Why unions will remain the voice of workers in Labor
There’s been a lot of talk recently about so-called “green shoots” springing up in our ravaged economy.
Some commentators have grasped a recent bounce in the stock market, a few surprisingly strong profit results overseas, and a benign sense of business confidence as evidence that the economy is on the path to recovery.
Well, it is time for a reality check.
We are now approaching 700,000 Australians who are out of work, and the average time spent looking for work has blown out from six months at the start of this year to more than eight months now. And that’s not including the nearly 900,000 Australians who would like more working hours but are currently under-employed.
If the Treasury forecast of 8.5% unemployment by this time next year is correct, that means an extra 5000 people out of work each week between now and then. And even if the Treasury forecast is not met, that will be little comfort for the tens of thousands who will lose their jobs before the economy improves.
The only true benchmark of economic recovery can be stabilisation of unemployment and jobs growth. We are still to see this.
The encouraging signs of the past couple of weeks mask the fact that the world and Australian economies still face significant challenges.
There are worrying signs that improvement on stock markets and in the financial sector will be used as justification to go back to business as usual and resist the regulatory reforms that are necessary to
bring long term stability to our economies.
It would be a disaster to hand back the economic levers to those whose short-term greed, bonus-fuelled risk-taking and “let the markets rip” attitude has caused so much hardship.
It’s also worrying that an ever-opportunistic federal Opposition has used these signs of green shoots to argue the Rudd Government should wind back stimulus spending.
Remember that this is the same Liberal Party that opposed the major stimulus packages late in 2008 and early this year that are now credited with supporting the retail sector and staving off the worst of the downturn.
So let’s not drop the ball now. All of us, governments, employers and unions need to work together to support workers and their families through this crisis.
There is also a pressing need to come up with long-term solutions and a vision for a better economic system.
I’m proud of the mature and responsible role unions have played to be at the forefront of the push to protect jobs from the earliest signs that the GFC would hit Australia.
We have contributed to the successful stimulus measures, proposed innovative ways of preserving jobs while retraining and reskilling the workforce, and have called for a fair go for Australian jobs and industries in the billions of dollars of taxpayer funds to be spent on stimulus projects. We have also worked to see investment in renewable energy, clean technologies, energy efficiency and other climate change solutions.
Earlier this week, in the lead up to the ALP national conference in Sydney, we released an important new document, Jobs and Rights Charter for Working Australians.
The charter, which follows our successful Jobs Summit in Sydney a week earlier, sets out priorities to get working Australians through the current tough times and to set our nation up for the recovery.
They can be loosely summarised as proposals for securing jobs, supporting working families, protecting our rights, and sustaining economic growth.
Some of the plans we put forward are already being implemented, while others will be the subject of union work in the coming months.
Just days ago, the Federal Government announced new guidelines for the spending of taxpayer money on goods and services, which pick up on the union movement’s call for a fair go for Australian based companies to create jobs and support local industry.
As the Labor Party prepares for its conference this week, it’s worth recalling that the history of the Australian labor movement is based on the fight for the rights of workers and for social policies that enhance the lives of working families.
Many significant achievements that shape our way of life, such as superannuation and Medicare, have been achieved by unions working in partnership with Labor Governments.
We have a well-known and proud history of shared values and many areas of common achievement.
But Australian unions will always have an independent voice and will always speak out strongly for the interests of working people and our own agenda.
There are areas where the government and the union movement continue to have disagreements. One of these is the discriminatory laws in the building and construction industry, which include draconian coercive powers that must be abolished.
In other areas there is much common ground to build upon and unions will be actively pursuing many of these in the days and weeks ahead.
We believe further industrial relations changes to strengthen workers’ rights are needed.
For example, there is an urgent need for better protection of employee entitlements.
More than one in four workers are casual and have no access to redundancy pay if their employer goes broke. Even those who do have redundancy entitlements are often left high and dry by companies that fail to make adequate provision for the payments. This sort of behavior amounts to corporate theft and, because of an inadequate taxpayer-funded safety net thousands of working people are left out of a job and out of pocket.
And, as a nation, we need to work on developing a new and comprehensive system of income protection and employment security, comparable to the innovative ‘flexicurity’ schemes that operate in parts of Europe.
The highest standards of workplace health and safety, a low carbon economy, increased superannuation, job generation, affordable housing, health, education, skills, productivity and fair trade are all among other significant challenges that are also on the union agenda.
The success of the union movement’s engagement with the Labor Government, as in the past, will be measured against the national interest and the results we are determined to deliver for working Australians.
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