are to achieve a fairer society.

We are only part of the way on this journey.

You will hear at this conference great stories of achievement, organising successes, and campaigns which have delivered substantial gains in pay and conditions.

Some unions are growing they are successfully engaging workers in campaigns about issues of relevance to them.

In 2000 and 2001 we achieved membership growth at the national level.

But the challenges are significant.

Its not just that membership fell again in 2002 – or that some unions continue to experience membership loss at alarming rates or that union density in the private sector is now less than 18%.

Its not just these things which should motivate us.

Its the trends towards a less fair and more unequal society that are the core concern. The economic and social costs of the path the country is on will be immense.

As long as our membership is falling, and our reach into the workforce is declining, we will struggle to influence the future.

A fairer society is our vision. Stronger and more effective unions are a means to achieve it.

Future Strategies

And that is the context for the ACTU producing the Future Strategies report.

For those sceptics amongst you thinking not another ACTU grand plan let me say this.

The report was written following consultation with officials and organisers around the country. We sought their input.

We have tried to distil from peoples experience things which have worked, and the direction of peoples thinking.

The report does not represent a major change in direction it reinforces the changes initiated with unions@work.

And bear in mind that the ACTU is trying to stimulate debate, to promote change which will help build unions for the future, not to impose change which is inappropriate for your union.

So what does the report have to say?

It deals with three areas issues for unions within the wider society, the organising challenge in our heartland, and the challenge of reaching out to workers in the unorganised parts of the economy.

I will deal with each in turn starting with our role in the wider society.

Unions and the wider society

The first issue is the importance of articulating union values of setting out what we stand for.

If as unions we are not clear about this, we can lose sight of the purpose of our work.

And it is vital that we engage people at this level. That we build support for:

  • Democratic rights
  • A fair distribution of wealth
  • The right to be employed
  • Access to health and education regardless of your income or social status
  • Decent minimum living standards
  • A fair tax and social security system
  • Access to housing
  • Respect for indigenous rights, and diversity in the community
  • A sustainable environment
  • Equal treatment before the law
  • International cooperation and peace.

    And in the workplace our values extend to:

  • The right to decent pay and conditions
  • Safe and healthy workplaces
  • Protection against unfair treatment or dismissal
  • Gender equality
  • The right to collectively bargain and to organise
  • Cooperation instead of conflict.

    I think that values are organising issues. They demonstrate what we stand for and provide a basis for campaigns.

    They are also important for engaging those who oppose us. John Howard wants to remake Australia in the image of the United States.

    Take the struggle over Medicare as an example. The changes Howard is proposing will destroy the universal character of bulk-billing. It will take us down the path of a US style health system, where health care depends upon your capacity to pay.

    To win this battle the labour movement will have to win support for the right of people to free, quality public health care. Its a battle over values more than an argument over policy.

    We should take this debate into the workplace.

    After all, its going to cost workers and their families a lot of money if Howard succeeds a substantial co-payment for every visit to a GP, gap insurance for those that can afford it, and youll still be paying the Medicare levy.

    For those with long enough memories you will recall that workers have already paid for Medicare there was a 2.6% wages discount in 1984 to offset the effect on prices of introducing the Medicare levy.

    Working people should not have to pay again.

    The Future Strategies report proposes that unions develop, with their members and delegates, a statement of values. We also propose that the ACTU Congress debate and adopt a national set of values and objectives.

    It is especially important that we set out what we stand for at a time that the nation stands at the crossroads.

    Political activity

    The Future Strategies report also argues that unions should carefully assess the objective of their political activity, including involvement in the ALP.

    We raise this issue because unions do not achieve their goals through industrial organisation alone. Political influence is also crucial. That is why unions created the Labor Party over 100 years ago.

    There is no doubt that there is widespread frustration in union ranks about politicians and political parties. There is a justifiable feeling that much more could be done to assist working people and union organisation, particularly by Labor Governments.

    I think we should take a constructive approach to this issue to turn the frustration into a positive strategy.

    We should draw upon our values to develop a clearer set of goals for union political activity.

    Are we effectively making the case within the ALP and more broadly for improvements for casual workers, for collective bargaining rights, for improved safety and workers compensation, for low paid workers?

    Are the candidates supported by unions for parliamentary elections genuinely committed to our social and economic justice goals?

    Future Strategies argues for a more coordinated and planned strategy for union political activity, one based on a clear set of goals.

    The objective should also be to broaden the opportunities for members to be involved in political activity to be involved in setting the goals within the union and the broader labour movement.

    Political issues are also organising opportunities and membership involvement will build support in the community.

    Industrial relations culture

    The first section of Future Strategies also proposes that we debate the type of industrial relations culture we should work towards. What does this mean?

    It means that we should not let division and conflict become accepted as the norm.

    Now is the time to debate the rights that should be respected by employers and included in law if a more cooperative approach to IR is to be developed for the future.

    It is my belief that a more constructive and cooperative IR system and culture will assist union organisation.

    The report therefore asks you to consider ways of developing rights for employees to have a say in their workplace, to consider how collective workplace structures might be strengthened, and asks where unions should now take the issue of skills training and career development.

    Do we aspire to a European style industrial culture or are we prepared to accept the current path to a US industrial relations system?

    Along with employers and governments, unions will influence the long-term direction of IR. We should further develop our thinking.

    Unions and the workplace

    The second part of the Future Strategies report examines the challenge of internal organising of boosting membership and collective strength in existing union workplaces.

    There is no doubt that union collective bargaining campaigns in recent years have been increasingly effective, and are delivering substantial outcomes.

    The gap between the average weekly earnings of union members and non-union members has widened to $111 or 16%.

    But its interesting to note that there are around 1 million workers covered by union collective agreements who are not union members.

    And this is why the organising challenge in our heartlands remains so important.

    Experience has shown that:

  • Accurately identifying the issues for both members and non-members in the lead up to a bargaining round is fundamental this is what will motivate their involvement
  • The role of delegates and activists is crucial
  • Union education for the delegates is essential
  • Effective communications between the workplace and the union are a must
  • And that campaign planning builds success.

    The report canvasses these issues in detail and points to initiatives which have worked.

    One initiative successfully developed by a number of unions since the unions@work report is a union call centre.

    Call centres, or service centres, have enabled the more efficient servicing of members, the improvement of membership records and financial membership levels, the identification of organising opportunities, and the training of new organisers.

    They have taken some of the load off organisers in the field.

    Unions reaching out to new members

    The third and arguably most important section of Future Strategies deals with external organising – the challenge to reach out to workers in unorganised parts of the economy.

    How well we respond to this challenge will determine the long term future of unions in this country. It will also influence the level of inequality in our society.

    Thats because the lowest paid most insecure jobs are not in unionised areas. And it is in these sectors that jobs are growing most rapidly.

    Even the World Bank, no friend of organised labour, identifies that high rates of unionisation in the workforce ameliorates the gap in earnings inequality.

    We cannot genuinely aspire to reduce earnings inequality if we do not make a serious effort to lift union density in the private sector.

    The key is to significantly boost the level of investment in organising.

    I was fascinated to learn recently that the SEIU in the US, at the national level, is now spending 50% of its budget on new member organising. Many of the locals spend 20-30% in addition to the national effort.

    The result? A net increase of 535,000 members in six years.

    The debate for us is not whether we invest in new member organising, but by how much and from where we source the funds.

    Shifting resources from servicing to organising has had variable success.

    Many unions we spoke to in the development of the Future Strategies report said that alternative options to fund organising need to be discussed. These might include:

  • A dedicated income stream
  • Seeking democratic membership support for a special levy or an increase in fees
  • A hard-headed decision to allocate a proportion of expenditure in the same way as the SEIU.

    Part of the future challenge will also involve our capacity to use creative organising techniques, to cooperate in regional areas, to overcome traditional rivalries over coverage, and to reach out to casuals, young people and women.

    The report asks you to consider the marketing of a single national telephone number via which targeted groups of non members, such as casual workers, can contact a union.


    Ideas are put forward concerning all of these issues.

    I encourage you to consider them, debate them, and develop a view in your union in the lead up to ACTU Congress in August.

    It is there that we should resolve the policy issues raised.

    The Future Strategies report does not signal a change in direction, it signals a renewed commitment to the rebuilding of unionism.

    And there is a lot of work to do.

    We have experienced a change greater in the past decade than at any time in our history.

    Economic change has transformed the workforce and the workplace.

    Political change has seen vicious attacks on the right to organise.

    And at the same time we have been involved in a historic decentralisation of the industrial relations system.

    More than any time since the Australian Federation, the most important place for unions to concentrate their effort is in the workplace, with working people.

    It is, in a sense, a new beginning for our movement.

    And, I believe, we can be optimistic about the future.

    Because our cause is just, and we have shown that we are not going away, no matter what the challenge.

    If we match our values with commitment and energy we will help make Australia fairer.

    We will lift the wages of low paid workers.

    We will turn around inequality.

    We will achieve a better deal for our two million casual workers.

    We will reduce death, injury and disease in the workplace.

    We will improve super so that people can retire with a decent income.

    And will rebuild great labour movement achievements like Medicare and bulk billing.

    And then theres education, justice for indigenous people, the case for a republic, a fairer tax system.

    No one in the labour movement should lack motivation, because theres a lot to be done.

    And its not just staying-power that keeps our movement alive.

    It is our collective commitment to a better future.

    So lets get real, and put it into action.

    2nd Australasian Organising Conference
    9:00 am – Thursday May 8, 2003
    Footbridge Theatre, Sydney University

    Read Future Strategies – Unions Working For A Fairer Australia launched at the conference.