Contrary to much of the media coverage of the event, most of our time at the ACTU congress was spent not on the Australian Building and Construction Commission or workplace laws but on discussing the broader agenda of unions about jobs and the economic crisis facing Australia.
This new union agenda is about ensuring that workers and their families have a real say in getting Australia back on the road to economic recovery, and about the ACTU putting forward policies to government that make Australia a stronger and fairer nation.
In their addresses to the ACTU congress, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard spoke at length about their desire for a co-operative partnership with the union movement to build a stronger and fairer Australia.
The Prime Minister invited unions to work with his government in a historic partnership for the future on a social wage for the 21st century.
Australian unions welcome the invitation and are committed to working with the government to achieve our shared aspirations for Australian working people.
But the success of the partnership, as in the past, will be measured against the national interest and the results it delivers for working Australians.
The partnership does not mean we will agree about everything or that there will not be sometimes serious differences in approach.
For more than 100 years, the Australian union movement has fought for the rights of workers and for social policies that enhance the lives of working families, and having a Labor government in power does not change our focus or direction.
The ACTU believes that at the 2007 election, Australians voted for their rights at work and for decency, fairness and equality at work. The Fair Work bill is a result of the Australian people having their say.
The suggestion that the congress last week claimed there was a need for a further comprehensive rewrite of Australia’s industrial laws is simply false. The only relevant party in the debate on industrial relations that has failed to rule out another wholesale rewrite of industrial relations laws is Malcolm Turnbull.
The continued strong support for Work Choices within the Coalition poses a clear danger to the rights of working people and is the only possible source of uncertainty about Australia’s IR framework.
However, there is one area where the ACTU believes that the unfairness of John Howard’s IR regime still exists and that is in the existence of the ABCC. We are totally opposed to laws that treat one set of workers differently from all others and believe that these laws are unfair and have no place in a modern, national industrial relations framework.
The argument has been put that these laws are needed to stop inappropriate or unlawful behaviour. The union movement is absolutely opposed to any form of intimidation or bullying by any side in an industrial dispute. The isolated examples of inappropriate or unlawful behaviour, in the construction industry or elsewhere, should be and indeed are dealt with by the ordinary criminal law to which all Australians are subject.
The most recent use of these laws is against an ordinary worker who attended a union meeting to discuss safety matters at the workplace and is now threatened with jail.
Examples such as this clearly demonstrate the absurdity of the present arrangements and explain the union movement’s united position that they should be repealed.
While disagreeing with the government strongly on this matter the ACTU also acknowledges that the passage of the Fair Work Act is a landmark labour reform and a victory for unions and working people. The restoration of rights at work is a critical part of Australia’s response to the global economic crisis. One of the reasons union members worked so hard to repeal Work Choices is precisely because we understand from experience the connection between fair workplace laws and job security, skills development and productivity.
The union movement looks forward to July 1 when, once again, workers will be able to join together to collectively bargain with real strength and capacity, and in an environment where individual contracts cannot be used to undermine important conditions. We also look forward to continuing to put our view to government, on behalf of our members, for policies that improve the lives of working families across Australia.
Jeff Lawrence is secretary of the ACTU.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Australian 11.06.09