Opening Address
Address by ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence
ACTU Congress Day One
Sydney Convention Centre

I would like to welcome all of you here today.  

Congress is a proud set piece in the ACTU calendar – it is where history has been made.  I have been a delegate since 1986 and have seen many debates about issues of importance to Australia.  

  • IR Legislation, enterprise bargaining
  • Change in the economy
  • Structure of our movement
  • Every three years unionists from around Australia, representing workers from every industry, every sector, representing men, women, migrants, Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander peoples come together and we debate what matters to working people, their families, and their communities.

    We do not just debate policies and motions – we come together as a movement.

    At this Congress we will all have a say on what is the Australian union agenda for the next three years.

    At the end of this Congress we will go out and campaign for change, for a better Australia for working people.

    Achievements since last Congress

    When we last met in Brisbane, in June 2009, the Fair Work Act had just started to be implemented.   

    It was not easy, but in that time we campaigned and we stood together:

  • We got rid of individual contracts,
  • We built a safety net that will endure into the future – notwithstanding the difficulties of award modernisation
  • We created a new fairer minimum wage process
  • We restored the independent umpire
  • We made sure that every worker had an enforceable right to collectively bargain.
  • And we did not stop there.

    In the last three years we have advocated minimum wage increases and achieved a near record $27 a week increase in 2010 – the first case under the Fair Work Act.

    We have continued to work hard to make up the real wage loss that occurred under WorkChoices.  

    We achieved a national paid maternity leave scheme after a thirty year campaign.

    We stood alongside social and community services workers, and achieved a historic equal pay decision.

    We won the increase to superannuation guarantee to 12 per cent that begins next month.  

    We have worked with the Federal Labor Government to increase rights for outworkers, and to establish safe rates for truck drivers, and to see the beginning of a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

    We have – after a long campaign –got rid of the ABCC.  

    Sure it is not everything we wanted – but it is a win.

    From the yellow t-shirts and the rallies, the trials and the acquittals of Ark Tribe and Noel Washington– this campaign showed what unions are made of.  And throughout it all we stood together.  We did not cave in.
    We have shown we can ignore past rivalries and see beyond factional alliances.  

    We have been unified, and we have delivered for all workers.  

    In this spirit of unity we went to the ALP National Conference in 2009 and 2011, we fought for issues of importance for workers, as unions not on a factional basis.

  • We got agreement to Fair Procurement Principles and I acknowledge there is more work to be done to see these delivered.
  • Despite apparent constitutional arguments, arbitration as the final step in dispute settlement process in collective agreements is now part of the ALP platform
  • We have a commitment that bargaining in good faith, must mean just that, good faith bargaining.
  • When QANTAS management took the arrogant step to ground its fleet it should not have been rewarded.

    Australian law must not ever again allow employers to hold Australian workers and the national economy to ransom in order to get their way and to undermine workers’ rights.

    Setting up for the future
    As you know, this is my last Congress as ACTU Secretary and I am confident that there is a firm base to continue to build and make a real difference to working people’s lives.

    We have embarked on the Secure Jobs campaign – as an increasing number of workers in insecure work don’t have a voice.  All workers deserve to be heard and deserve to have certainty and control over their working lives.

    We have established Australian unions as the progressive voice to create more equitable distribution of the tax and transfer system.

  • We have put the case that the level of company tax in Australia is not excessive and should not be reduced
  • We have argued that superannuation taxation is inequitable.
  • Both of these elements have been picked up in the most recent Federal Budget. A truly labor budget.  

    It is a budget, together with the ETS compensation package, that focuses on the low paid, lifting the tax free threshold, and giving a helping hand to workers who are under cost of living pressures.  This is what our tax system should do.

    We have expanded this authoritative voice of workers to the industries we are part of, and to wider economic debate.  The protection of jobs in those areas of the economy under pressure from the high dollar has been a particular focus of the last year.

    We have clear industrial priorities that will be discussed today:

    –    Representation rights

    – Making delegates have the protections they need to do their job, and
    – Have access to their union through right of entry;

    –    Better bargaining

    – So that bargaining that takes place at the level appropriate for the industry
    – Making sure all workers have access to even handed arbitration
    – So that bargaining can occur about all  issues

    Employer groups will not only resist this agenda they will continue to attack the very basis of the Fair Work Act – the right to collectively bargain.

    The reality is some employers have never accepted that workers deserve and have the right to collectively bargain and to have a say about their workplace conditions.

    This is why the employers have taken the JJ Richards case to the Full Federal Court.  Notwithstanding, the Act is clear – they will continue to pursue the winding back of our rights.

    Employers’ campaign
    I have no doubt that employer groups are currently writing the Coalition’s IR policy.

    We must continue to protect the rights of workers.

    WorkChoices was an aberration in the history of IR development in the country.  Unfortunately, many employer groups are using it as their new benchmark.  

    Fair Work Review
    We saw this in the Fair Work Act Review.  Employer groups ignored the terms of reference completely and instead made submissions about their IR wish-list, which is about cutting workers’ rights and conditions.  

    On the employers’ list are:

  • The ability to make individual flexibility clauses a condition of employment – effectively a return to take it or leave it AWAs.
  • End to penalty rates and other important conditions like redundancy pay
  • The abolition of the equal pay requirements
  • Further limitations to unfair dismissal protections
  • Undermining workers’ representational rights, their rights of association, their rights not to be discriminated against being a union member; and
  • The reinstatement of all the repressive aspects of the ABCC
  • Award review
    It is unsurprising that the employers’ first application before Fair Work Australia to vary modern awards is to get rid of penalty rates.

    What this does is remind us – that what unions do is important.  What we do matters.

    Without your work – every day to protect and extend workers’ rights – the wish-list I’ve just read out would be a reality for workers across Australia.  

    This week employer groups are standing in front of the Minimum Wage setting panel of Fair Work Australia.

    AiG is saying Australia’s lowest paid workers should only get a $14 increase; ACCI says $9.40; and, the Australian Retailers Association says workers should not get a wage increase at all.  

    Each one of these employer claims would mean a real wage cut for over 1.4 million award dependent workers.

    It is an outrage.  But it is also why what unions do is so important.  We can make a difference to the lives of millions of workers.

    Representing members
    It is a heavy responsibility.  And that is why Australian union movement has zero tolerance for corruption, or the misuse of members’ funds, or for maladministration of union affairs.

    Everyone here is alarmed at the allegations that members’ money has been misused.  It is not acceptable.  And will not be tolerated. And that is why the ACTU Executive has taken a strong stand.

    But equally, we will not allow it to distract us from the important work we do. We will be more determined to deliver for working people.

    I do not want you to forget about the difference your work makes for workers throughout Australia.

    Right now as we meet, organisers are making sure workers are getting fair redundancy and retraining packages at Holden and access to their entitlements at CMI.

    Right now union officials in Victoria are negotiating an enterprise agreement for mental health workers.  

    Right now many hundreds of workers in the Queensland coal fields are part of one of Australia’s longest disputes as BHP continues to deny workers their rights to representation.

    Right now organisers are giving a voice to the precarious work of the cleaning industry in retail stores,  so that the workers at Spotless have a collective agreement.

    And every affiliate would have examples.

    What you do, is a hard job, it is an important job.

    I have been a union official for 35 years.  I have never wanted to do anything else.

    I have been grateful for the Missos members – the cleaners, the security guards, paint industry workers, childcare and home care.

    I have never forgotten the day when I was holding meetings with a group of cleaners, a small Greek woman came up to me afterwards.  She told me she didn’t speak much English, and that I and the union were important to her because we were her voice; without the union she told me, she would have no voice.

    There is no greater responsibility, and there is no greater honour, than to represent working people.

    In the last five years union density has stabilised.  Today one in every five workers are members of a union.

    Thirteen years ago I was part of the Unions at Work delegation where the union change program began.  

    Stopping the decline of the 1990s has been an achievement for Australian unions.  But it is not enough. We must continue to focus on organising and growth.  

    We must grow, so that our members have the power they need to make their lives better.  So that we continue to deliver for all working people in Australia.  So we can turn back the rising inequality in Australia.

    In the last thirty years the richest 1% of Australians share of national income has almost doubled.  Now 9% of national income belongs to just 1% of Australians.

    It is shameful that Australia, a country that prides itself on the fair go, as being egalitarian, is more unequal than most OECD countries.  

    Australians want a more equal society.  

    As union officials, I don’t think we should ever forget that our responsibility is first to the most vulnerable in our society.

    This is why I have always fought hard for decent minimum wage increases.  Why I have fought for a strong safety net.

    In the mid-90s the minimum wage was 54% of average fulltime earnings.  One decade on, it is less than half – only 44% – of the average fulltime earnings.

    We must continue to do better by those who are unable to stand up by themselves.  

    There is a real danger of an Abbott Government.  We need to come out of this Congress more unified than ever.

    We must build on what has been achieved.  We must not take a backward step.

    We have a tradition in Australia to debate our differences at Congress and then speak as one.  Australia is one of the few countries in the world that has one peak union council to which all unions are affiliated.

    The ACTU is not just an office and governing bodies but a manifestation of the collective aspirations of working people.

    United we can defeat the attacks against workers and make Australia a fairer society.