Union chief at the press club

Contemporary union strategy

Greg Combet

Personal background The ACTU commissioned some focus group work recently, from which I received some sobering news. After two years as ACTU Secretary I am recognised more by my spectacles than for the issues I have publicly argued. I can take some heart though. After seventeen eventful years in the job, my predecessor, Bill Kelty, was still better known for his unruly hair. With this in mind I thought I would begin today by telling you a bit about myself - how I came to be in this position and what I am committed to doing.

I grew up in Rooty Hill, in the western suburbs of Sydney, until my father died when I was a teenager. He was a winemaker for Penfolds, a craft which had been handed down from father to son since the first Combet migrated from France. My mother's antecedents were mainly Italians who settled in north-east NSW. They were Country Party people, but my father's lot were Labor. After leaving school I worked for a year, then studied Mining Engineering. This took me to Wallerawang Colliery near Lithgow, and at 19 I started to learn about unionism when I joined the Miners' Federation.

I completed my studies, but by that time I had decided to work for the labour movement. Like lots of young people I tried my hand at different things - I worked for community organisations, informed myself about economics and politics. I gained a lot of workplace experience while working for several years with unions on occupational health and safety. When the Waterside Workers' Federation (WWF) offered me job in 1987, I had little idea that I was about to confront a very steep learning curve. I was the first industrial officer employed by the union since the early 1950s. The union was just a tad behind the times, but they recognised that change was coming.

During the six years I was at the WWF we dealt with a commission of inquiry, a radical restructuring of the industry, the redundancy of half the workforce, the renegotiation of every work practice and employment condition, an amalgamation with the Seamen's Union to create the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), plus a few disputes and union elections thrown in. Fortunately, respect for some important traditions were upheld, like the occasional long lunch. I was greatly influenced by the culture of the WWF, which was industrially tough but pragmatic, and I retain a deep affection for my colleagues and the union.

I started at the ACTU in late 1993, at a time of dramatic change in industrial relations. Ninety years of centralised wage fixing had been replaced by enterprise bargaining. My early years at the ACTU took me to the negotiating table in many industries, and I developed relationships with people on both the union and employer side of the table. It helped me appreciate the commercial imperatives confronting many businesses in an open economy, as well as the impact this has on working people and their families. Waterfront dispute a turning point

My time at the ACTU has also involved me in the totemic industrial disputes of the last eight or nine years. Principal amongst these disputes was the gripping 1998 waterfront struggle against Patrick Stevedoring and the government. This was a vicious, high-stakes confrontation which tested many of us to the limit, and which took me into a more public role. I am proud that in the resolution of the dispute we achieved every single objective we had set ourselves - principal amongst which was defeating the corporate restructuring which tried to rob 2000 people of their jobs and their entitlements.