ACTU Secretary's speech at the ACTU Congress, May 15 2013
I would like to start by acknowledging Jeff Lawrence, for his 35 years of service to the union movement, including the last five as ACTU Secretary. Jeff has overseen the roll back of WorkChoices, the abolition of the ABCC, and the introduction of paid parental leave. These are legacies that show the ACTU at its best. We all thank you Jeff.
I would also like to thank the Indigenous dancers who welcomed us here today and acknowledge them. The struggles of Indigenous people – like Vincent Lingiari - who organised workers to advance land rights - are an inspiration to us all and a great story in our nation’s history.
Story telling is an important part of Aboriginal culture.
And I would like to share my story with you.Frankly, I'm amazed to be here today. Given where I came from, I didn’t expect to end up as ACTU Secretary. I grew up near Pagewood, in the eastern suburbs of Sydney.My father was a true Labor man who worked for himself as an electrical contractor, while my mother stayed at home taking care of us five kids. When we were older, Mum worked as a telephone operator at the Prince of Wales Hospital.I grew up feeling part of my local community. Mum was always welcoming in people from the area. There were a lot of new migrant families, and my mum saw it as her job to make them feel welcome. Growing up, my mates were people who had come from all different places around the world.
But I didn’t care much for school. By age 15, I was looking for any chance to get an apprenticeship. A vacancy came up to start a fitting and turning trade at a local engineering firm, and even though I didn’t quite know what a fitter and turner did, I managed to convince the boss that I would be perfect for the job. I would ride my skateboard to work each day. I started at 7 and finished at 3:30. The work was hard and the pay was lousy. I spent too many of my days in a 6-by-4 room, sandblasting rusty, cast-iron valves.I had to wear a huge, heavy, full-head helmet – like an old diver’s helmet – while I did that work for hours on end, sometimes for an entire week. It was tough, but I was grateful for the apprenticeship and I was determined to see it through.
But, I was also naïve. I had no idea that I was working for a place that was just downright dangerous. On a daily basis I handled toxic chemicals and asbestos. One of my jobs was to remove gland packing and gaskets from chemical valves. Asbestos would blow back in my face. I had no idea about the danger. Neither did my work mates.
The minute my apprenticeship was over, I was outta there! I walked out of that factory and onto a building site in Sydney’s CBD, to become a lifty – installing lifts on construction sites. For those who know, a Sydney construction site in the 1980s was a far cry from a small engineering workshop. It was a different world. I joined the union and I experienced the benefits of collective strength at work. I remember getting my first pay packet and thinking I’d been overpaid. My wage was double!
After a while, I was asked to become the union delegate. On those jobs, I cut my teeth organising workers to improve safety standards. Our union had taught us about asbestos by then. But construction sites were dangerous places for lots of reasons. I knew that danger personally. One of my mates on the job, John Franklin, fell five stories to his death in a lift shaft. It made me angry, and I led the charge to down tools on all the jobs around Sydney. We fought ‘til we got the change we needed. We got the employer to agree to install internal ladders. Our struggle meant that we no longer had to scramble up and down the outside of the scaffolding. Today that is the standard required.
We didn’t just mourn. We organised. Experiences like John’s death and the result of our action gave me a passion for standing up for workers’ rights. When our organiser, Pat Johnston, asked me to come into the union on three weeks delegation. I didn’t hesitate. Soon I became a permanent organiser. And I went from standing up for myself and my workmates, to standing together with thousands of different kinds of workers.
One story really sticks out in my memory. Once, on a building site, a few of my workmates didn’t want to start work because the coffee urn hadn’t been warmed up in time for our start. As a new organiser, some years later, I went to the actual workshop where those coffee urns were made.
It wasn’t a large shop. They didn’t have much power. One of our members – Josef – had an artificial leg. For no good reason, the boss had decided to move his machine upstairs. The boss did it without asking him. Josef told me how upset it made him. Because his of his leg, it took his entire break to go up and down the stairs. All he wanted was his tea break. I called a meeting to try to pull up the shop as if it was a construction site. But those workers didn’t want to take any action, even though our member had a genuine issue and his workmates wanted to support him. They weren’t used to the idea of industrial action and were actually scared just to have come to the meeting. But they had made a choice to be there because they knew that it was right to stand up for him and he needed help. For them, just going to a meeting was taking a stand. And the boss seeing that meeting was enough for him to realise he needed to move the machine back down.
Experiences like that helped me to understand how to share the power of the collective with people at different levels. I learned that you have to find a way to bring all workers with you. And that’s what we have to do as a movement at a national level too. When John Howard introducedWorkChoices, our movement faced one of its average challenges. I remember the debates – would we stand and fight or would we duck this one and hang on to our resources? We chose to fight. But we didn’t just fight - we put what we stood for at the centre of that campaign. I’m sure every person here had a ‘Rights At Work’ sticker on their car during that campaign. And I’m sure we all share the experience of being approached by someone we didn’t know who wished us well or wanted some information about that campaign. It happened to me dozens of times. People knew what we stood for.
But, sadly, it didn’t last. We didn’t keep faith with that campaign after the 2007 election. We thought because we’d defeated one enemy, that we had won all the battles we needed to. But it’s not a Labor government’s job to solve our problems for us. If we want to improve our life at work we must win support for that change in the community, and then make sure that all governments choose to deliver legislation that can secure what we’ve already won.
That’s how we won superannuation. That’s how we won annual leave. That’s how we won the 8-hour day. That’s how we won paid parental leave. These rights became part of the political consensus because we won the debate in the community first. Governments were happy to legislate standards that were made popular by us. While we did let go of the national rights at work campaign, many individual unions have harnessed the inspiration of that campaign. The ASU’s equal pay case is an example of what I’m talking about. That victory was not the result of a cleverly written submission or the goodwill of politicians. It traces its roots back to the 1970s when the women’s movement with the union movement began campaigning for equal pay.
Look at the Safe Rates campaign. The TWU have been setting the agenda about road safety for decades. That is how they won. United Voice for cleaners and childcare workers. MUA for wharfies. TCFUA for textile workers. The manufacturing unions aiming to secure redundancy entitlements. That campaign was very close to my heart. Confronting workers who had lost their entitlements because their boss had broken the law, not paid their super, or sent the company broke without money for redundancy always made me incredibly angry.
It made me campaign very hard at the AMWU, but I felt similar anger when I read the report of Fair Work Australia into a section of the HSU last week. I won’t tolerate bad governance in our movement that sees our members’ money misused by individuals and I’ll be moving a resolution tomorrow to set standards that protect our members’ money from anyone who wants to break the law.
But let’s not let that distract from our agenda, or the hard work that our thousands of officials and delegates put in every day for our millions of members. There are more campaigns that provide examples of the work we do every day for our members: The FSU and the CPSU facing up to job cuts and outsourcing. And the construction unions who argued simply for their members to have the same laws as any other worker, and saw off the ABCC.
These issues matter to their members and that’s what makes them relevant. What we see in those individual union campaigns, we must again do together as a national movement. That’s why I’m asking this Congress to vote to set up a permanent campaigning capacity in the ACTU. The ACTU I lead will ensure that all affiliates are at the table when our campaigns are developed. And we will dedicate specific resources to make sure our smallest affiliates are every bit a part of our campaigns.
Bigger affiliates must be more collaborative in common campaigns, and the ACTU must better resource smaller affiliates to make sure we are all working together to achieve our common goals.
We must bring new members with us as well. Because, while we are growing in numbers, we need to win the battle on density. Twenty per cent union density is not enough. Our strength and our ability to reach out to the community comes from our size. The key to growth is campaigning on the issues that matter to our members and potential members.
The rise of insecure work is why we need to campaign on secure jobs. Job security and income security is all about the most important things in people’s lives: security for their families. Security to buy a house, to pay for education, security to know they can go home on time and take time off for holidays. We can’t let the rights we’ve won become an optional extra. Everyday there is another Liberal Party premier demanding an end to penalty rates on weekends, or another mining billionaire calling for the minimum wage to be scrapped.
We can’t just defend our conditions in our unionised workplaces. We have to make sure workers who haven’t yet joined understand the benefits and fight for our rights together. The history of our movement comes from being part of our communities. That’s who we are. A movement of two million people could hardly be anything else. If our movement isn’t growing, who will be there to take a stand for the next generation?
I remember the MUA dispute and what it felt like when the community had our back. I remember the pensioner who turned up and pulled $5 from her tiny purse to support the workers in that struggle. We all know the energy that comes from being part of something powerful like that. That is the union movement I want to lead, and I need your support to do it. We have to campaign to grow.
I am asking for your support for the next three years because Ged Kearney and I cannot do it alone. We are a union of unions, and we all need to work together. We need to share our will and our resources to lead the fight for working people in a national campaign. I am calling on you to be part of something bigger. Something bigger than any individual. And something bigger than any individual union.
You are the leaders of our movement. Our movement needs your determination. Our members need your skills. The weakest need your bravery. The strongest need your guidance. Our two million members need your leadership to win outcomes. All Australians need our passion and our will to continue the legacy of a movement that has stood up for working people in this country for more than 160 years.
If we harness this and work collectively then the union movement will grow and continue delivering a better life for working people in this country. That’s our movement’s history, and if we work together, it’s our movement’s future too.
Author: Dave Oliver