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  Issue No 60 Official Organ of LaborNet 30 June 2000  

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The Soapbox

Greg Combet - The State We're In


The new ACTU chief set the course of Congress with his opening address. Here it is in full.

 
 

All of us at this Congress share the great responsibility of charting the way forward for Australian unions.

Our task is to drive forward the process of union renewal, to build stronger and more effective unions.

Because Australia needs strong, effective unions to achieve justice and fairness in the workplace - and in the wider society.

We must never lose sight of the role that unions play in the improvement of wages, living standards, and the quality of working life.

Unions ensure that Australians get a fair share.

Unions give people a voice.

Unions are a back-up for people in the workplace.

Who was it that fought for rights such as superannuation for all workers, for maternity leave, for decent health and safety laws?

Who was it that achieved a $51 per week increase in the Living Wage over the last three years?

It was unions.

And we have a long way to go. But for future success unions must grow in strength and influence, not diminish.

Sharan spoke earlier about the focus of this Congress on the importance of delegates, and on the involvement of women and young people in unions. I want to address three additional issues:

The need to fairly share the benefits of economic growth and change;

The need to restore the balance in the workplace, with a decent set of laws and employment rights; and

The importance of reinvigorating union organisation.

But firstly I would like to review some of the key events since the last Congress.

Events since the 1997 Congress

A lot has happened since we gathered in Brisbane in 1997.

The leadership of the ACTU has changed. And I want to welcome Sharan Burrow, and congratulate her for knocking over Peter Reith's unfair and biased pattern bargaining laws. Not a bad way to start as ACTU President.

Sharan has already paid tribute to Jennie George, and in particular her role in last year's defeat of Reith's cynically named More Jobs and Better Pay legislation.

I would like to add to that by saying a few words about Bill Kelty.

This is the first time in about twenty-five years that Bill Kelty has not attended Congress. I asked him to come to this Congress so that we could acknowledge his achievements, but he declined.

Typically for Bill, he said 'don't spend time on me, just go forward', and remarked that it's time for him to move on.

But while I respect this decision, I think it is appropriate that this Congress reflects upon just a few of the many things that Bill achieved.

Because he towered over this forum for many years through the strength of his ideas, and the passion of his commitment to unions and working people. And he profoundly influenced public policy in this country.

Bill Kelty delivered benefits to working families through the Prices and Incomes Accords, through the boost to award wages gained by minimum rates adjustments, through the achievement of a universal superannuation system. He recast the shape and direction of unions, as well as the industrial legislation.

He steered unions through a dramatic period of economic restructuring, and some momentous industrial events.

The quality that I admired most was his courage in advocating what he thought was right. I never once saw him adopt a populist position that in reality squibbed a hard call that had to be made.

At the ACTU Council meeting last December I commented that the ACTU has had some significant leaders since it was formed in 1927. Monk, Hawke, and Souter to name a few - but by any measure Bill joins the list as one of the greatest.

Leadership change at the ACTU is one feature of the period since the last Congress, but no account of events since 1997 would be complete without recounting the waterfront dispute.

We did not know that, at the very same time the Congress was sitting in Brisbane, the Patrick group of companies was secretly restructured, in a contrived attempt to do 2000 MUA members out of a job and all of their accrued entitlements.

It is a matter of public record that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet had given the green light to this ruthless assault on the union, its' members, and their families. Indeed, the Government helped plan and finance it.

The Government conspiracy with Patrick Stevedoring and the NFF violated the democratic standards expected of government.

It culminated in the mass sacking of the unionised workforce in April 1998, and one of the biggest industrial disputes ever seen in this country.

The 1997 Congress said we would support the MUA, and we did.

Bill Kelty said we would have the biggest pickets ever seen, and we did.

We said we would get every MUA member their job back, and we did.

We said we would get back every cent of the $132 million in workers entitlements that had gone missing, and we did.

We said MUA here to stay - and they're still here!

I want to thank every union here for their support during the dispute. It showed what great things we can do when we act together.

Living through a dispute like that, when you're close to it, leaves a bit of an impression on you. Two people stood out in my personal experience.

One was Peter Reith. I was staggered by his capacity for deceit, and his bitter hatred of the union and its' members. He incessantly attacks Labor for its' links with unions, but he is the most militant campaigner on the employer side of politics.

Reith's denials of knowledge about the secret union-busting scam cannot be reconciled with the documented record of his involvement. Not long after everyone was sacked he said "No one, to my knowledge, had any knowledge of any plans anywhere".

His statements both inside and outside Parliament do not stack up.

The waterfront dispute show-cased for all to see, that Reith cannot be trusted, that he is partisan, that he is biased. The dispute fatally wounded his credibility.

His latest effort involves the introduction of an anti-worker piece of legislation into the House of representatives on each day of this Congress. What puerile behaviour.

For utterly different reasons, the other person who left an impact on me was John Coombs. He was already my friend, but our experience during the dispute built a much stronger bond.

We talked many times every day for about twelve months, from the time that the Dubai training scheme was unearthed, through to the eventual settlement.

John was tough, reasoned, intelligent and compassionate throughout.

He made every hard call, and I can tell you that there were many. He put absolutely everything on the line, and at great personal cost, never compromising his integrity or his commitment to the members and the union.

Everywhere we went he attracted people in the street offering their encouragement and support. Of course, I was never jealous. I just figured it was his hairdo.

There is an inside story yet to be told about that dispute. One with a labour history perspective.

And when it is eventually told it will record John Coombs as a tremendously courageous and decent person, a person who inspired others, a person who saved his union, and to whom we are indebted.

Thankyou John. You deserve the acclamation of this Congress for what you achieved.

Of course, unions have achieved much more since the last Congress - in collective agreements, in campaigns, in tribunals and in the workplace.

The Oakdale miners, the second wave, the Living Wage, Court judgements protecting wages and conditions during contracting-out, the success of higher education unions in overcoming fixed term contracts, campaigns by individual unions. There have been many successes.

Some unions have successfully hung in there throughout bitter industrial contests - unions like the CPSU-SPSF in Victoria, and the CPSU nationally, and the meatworkers, to name just a few.

A lot's been happening. But there is much still to do.

The need to fairly share the benefits of economic growth and change

All of us face a great challenge as a result of economic change. Over the past decade the economy has been transformed.

We have experienced a dramatic period of economic expansion and change.

Services have become the main driver of the Australian economy. Resources, agriculture and manufacturing have important futures, but they have experienced rapid and painful adjustment as the economy has engaged with international markets.

There are of course many positive elements of this economic transformation. But the benefits of growth are not being fairly distributed. There are winners and losers.

There is a widening gap between rich and poor, between regions, and between social groups. There are more low-income households as well as more high-income households - the middle class is shrinking.

In the workplace we know the pressures better than most - redundancies, casual jobs, contracting-out, longer unpaid hours, individual contracts, the application of market principles to services where they do not belong.

There is growing unease in our communities about the direction in which the Government is heading. Even business leaders have spoken out recently, saying they are concerned about the lack of social cohesion and 'divisive government policies'.

The role of government during times of such rapid change and growth should be to make sure that everyone shares the benefits - that the society is guided by fair and just outcomes, that people are not left behind.

The Howard Government is failing this challenge.

It creates division, not a sense of community.

It has failed to articulate a vision beyond the looming mayhem of the unfair and unwanted GST.

John Howard has tried to respond by appealing to the business leadership to behave in a paternalistic manner as part of some vague social coalition. As usual he is out of touch with Australian people.

What is required is a clear and unequivocal commitment to creating a more fair and just society.

This is where unions come into play. Our character is defined by our unwavering commitment to fairness and justice, and our determination to fight for those principles.

At this Congress there are draft policies which spell out an agenda for fairness in the workplace - for better rights for women, young people and casual workers, improvements in working hours, a better balance between work and family, a Living Wage, paid maternity leave, and a strategy for boosting retirement incomes.

But our commitment to fairness extends beyond the workplace and our industrial demands. It underpins our vision for this nation - as a republic, for better standards of education and health, and for reconciliation with indigenous people.

Contrast this with John Howard, whose approach to indigenous issues is a tragedy for Australia.

Cast your mind back over the past four years.

We have heard him on the 'black arm band view of history', on the evils of 'political correctness', the failure to repudiate the views of Pauline Hanson, the refusal to apologise for past injustices, the postponement of reconciliation, the equivocation over mandatory sentencing, and the failure to participate in the simple gesture of crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

At this Congress we will consider the endorsement of the Declaration Towards Reconciliation.

The contrast between the Howard Government and Labor on this issue is stark, as it is in so many areas of policy - areas like the GST, Medicare, education, childcare, development of the regions.

These policies will shape the future of Australia - making it critical that Kim Beazley and Labor succeed at the next election. I believe the cohesion and well-being of this country will ride on that result.

And in that context some comments about the relationship between the ACTU and Labor are in order. Too often the relationship is seen in the narrow terms of the Accord. That period is over.

The relationship between unions and the ALP has had many phases over the past one hundred years. But it has always been underpinned by a shared commitment to fairness and justice.

What is developing now is a relationship for the times.

First and foremost, unions will be a strong, independent voice for working people. This may lead to some differences with Labor at times.

But our relationship with Labor will also involve many shared commitments to improve living standards and the quality of working life.

For those commitments to be fully activated Labor must be in government. We must not lose sight of this.

High on the list of changes required must be a fair set of rights for working people.

The need to restore the balance in the workplace, with a decent set of laws and employee rights

Economic pressures have led many employers down the path of cost cutting and eroding the rights of working people.

Conservative governments have turned back the clock, undermining awards and industrial tribunals, and promoting division and conflict by encouraging employers to be more militant.

The pendulum has swung too far in favour of employers. Balance must be restored.

Despite many important wins, we have much to do in responding to this challenge. The answer does not lie in the security of the past.

We need a new set of rights. Rights that are relevant for the times. Look at just two important areas:

The right of people to collectively bargain and organise in a union;

Contemporary employment rights.

What are the key issues concerning the right to collectively bargain and to organise?

We have now had about 7 years experience of decentralised bargaining. For many union members it has realised substantial real increases in earnings.

But there are deeply unfair flaws in the system. These can only be addressed with changes to federal law.

First and foremost is the need to guarantee the right to collectively bargain. Under Reith's laws the employer gets to choose the form of bargaining.

Even if the entire workforce wants to bargain collectively through their union, the employer does not have a legal obligation to meet or negotiate.

Instead there is legally sanctioned discrimination and victimisation. Employers can simply refuse to bargain collectively, and make any pay increase or job opportunity conditional on acceptance of individual contracts or non-union agreements.

This discrimination and victimisation must be banished from the system. If employees want to collectively bargain through their union, it must be a guaranteed right.

This is one issue but there are many others.

Issues like effective powers for the Commission to see that justice is done, a real right for working people to have their union organiser enter the workplace, and a set of rights for union activists and delegates on the job.

This morning the Congress made a start on these issues by endorsing a Charter of Delegates' Rights. Our pursuit of these and other basic rights will be critical to the future.

They will be necessary to restore the balance, to achieve fairness in the workplace.

Also important will be a focus on the contemporary workplace and labour market issues. I will refer briefly to just three areas of policy.

Firstly, there is a need to overcome the widening inequality in wages. Many employees will never benefit from bargaining, or are employed in services unsuited to the bargaining process.

Many working people and their families depend upon minimum rates of pay, and struggle every day to make ends meet. Despite the significant improvements achieved through the Living Wage, minimum award rates are lagging well behind the market.

A substantial lift in award rates will be required if low paid workers are to get a fair share of economic prosperity, if we are to improve equal pay for women. There must be a capacity to boost minimum rates so that they are relevant.

I will make this a key objective of my time as ACTU Secretary.

Secondly, it is important that casual employees get a better deal. 27% of all workers in this country are now casuals, and that includes many women and young people.

Many are not casual at all - in reality they do the job of permanent employees but virtually none of them have sick leave or holidays, and only a tiny minority have maternity leave.

Casual workers deserve more. That is why better rights for casuals are being put to you as policy proposals at this Congress.

Thirdly, it is clear that people want unions to continue the drive towards improvements in working hours. This is a complex issue in the contemporary workplace.

The dominant problem is not necessarily the length of the standard working week - it is the longer, unpaid hours that so many people are being made to work.

The surveys carried out by the ACTU and many unions over the last two years show decisively that long hours, stress, and an inability to balance work and family are vibrant concerns across many industries.

These trends inevitably follow downsizing - the well known code word for massive redundancies.

Gains continue to be made in reducing the length of the standard working week, most recently by construction workers in a great 36 hours campaign in Victoria.

But the policy before Congress takes the debate further, and asserts the need for a reasonable limit to overall working hours in a workplace or industry - where this is supported by the workers involved.

This is not an unheard of concept. An average weekly maximum of 48 hours per week is a benchmark throughout the European Union.

The ACTU has tested this concept in opinion polling, and there is strong support, especially if it is linked to a better balance between work and family life, and to saving or creating jobs.

It is time for some debate in the community about this issue.

Union strategies to boost award rates, improve casual rights, and achieve reasonable hours represent important opportunities for involving workers in campaigns.

The importance of reinvigorating union organisation

Which brings me to the final area of my address, to union renewal.

The changing economy has taken a heavy toll on unions in the form of diminishing membership. In the steelworks here in Wollongong alone, the number of jobs has fallen from around 21,000 to 6,500 since the early 1980s.

But in the great labour tradition of this community, people are rebuilding for the future. And that is what we must do as unions nationally.

The ACTU alone can't turn this around. The ACTU is not a union. It can provide advice, devise strategies, lend a hand, provide leadership.

But the responsibility lies with each union.

Anyone here who feels complacent about declining membership, about the loss of 150,000 union members last year, better wake up.

Because we will not achieve a fair share for working people by failing to meet the challenges before us.

There are too many workplaces where union organisation is weak, where the activism is low, where there's no delegate.

There are too many workplaces where there is no union at all.

And there is too much time and money spent on demarcation cases.

When we produced the [email protected] report last year we said our key challenge is to grow where the economy and the labour force is expanding.

This requires an unwavering commitment to shift the resources of the union into a growth strategy - into delegate activism, into new organising methods.

The same challenge is confronting unions in other advanced economies. And they are organising to meet it.

At the ACTU Council last December we heard how the Services Employees International Union was tackling it. Since then they have become the largest affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Richard Trumka can tell you the story from the US.

But I am greatly encouraged by the efforts of unions in Great Britain. After the decline during the Tory years they have recorded two successive years of overall membership growth. And last year, for the first time in twenty years, an increase in union density!

We highlighted some of the reasons for this in [email protected]. It doesn't have much to do with the election of a Labour Government, or changes to industrial laws - it has come from a drive to organise and rebuild.

It is important to point to all of the positive things we are doing as unions, to the successes we have had at organising new members, to new campaign methods like the successful shareholder mobilisation against Rio Tinto.

But it is also vital to increase our determination.

The priorities identified in [email protected] are reflected in the business of this Congress.

Don't treat it as business as usual. Let's keep our eyes on the main game.

Make a commitment to delegate development and union education, put resources into organising new members, modernise the delivery of services to members, build campaign capacity.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning of this speech, we have a great responsibility to the working people of this country. A responsibility to make sure that there is fairness and justice in the workplace, and our society.

To achieve it we must accelerate the process of rebuilding, of renewal.

There are great things for us to do. And we will never finish the fight for justice.

When I look around this Congress, and I see the experience, the energy and the commitment that is here, I am filled with optimism that we will achieve our task.

If we do not undertake it, who will?

And when we are united and determined, we will succeed


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*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 60 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Turning Tides
ACTU President Sharan Burrow reflects on the disappearance of the middle class and what the union movement can do about it
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*  Unions: Fear and Loathing in Wollongong
For four days this week, too much unionism was barely enough. We bring you the highs and lows from behind the scenes and inside the bars of this week’s ACTU Congress.
*
*  Politics: The Group Hug
Opposition leader Kim Beazley came, saw and conga-ed. Here's what he said to the ACTU Congress.
*
*  History: Unions and Family Trees
Trade union records may not be the first port of call for a beginning family historian, but down the track a little, these records could bring to life an ancestor who previously was just a name printed on the page.
*
*  International: Fiji Bans Lifted
Fiji employers are expected to start reinstating all their workers over the next week, now that Australian union bans have been lifted at the request of the local union leadership.
*
*  Review: Room to Manoeuvre
Full employment with a highly skilled well-paid workforce is a realistic goal for Australia, despite the supposed constraints of globalisation.
*
*  Satire: Satan Subpoenaed To Cricket Inquiry
The King Commission of Inquiry into cricket match-fixing yesterday heard evidence from Satan that he never influenced Hansie Cronje to accept bribes.
*

News
»  Delegate Rights Up in 48 Hours
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»  Email Express to Orange Rally
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»  Nose Stud Leads to Sacking
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»  Shaw Walks, Costa Considers Future
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»  Reith's Waterfront Ghost Returns
*
»  Free Trade: Debate We Have to Have
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»  Superannuation to Hit 15 Per Cent
*
»  ATSIC Chief Calls for Workplace Quotas
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»  Those Bastards in There
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»  Strike Marks Resurgence In Community Sector Activism
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»  Casino Olympic Pay Deal
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»  NSW School Staff Ban GST Work
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»  Workers Online Wins ACTU Media Award
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»  Update: Computer War Hots Up
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»  STOP PRESS: Pay Equity Decision Handed Down
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Columns
»  The Soapbox
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»  The Locker Room
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Tool Shed
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Letters to the editor
»  None the Wiser for History
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»  Virtual Kelty
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»  The Burke and Wills Syndrome
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»  Rally for Refugees
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»  industrial Gazettes Looking for a Home
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»  Sharan Burrow at the IPAA
*

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