Fighting for our values

Rebuilding union power

Greg Combet

I am very angry about what's happening in this country. Australia is becoming less fair, and less equal. We now have an army of two million low paid, casual, part time workers. One million people work for less than $15 per hour. At the same time salaries at the top end of town have spiralled beyond the obscene. Twenty years ago, executive salaries were 3 times the level of average wages; today they are 30 times greater. The earnings of the top 5 per cent of income earners now outstrip the combined earnings of the bottom 40 per cent.

This overpaid executive class includes the same people who oppose, year after year, increases in minimum wages. Some of them get pay-outs worth millions, while ordinary workers lose their entitlements. In the workplace, employers routinely refuse to collectively bargain. They undermine wages and conditions by using contracting, labour hire and casual employment. Record profits and productivity have been achieved, but the business community is not keen to share this with workers. Even basic things, like security for long-term casuals, or the full protection of workers entitlements, are opposed.

Unions and their members remain under attack. When we last met in Wollongong three years ago, we had successfully repelled the assault on the MUA. Now we face a federal government attack on the construction unions: the same unions that delivered the Olympic Games, and many other projects, on time, on budget; the same unions that came through a rigged $60 million Royal Commission without any major findings against them. Just as we stood with the MUA, so we will stand with the construction unions. What really angers me the most about the government's attitude to unions, though, is that everything we do is cast as illegitimate. All of the good work done by so many decent people is derided - the lives saved, and the injuries prevented, the improved living standards, the entitlements retrieved from crook employers - it's all ridiculed.

Little wonder that Australia is also a place where tolerance is losing out to prejudice. A place where people fleeing from despotic, repressive regimes are scorned as 'queue jumpers' and 'illegals', some being left to drown. Like Nurjan and Fatima Husseini, two Afghan women fleeing the Taliban, who drowned near Ashmore Reef two days before the 2001 federal election. Their decrepit vessel was intercepted as part of the government's policy of forcing refugee ships back to Indonesia. Their deaths, in addit