Behind the union campaign for a better future

Sally McManus is ACTU Vice President and Campaign Director for Build A Better Future

Something is happening across our country. Thousands of union members and supporters are coming together in their communities to defend and advance the achievements of our movement: workers’ rights, Medicare, quality education, a decent retirement, the public sector and a fair go for all. 

This was triggered by the Abbott Government’s attempt to take a wrecking ball to our unions and our living standards.

The current Coalition Government has the same agenda as the last, but its tactics are different: instead of coming after workers’ rights first, it has attacked everything that underpins working people’s living standards. It has also run a Royal Commission to distract, besmirch and break unions – believing that if they weaken our campaigning capacity, no one will stop another attack on our rights at work.

Australian Unions were having nothing of this. We got organised. At the May 2015 ACTU Congress the whole movement backed the Build a Better Future campaign: to defend and extend the six pillars that make up our living standards.

It is a national campaign that builds upon our campaigning capacity across the movement, and in workplaces and communities across the country.

Within six months, union activists formed or joined community-based groups in 38 towns and cities across 25 electorates. Many groups are already 80 activists strong and at least half of them started from scratch. Every week these activists have thousands of conversations at street stalls, train stations, markets, community meetings and sporting events. An ACTU call centre operation made half a million calls to union members, identifying thousands of activists.

We are building on the Your Rights at Work campaign and the success of Trades and Labour Councils in shaking and toppling state governments hostile to working people.

We have also added a powerful weapon to our armoury: a greatly strengthened online campaigning capacity, overtaking many other political organisations.

Perhaps the best example of this has been the fight to defend penalty rates. This campaign compliments the work of unions – especially United Voice and the SDA, whose members’ weekend rates are directly threatened.

Over Easter 2015, the Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign #2Big2Ignore encouraging businesses to put up posters attacking penalty rates. We organised online and within 48 hours their campaign was in tatters.

Online campaigning isn’t about internet memes, it is about organising people, just as we would in workplaces and communities. Our members and non-members are in that space and there are (usually) no boss and no right of entry restrictions.

Our movement ran intensive regional campaigns in Geelong, the NSW Central Coast and South-East Queensland. Here unions combined paid advertising with workplace, online and community campaigning.

Our local activist groups have greatly raised the local profile of all of our issues: from penalty rates to Gonski, from no $100,000 degrees to ChAFTA. We are building serious, sustained pressure on Coalition MPs in marginal seats. Our National Doorknock last September achieved thousands of conversations with undecided voters. The next day enough Coalition MPs deserted Abbott to see him deposed.

Abbott’s demise slowed, not stopped, the attack on our living standards. Turnbull is trying to hand our industry superannuation over to the big banks, is signing free trade deals that sell out local workers, and is happy to let the temporary visa system abuse workers. He prefers to tax working people while corporations and the 1 percent avoid paying their fair share.

Our work is not done. It will not be done even with a change of government.

Dismantling our campaigning capacity at the end of the Your Rights At Work campaign was a mistake we won’t repeat. We must keep campaigning and building our movement to win on our issues regardless of the government of the day. Generations of unionists would expect nothing less of us.


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