top of page

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 addition to the 353 people who perished on SIEV X on October 19, 2001, were overshadowed by the lies and deceit about children being thrown overboard. Is this immoral conduct what John Howard meant when he said 'we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come'?

But the disgrace of our government doesn't stop there. A pattern of disreputable conduct has emerged. Intelligence information has been misrepresented in order to justify a war on Iraq. Australia's foundation commitment to the United Nations processes has been repudiated. On the home front, we have seen falsified Comcar records relied upon to attack a High Court judge. The Prime Minister's choice of Governor General could not understand the immorality of his past decisions concerning sexual abuse in his church. Phillip Ruddock - what can you say about him? He giggles while he backgrounds a journalist on investigations into an ATSIC Commissioner - but is embroiled himself in the cash-for-visas affair. The Ansett levy, which people believed would help pay for Ansett workers' entitlements, has ended up in the pockets of the government. A $265 million windfall from people's misfortune. And now access to free public health and higher education is under direct attack.

Congress delegates, the trends are going in the wrong direction in our country. The fact is that Australia's economic prosperity over the last ten years has been built on the back of inequality and injustice. And this government's political prosperity has been built on deceit, prejudice and fear. Of course we must fight terrorism. All of us share an abhorrence of the tragedies which have occurred. Like all Australians, unions will support the campaign to defeat terrorism. But unity in that fight does not mean we should overlook inequality, attacks on workers rights, deceit in public life, intolerance, or the destruction of basic services like Medicare and education. The direction in which we are headed is not ours. It is not a vision for Australia that is shared within the labour movement. No. Our vision is one of fairness and of decency.

Choice not chance

To change direction is a matter of choice - it doesn't happen by chance. It never has. Societies develop in a dynamic way - through the battle of ideas and values, through political and industrial struggle. To make progress, we as unionists have to be clear about our goals and build our power. To play our part in making this society fairer and more just we have to build the strength and effectiveness of unions, and the wider labour movement. We have to stand up for our values and beliefs. And this requires us to make clear decisions about the future. We cannot afford to bicker amongst ourselves, or indulge in shallow factional argument. Rather, we must build unity and common goals. And we must link up with other like minded groups in the community.

That is why this Congress is important. We have arrived at a critical point in our history. Because the labour movement must rebuild its' power in this country. Not for our own self interest, but in the interest of a decent and fair society. At this Congress we must build the basis for this ascendancy. We must honestly debate the challenges faced by unions and working people, and unite to go forward. I see these challenges in three main areas:

· Continuing the task of union renewal;

· Developing policies relevant to the future of work; and

· Building support for our values and a fairer society.

I will deal with each in turn.

Union renewal

Four years ago this week, the ACTU released the unions@work report. Its message was that the future for unions was in the workplace - that we had to rely less on institutions like industrial tribunals - and rely more on our organising ability. We are only part of the way on this journey. You will hear at this Congress great stories of achievement, organising successes, and campaigns which have delivered substantial gains in pay and conditions. Some unions are growing. In 2000 and 2001 we achieved membership growth at the national level. But the challenges are significant.

It's not just that membership fell again in 2002 - or that some unions continue to experience membership loss at alarming rates - or that union density in the private sector is now less than 18 per cent. It's not just these things which should motivate us. It's the trend towards a less fair and more unequal society that is the core concern. The economic and social costs of the path the country is on will be immense. Unless we are growing, and our reach into the workforce is extending, it will be even more difficult to influence the future.

A fairer society is our vision. Stronger and more effective unions are a means to achieve it. And that is the context for the ACTU producing the Future Strategies report, which will be debated on Wednesday. For those sceptics amongst you thinking 'not another ACTU grand plan' let me say this. It is not a change in direction. It is a reinforcement of the need to organise. And most importantly, the report followed consultation with over 200 officials and organisers around the country.

What are some of the things they raised? The main one is the importance of effectively using collective bargaining for two goals - not only to achieve gains in pay and conditions, but to build membership as well. Not many people realise that there are around one million workers covered by union collective agreements who are not union members. And this is why the organising challenge in our heartlands remains so important. Union experience has shown that:

· Campaign planning builds success

· Accurately identifying the issues for both members and non-members in the lead up to a bargaining round is fundamental - the right issues will motivate people to be involved

· The development of delegates and activists is crucial

· Modern campaign communications and tactics do work.

Ask the nurses. Thousands of new members from great campaigns. Or ask the CPSU. At Centrelink they started with extensive consultation with workers, who overwhelmingly endorsed a campaign strategy. An activist network was built person by person. The employer, Tony Abbott, repeatedly made offers directly to employees. These were resoundingly rejected in ballots. Delegates were harassed, right of entry denied, email access closed off. But to no avail. A union certified agreement was achieved. Some 3,000 new members were recruited, 400 new activists enlisted, including 240 women. Union and delegate rights implemented. Plus improved pay and conditions. Tony Abbott reckons if you have a bad boss count yourself lucky. He should count himself lucky to have such great employees. Congratulations to the CPSU and the Centrelink members.

There have been many great campaigns. I mentioned that officials we consulted identified the development of delegates and activists as crucial. But for many unions resources are too tight for doing large scale delegate education. I am pleased to report a breakthrough on this front. The ACTU has now secured funding from the NSW government and a commitment from the Victorian government for developing delegates education in those two states. The ACTU is allocating $1 million and the NSW and Victorian governments have committed $3 million each to the Union Education Foundation. The ACTU is determined to develop a delegates education program which will build successful collective bargaining. The support of the Carr and Bracks governments in this endeavour is significant. We need similar support in other states.

Which brings me to a further issue raised frequently by unions - the relationship with the Labor Party, and expectations unions have of Labor governments. The Future Strategies report canvasses this issue. We all know that unions do not achieve their goals through industrial organisation alone. Political influence is also crucial. That is why unions created the Labor Party over 100 years ago. That is why many unions remain affiliated to the ALP. And it is why John Howard attacks this relationship. But there is no doubt there is widespread frustration in union ranks about politicians and political parties. Public sector unions in particular must deal with Labor governments as employers, and there is a lot of anger about their approach in some states.

Overall, there is a justifiable feeling that more could be done to help working people and union organisation. At this Congress I think we should take a constructive approach to this issue - to turn the frustration into a positive strategy. We should develop a clearer set of goals for union political activity. Are we effectively making the case within the ALP - and more broadly - for improvements for casual workers, for collective bargaining rights, for low paid workers, for delegates rights? Can we rise above factional interests to make a union case for change? One of the policies before the Congress proposes that we commit to a common set of objectives and that we unite to achieve them. That is, when we enter political forums at state or national levels, and regardless of factional background, we pursue some simple shared goals.

The future of work

The changing nature of work is also a focus for this Congress. Over the last ten years the Australian economy has grown faster than the US, Europe and the combined OECD economies. This is a remarkable achievement. Per capita income has surged, productivity is at record levels, real unit labour costs at 30 year lows. And yet it's clear that many people are struggling. Nearly 60 per cent of people think Australia is less fair than it was, well over 60 per cent think job security is worsening, and only 14 per cent think that their kids will have better job prospects than themselves.

Detailed research commissioned by the ACTU, which is contained in the Future of Work report, is on tomorrow's agenda. It sets the context for our industrial priorities. Some 87 per cent of the jobs created during the 1990s paid less than $26,000 per year - and half of those jobs paid less than $15,600. Thousands of working households cannot afford holidays, basic household items, and sometimes heating, clothing and food. This is the evidence of a crisis of low pay. The jobs growth is all in casual part time work. It's in the private sector in clerical, retail, hospitality and services work. There are very high concentrations of women in these jobs, leading to even greater pay inequity. Casual part time workers are, in a sense, the new outsiders. They have no paid sick or annual leave or a day off to care for a sick family member. And there are over 2 million of them. We need to stand up for them, to reach out to them, to be inclusive and bring them within our movement. If you've got a full time job you're probably working longer and struggling with workloads. Overtime is unlikely to be paid. Balancing work and family commitments has become a key pressure point. These trends have not emerged because of employee choice. In fact 70 per cent of casuals say they want more security and predictability. No less than 600,000 part time workers want more hours of work per week to make ends meet. These trends are the result of choices by employers and governments in pursuit of economic competitiveness.

Australia's stellar economic performance in recent years has been achieved by shifting more of the risk, more of the pressure, onto employees. The drive by employers to be competitive has not been balanced with an effective set of labour market rights for employees. The pendulum has swung too far one way. Our task is to restore the balance - to identify and achieve employee rights which are fair, and which are needed to underpin the changing labour market.

We all understand the importance of a vibrant, growing economy. It generates jobs and opportunities, and increases wealth. But this must be for the many, not just the few. Unions have achieved a lot in pay and conditions in recent years. There is a lot to be proud of. But we need to keep going. The draft policies before this Congress are designed for that purpose. They set the course for a fairer IR system and a decent set of rights for workers.

Values - a fairer society

But the starting point for any policy debate, and for this Congress, must involve a set of values - a statement of beliefs that underpin our view of the world and how we want to change it. It's our values that bind us as people and organisations. It's our values that locate us within the labour movement, that show what we stand for. And values are also important for engaging those who oppose us. It is my firm belief that John Howard must be engaged on this ground.

Take the struggle over Medicare as an example. The changes Howard is proposing will destroy the universal character of bulk-billing. It will take us down the path of a US style health system, where health care depends upon your capacity to pay. To win this battle the labour movement will have to win support for the right of people to free, quality public health care. It's a battle over values as much as an argument over policy. It's going to cost workers and their families a lot of money if Howard succeeds - a substantial co-payment for every visit to a GP, gap insurance for those that can afford it, and you'll still be paying the Medicare levy. For those with long enough memories you will recall that workers have already paid for Medicare - there was a 2.6 per cent wages discount in 1984 to offset the effect on prices of introducing the Medicare levy. Working people should not have to pay again. I urge you all to take this debate into the workplace. To build support for bulk billing, and to construct a wall of opposition to Howard's assault on Medicare. Medicare is a labour movement achievement, let's fight to protect it. Because this is a fight for our values. We can make a start by carrying the Statement of Union Values as the first motion of this Congress.


I'd like to conclude on a personal note. It is four years today since Bill Kelty resigned and, in effect, I took up the position of Secretary. It's been hard but immensely rewarding work. I'd like to keep doing it. I therefore seek your support for another term. In doing so I want to thank each union, and in particular the leaders, for the support I've had in recent years. I thank the MUA, which has again nominated me, and which has extended me the honour - along with Tas Bull, John Coombs and Pat Geraghty - of life membership. I also want to thank Sharan Burrow. I can tell you that she is a genuinely tireless, committed union activist as well as a powerful advocate for women. I am proud to be in partnership with her at the ACTU. And I thank the ACTU staff, and in particular the two colleagues who work most closely with me - Pirjo Laine and George Wright.

These are not the easiest times for unions or workers. Unions face challenges as great as any we have faced in the past. Economic change has transformed the workplace. Political change has seen vicious attacks on the right to organise. We have been involved in a historic decentralisation of the industrial relations system. More than any time since the Australian Federation, the most important places for the unions to work are the places where our members work. It is, in a sense, a new beginning for our movement. No one here should lack motivation, because there's a lot to be done. And our cause is just. We are right to oppose inequality and poverty. We are right to stand up for casual workers. Decency demands that we oppose intolerance and prejudice. And it is right to support Medicare. Yes, there is a lot to be done. But I urge you to maintain your faith, and your hope. Because what we do now will influence the future, and help generations to come. We will see off our opponents, and we will win.


Greg Combet is the Secretary of the ACTU. This is his address of 18 August to ACTU Congress 2003. Visit the ACTU site for all the major addresses.


bottom of page