Sharan Burrow
Speech to Sharan Burrow Farewell Dinner

Let me first acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and thank the elders, past and present for their custodianship.  

And can I add a little extra to this customary acknowledgement by saying that the venue here at Melbourne’s Museum — which I must say is an inspired choice by the ACTU staff team responsible for piecing together tonight’s event.

This Museum, with its splendid Indigenous gallery and amazing pocket of Victorian bushland — provide a poignant reminder to all of us of the impact of European settlement and the ongoing strength of Indigenous Australians in their struggle for the survival of their culture and communities in modern Australia. I salute them.

Colleagues, comrades and friends – I am truly humbled. This room is full of great Australians, all of you, and I feel proud just to be among you. Thank you for you friendship, advice and critique – but above all for your support and friendship.

Most of you know I come from a labour family and I am delighted to have so many of my family with me tonight.

We grew up in national party or tiger country as we call it in western NSW. [As Julia mentioned] My great, great grandfather, Arthur, was a participant in the great Shearers strikes of the 1890s and an early organiser for the fledgling Australian Workers Union.

Both Arthur and his son, my great grandfather Les, flew the flag as early Labor candidates in rural Australia. My dear father Rodney is with us tonight and employed my brother John and I and indeed our respective children as child labour on polling booths from a very early age — given we did this for free, I’m sure it is a practice Tony Abbott would ‘tweak’ the legislation to allow more of.

My mother Patricia, who is sadly not with us anymore was a moral compass for me and for our family.

She was a defender of children, all children and colour blind with it which is one of the central reasons I still fail to understand xenophobia and racism.

So, I had a privileged upbringing where simple labour values underpinned robust kitchen table discussions, storytelling and a healthy amount of political critique.

I think to this day if you asked my dad who stole his bust of Jack Lang the invective against one of his brothers or some conspiratorial political enemy would fly and many a Christmas dinner has required someone to broker the peace.

Friends, as we head to an election Julia Gillard and her team will win — an historic election for women in particular — it is worth a little reflection on what shapes a decent Australia.

For it is to a Labor Prime Minister that I and my generation owes such a great debt for opening the gates to universities for working class men and women.

It is a Labor Prime Minister who introduced the Single Mothers’ Pension that enabled women like me to have a child and still live and study with dignity.

It was a Labor Prime Minister who introduced the then Medibank so all Australians could have quality and affordable healthcare.

It was a Labor Prime Minister who heeded our calls to end the war in Vietnam and so much more.

It was Gough Whitlam, of course.

The 1970s were heady days for me. The peace movement, the women’s movement, the fight against apartheid, the acknowledgement of Indigenous people’s right to traditional lands and a growing pride in a multi-cultural Australia – much to set right but much to convince a generation it was possible.

So I began a career as a teacher, then a union delegate, became an organiser and then a senior official of the NSW Teachers Federation, and then President of the AEU.  

How time flies. It seems like this was just last week.

And then yesterday I became President of the ACTU.

I cannot imagine a more privileged working life and for that I thank all of you.  

The strength of my belief in unions — of the transformative power of collective action —comes from my personal experience over many years of the unity, the solidarity and comraderie of people working together for a common cause based on shared labour values.

I truly believe that much of the best of Australia today has been shaped by union members and their families standing up for, fighting for, and winning a better working life.

So many of you here tonight have also spent your working lives dedicated to improving the lives of working Australians and I pay tribute to you.

There are so many passionate, committed people of integrity and goodwill working for our union movement – organisers, industrial officers, educators, union officials.

From the dedicated people in our union offices, answering the phones, paying the bills, arranging the meetings and above all booking the flights … Alice where are you … ?

To our delegates and activists, all dedicated to the principals of fairness, humanity and social justice, you are an inspiration that I carry with me.

I spent all but the last couple of years of my decade as President of the ACTU under a Coalition Government.

History will judge this to have been the toughest of times for working people and by extension, for unions.

And Greg, Minister Combet – how good does that sound – Greg while we know it took the whole labour movement and the support of our friends in the broad community to achieve what we did, for me those years will always be a life highlight.

All those years of Coalition government and yet we survived and won.

We won . . . affordable childcare.

Paid parental leave.

An end to AWAs.

Unfair dismissal protection.

A safety net of awards to build on.

Collective bargaining rights, and

It won’t stop there, of course. But these foundations have only been possible because we asked Australians to fight for their rights.

Together, we made history – we deposed a government and sent John Howard packing.

Think about it – it still sends shivers up my spine – and I hope it does yours.

The marches and rallies — in Melbourne striding down Swanston St and up Bourke St behind a piper in traditional Scottish costume and firefighters in their traditional fire-proof costumes.

In Brisbane at the biggest May Day for decades.

At the Sky Channel event led by New South Wales and, with Greg, joining with you in hook ups around the nation.

To Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, Hobart, Darwin on the Rights at Work trail in country electorates and all those community meetings, public events  and 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 against an army of employers who couldn’t wait to rip off working people, and all through it you heard just one plea: “Get rid of those laws”

And get rid of them we did.

Like most of you here tonight, I will never forget those moments, the three years of moments that was the Your Rights at Work campaign.

The Liberals underestimated the steel and fortitude of the Australian labour movement – and the true egalitarian values that drove us.

After ten years, the lies, the deceit, the racism and the children in jail, we finally had them on the run.

But have no doubt they will try again and this election is even more vital if we are to secure the decent Australia we aspire to.

A few short weeks to do everything we possibly can to ensure that Julia Gillard and our Labor colleagues are elected.

Besides our own Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA there is another fundraiser here tonight and it’s for our own Cath Bowtell fighting to win the seat of Melbourne — so dig deep.

The PM has left the building, but before she did I assured her that the people we represent needed her to win this election.

I can honestly say that never in my wildest dreams when I first began as a union organiser all those years ago did I ever imagine I would one day be heading the global union movement.

There have been, and I’m sure will continue to be, many mornings when I will wake up wondering What have I done?

I would not be honest if I didn’t say that my new position is daunting. But it is also exciting, and a platform from which I can continue, on a much bigger scale, the work that Australian unions do so well at home.

I am incredibly honoured and extremely privileged to have been elected as General Secretary of the ITUC at its second Congress in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago.

The ITUC is without question the pre-eminent voice for the rights of working people, for justice, peace and democracy. It is made up of union organisations in 156 countries and territories representing 187 million workers all over the world.

I am humbled to have the support and trust of my union brothers and sisters from around the world but I know that it is equally the respect in which the Australian union movement is held that has made this possible.

I know that I take with me the strength and inspiration of the Australian labor movement and with many union leaders now leaders in their Global Union Federations and Australia a key member of the emerging G20 I know you will continue to play a leadership role in the quest for global social justice.

It is impossible for me to even begin to thank so many of you here tonight but like Greg, Jeff has been a major partner for me and without doubt is a steady hand at the helm of the ACTU. He and I have been friends and comrades for many years and I have and will continue to value his leadership and tireless commitment to our movement, his advice and his unending support, especially as he has been elected to my new executive, the General Council of the ITUC.

For Australia, Jeff and Ged will take the ACTU into another era with Julia, Simon, Greg and all the Labor parliamentarians in partnership for progressive reform.

Simon is here and I have had many messages from previous ACTU leaders.

I spoke yesterday to Jennie who was planning to be with us tonight but couldn’t make it. Jennie George opened the door for Australian union women and Ged, you and I have walked through it.

Jennie began the fight for PML and much more and I continued it.

As women in the movement we understand the role and the often lonely challenges of firsts and we thank you.

Likewise, Joan Kirner who not only, with Carmen showed Labor women they could do it but drove affirmative action in the ALP, established Emily’s List to protect the legacy and as a friend and mentor like many of you on whom I still depend.

Joan, you are a legend and will carry that additional badge of a lifetime, a fighter for universal public education and social justice.

Natasha Stott Despoja, fighter for social justice and friend in and out of parliament for education, for women, and for justice.

So many people. Bill Kelty – who I’m delighted to see here tonight – it was Bill who innately understood the importance of workers capital, and Gough Whitlam who instilled in me the importance of International law and the ILO.

To our commissioners, representatives from the Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations, and Skills Australia – great institutions served by great people.

Union leaders and activists who educated me in workplaces about the richness and diversity of work, the critical need for OH&S, the value and opportunity of skills, the indeed on this score none other than Laurie Carmichael, the tenacious moral compass  of Doug Cameron, the courageous leadership on climate with Tony Maher, Don Henry and John Connor, the heart of the movement with John Coombs, Paddy Crumlin and my other MUA mates, Joe de Bruyn supporting generations of ACTU leaders, me included.

Who would have thought Joe that you would push a left woman onto the global stage!

Young upstarts like Paul Howes who are so vital to the present and the future, my own union’s leaders current and past, Susan Hopgood, Angelo Gavrielatos, Di Foggo, Dave Robson, John Hennessy.

Friends like Anne Marie and Barry Corboy, Rex and Helen Hewett, Viv White and Peter Young, Mordy and Nicky Bromberg, those of you I have missed  and many who sent messages but couldn’t be here – union leaders I have failed to mention but know they are special and our amazing staff — too many to mention all but I must give thanks to two special people in particular — Cath Bowtell, a friend and great support over many years at the ACTU and that Goddess, Alice Vickerman.

Dear Alice, a value your love, your friendship, your discretion, your skills and your style.  

I love and value all of you.

And again I want to mention my love and thanks to my family for who they are and all they have done – Rodney, father, friend, mentor; my brother John, now well and truly the strong heart of the Murphy clan, and his wife Meraline, my darling nephew and niece Matthew and Rachael and Patrick, the golden great grandchild.

Especially my own children Jody and Josh and their partners Nell and Renae – they make the world a special place for Peter and I.

And as for Peter, both childhood and middle-aged sweetheart  – how lucky can a woman be?

They have, like all our families given up time to our shared passion for a just world and I don’t thank them enough but I know I am blessed.

Ten great years, amazing men in Greg and Jeff as secretaries of the ACTU to work with – union men and women across Australia and community allies – even a few employers with whom we find common ground, I have been proud to work with you and for as many as possible I hope to continue to do so in my new role

Finally, this is not goodbye. It’s a farewell. A chance to reflect, take stock, acknowledge  the friendship, support and contribution of so many people.

And then tomorrow … the campaign goes on.

But that’s for tomorrow. Tonight? Let’s dance.

Photo by Rochelle Wong