Sharan Burrow speech to the ACTU Organising Conference
Sydney Convention Centre
Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The energy and commitment in this room this morning says it all.

The strength of unions has come from the unity of people working together for a common cause based on shared values. Much of the best of Australia today has been shaped by union members and their families standing up for, fighting for, a better working life.

I am proud to stand with you today though it is a day of mixed emotions for me. You all know, I will leave this role at the end of June for the same union work, just in a different place, with the International Trade Union Confederation in Brussels, which you all know has been my second job for a long time.

But to see so many of you here today dedicated to growth, to influence, to the union strength that defends and advances the rights of working Australians, I know that I take with me the pride in a union movement second to none. That there are so many passionate, committed people of integrity and goodwill working for our union movement – organisers, industrial officers, educators and union officials — supporting our delegates and activists, all dedicated to the principals of fairness, humanity and social justice, is an inspiration that I will carry with me. Thank you.

It is an incredible privilege to represent working people at any level, as a delegate, an organiser, a senior official and a President of the ACTU I cannot imagine a more privileged working life. I know that you also feel privileged that the workers of Australia have entrusted you to work for and with them and I can honestly say that even today I still view the role of organiser as the best job in the movement.

Campaigning together
Organising, mobilising, campaigning to win – this is the recipe for the achievements we have made over the past decade. All those years of Coalition government and yet we survived and won:

  • We won more affordable childcare
  • New rights for working parents
  • Paid parental leave for all is just around the corner
  • An end to AWAs
  • Unfair dismissal protection in all workplaces – big and small
  • A safety net of awards to build on
  • Collective bargaining rights and
  • The return of the independent umpire
  • There is more, of course – equal pay provisions that we plan to build on, a bargaining stream to lift low paid workers off the safety net for the first time and good faith bargaining. Not perfect, not yet, but only possible because we asked Australians to fight for their rights, to get rid of a Government and they did and in the process got rid of John Howard and his despised WorkChoices.

    You played an incredible role in making history – deposing a government. Think about it – it still sends shivers up my spine – and I hope it does yours. The marches and rallies — down Swanston St in Melbourne, Brisbane’s biggest May Day for decades, the Sky Channel event led by New South Wales and joining with you in hook ups to Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, Hobart, Darwin on the Rights at Work trail in country electorates and all those community meetings, public events workplace visits around the country.

    All those sausages. I didn’t eat another one for a full year after the election, I can assure you. But also those moments I will never forget, when we sat in tears together with victims of WorkChoices, in anger, and you heard just one plea: “Get rid of those laws”

    And get rid of them we did. WorkChoices had a real and horrific impact on working Australians.
    WorkChoices wasn’t about a more productive economy. It was about a vicious attack on the democratic rights of working people. A deliberate attack in fact to decrease the wages share of workers in an attempt to drive up profits – and the CEOs of Australia got bonuses for it.

    The most vulnerable workers in our society – the low-paid, women, migrants, young people – suffered the most. They had their take home pay ripped off, lost overtime and penalty rates and leave loadings, they were forced to sign individual contracts to secure a job, were sacked for no reason when the boss felt like it, and were threatened and victimised if they even suggested collective bargaining or thought about joining a union.

    Building and construction workers were subject to even more punitive laws under the ABCC, which treats them like criminals. They were disgraceful laws. They were un-Australian and they were totally

    And why did this all happen? Because the Liberals and the Nationals just couldn’t
    help themselves. They had chipped away at workers’ rights for years – the waterfront dispute, the Cole
    Royal Commission, AWAs – but once they had control of the Senate, their true colours showed — anti-worker, anti-union and anti-democratic.

    What a shameful period in Australia’s history was WorkChoices. But neither you nor I will ever forget that moment, the three years of moments that was Your Rights at Work. This was when the Australian community joined with us to make a stand for fairness. And we had an unstoppable force behind us.
    Ordinary Australians were angry. People who had never shown an interest in politics were outraged enough to join our campaign.

    Enormous courage was shown by those who made a stand, often at the cost of their job. As you all know so well, those who stood up during our campaign faced the wrath and might of the Howard Government.
    The people in our TV ads, the workers who joined our campaign, the activists and organisers – many of whom I met on the campaign trail — who stood up for their rights at work are the great heroes – and I salute all of them, all of you for the shared values and purpose that allowed us to unify workers and engage the broader community in the most successful grassroots activist campaign in Australian history.

    The Howard Government underestimated the steel and fortitude of the Australian labour movement – and the true egalitarian values that drove us. I remember Anzac Day in 2007 as I’m sure you do – at the height of the Rights at Work campaign.

    A tip off from a union allowed us to call a media conference to expose another WorkChoices rip-off. Workers from – can you believe it? — the Mean Fiddler Irish Pub had had their penalty rates taken away for working on the public holiday supporting all those Diggers playing two-up, as they rightly deserve.

    On national television that night – after the coverage of the dawn service — John Howard was forced to defend this blatant unfairness. He looked tired and exasperated. We knew we had him. The next week his Government announced new changes to WorkChoices. Do you remember the Fairness Test? A safety net with dirty great holes – as we used to say, you could drive a truck through it. Workers weren’t fooled!

    Rather it was their last ditch effort to dress up the pig that WorkChoices had become. After ten years, the lies, the deceit, the racism and the children in jail, we finally had the Liberals on the run. Six months later John Howard was history and his government was history and the removalist van was at the Lodge.

    And now, unbelievably, we must do it again. We will continue the fight to be rid of the discriminatory laws in the construction industry and the ABCC with its obscene coercive powers. We will continue to fight to ensure rights and equity for people who never chose to be independent contractors, to give up their entitlements or the security of the employee relationship.

    We will continue to work to improve the Fair Work Act including less onerous rights to take industrial action, less restrictive right of entry laws and the lifting of restrictions on bargaining.

    We do need a better deal for casuals, for job security. We need to strengthen and extend the rights to request part time work and/or a say over rostered hours beyond parents to all workers with responsibility for care. We need to improve pay equity provisions. Can you imagine what’s like for the women in our movement to know that in 2010 we are going backwards, 17 per cent on average, in many sectors up to 25, 28 per cent difference on pay outcomes.

    That’s not a just Australia.

    And of course the fight for income security in retirement through increased superannuation and much much more. We will start today to ensure that the Paid Parental Leave legislation, so soon to be within our grasp, passes through that ugly Senate where the Liberals have already cost us so much from climate change to means testing the unfair private health insurance rebate, to dashing our hopes for further legislation around industrial relations in this term, and who knows what will happen to the broader health reforms.

    So for some direct action today I ask you to fill in the petition that will be handed out– 500 signatures today and then if each of you take them to workplaces, to your community and get 15 to 20 more we will be well on the way to the target of 10,000 signatures we want to hand to the cross benches, the Greens and the Liberals and Greens, and a powerful statement from women and men that we want this legislation
    guaranteed now. Of course over time we will bargain and campaign for our target of six months for all but we will not be fooled by the wedge politics of a Liberal leader who knew business would not pay, who dangled the prize before Australian women as a political tactic, a Liberal leader who famously said “paid maternity leave – over the Government’s dead body”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think a leopard can change its spots.

    Pass the bill Tony Abbott – that’s our message.

    January 1, 2011 will see the 2/3 of Australian women who have not 1 cent of paid maternity leave enjoy income security for 18 weeks – more than 4 months and union women in the bargaining sector up to
    six months and more. This is a 30 year campaign by women supported by many their brothers, with trade union women at the fore. Manny many allies but a union legacy we all be proud of! And we will not let that slip through our grasp.

    Let’s not see the self interest of any politician take it away!!

    These aspirations are our commitment to working Australians and a better working

    WorkChoices –never again
    But we have even more to do. We will never allow the rights of working people to be trampled over. The threat of Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party bringing back the central elements of WorkChoices is real. From his own lips guarantees of individual contracts and the denial of fair dismissal rights for workers in small business – no job security – able to be fired at whim. From his deputy, Julie Abbott the wish to review penalty rates.

    We have seen it all before. The same people we withstood for more than ten years and then fought tooth and nail to uproot are still there – waiting, watching, ready to pounce as soon as the labor movement lets slip.  And Eric Abetz – the author of the WorkChoices booklet is now the Shadow Workplace Relations Minister. Joe Hockey – the salesman for WorkChoices after Howard sacked the undertaker, Kevin Andrews is now Shadow Treasurer.

    The threat is serious – Tony Abbott, who dared to question the integrity of that great man Bernie Banton while on his death bed is now only a few percentage points away from becoming the next Prime Minister.
    WorkChoices is in Tony Abbott’s blood. There is no doubt, that if the Liberals had controlled the Senate when Abbott was IR Minister, he would have just as enthusiastically implemented WorkChoices and worse.

    I know, with many of you, I walked those Senate boards for years, convincing the Democrats to keep those amendments off the books, but then of course we lost the Senate and the rest is history.

    Tony Abbott, just last year, in his book Battlelines, he wrote: “WorkChoices was a political mistake, but it may not have been an economic one.” And every word he has uttered since he has become Liberal leader has makes it clear that he will reintroduce WorkChoices if he is elected this year.

    He will once again remove unfair dismissal protection for millions of Australian workers. He will reintroduce individual contracts that allow employers to dictate pay and conditions and working hours. He will slash the conditions and protections of casual workers. He will bring in new restrictions on collective bargaining and
    industrial action. He will raise new barriers to joining and being represented at work by a union, including over health and safety issues. He just won’t call it WorkChoices.

    I want to ask you to do just one thing. Whatever ground we need to campaign for to improve the Fair Work laws think about the people you represent. Ordinary workers. People who kept faith with their union during years of hostility, when they faced a genuine risk that they could lose their job because of their
    membership ticket.

    But they kept the faith because they knew there was a better way and in Your Rights at Work, they gave their all for that cause. They stuck with the union when it would have been easier – and safer – to keep their heads down, take whatever their employers threw at them. You know, because you could feel the fear in workplaces, the courage that took. Because they shared the same values of a fair go for all, of a cohesive society where everybody matters. They stood their ground.

    So we have a responsibility to them. We will not let them down. We cannot go back to WorkChoices. We cannot let the monumental effort of Your Rights at Work be wasted.

    Check out our new campaign site, it is a much improved tool with features that include:

  • A news blog called R@W News
  • Specific campaign groups
  • Resources to download and share
  • Spaces for you to contribute with more ways to have your voice heard
  • And capacity to track the actions you have taken on the campaigns you follow
  • Sign up. Sign up to the campaign site but also to the community campaign in more than two dozen electorates where we will work. And make use of the resources including the new ads we will launch later today, the stories of working Australian who remind us why we will never again accept Liberal IR laws.

    So we have a very simple message for Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz and the rest of the Liberal Party – and I want you to join me in voicing it: WorkChoices: Whatever the name – never again.