When big institutions fall, they can go down hard, and quickly. Only five years ago, the nation’s peak union body, the ACTU, was at the white-hot centre of the political debate, waging one of the most successful campaigns in its long history. Its anti-WorkChoices Your Rights at Work campaign was the single-biggest factor in the defeat of the Howard government at the 2007 election.
Your Rights at Work created a model for shifting opinion on public policy in modern Australia, blending grass-roots organisation with free media and skilful advertising. In 2010, the mining industry picked up the model and ran with it, knocking off federal Labor’s super-profits tax proposal.
But the ACTU’s 2007 success is increasingly looking like a last great hurrah. The recently-installed ACTU secretary Dave Oliver this month all but abolished the campaign and communications unit that had played a crucial role in helping the ALP into office only two elections ago.
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Bill Kelty made a memorable speech last week. Addressing the ACTU Congress Dinner in Sydney, the legendary ACTU Secretary who helped shape the Accord in the 1980s and 1990s, explained why he became a unionist.
“It was the underdog you always sided with in our family,” he told a hushed audience that included former Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.
“The Aboriginal on death row, the Gurindji people, women not getting equal pay. It was Australia of whom you were proud, but not the Australia who sang God Save the Queen.
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It’s usually best to avoid putting too many statistics in a post but reading the ACTU’s report on insecure work the statistics speak volumes so bear with me if you’re interested.
Almost a quarter of Australian workers, or 2.2 million people, are in casual employment. Women (25.5%) are much more likely to be in casual work than men (19.7%).
According to the report: “Over half of all casual employees are ‘permenant casuals’ in that they have long-term, ongoing and regular employment but, by virtue of being a casual, have non of the basic entitlements associated with ongoing employment.”
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He turned up on the stage of the Sydney Convention Centre yesterday looking like he was outfitted by a tailor legally barred from using the endorsement “bespoke”, and with a hairdo a trainee mate might have tended to.
He had started on the shop floor unencumbered by a university degree, and yet there he was prepared to give advice to political queens and business emperors.
He was available to help shape a $1.5 trillion economy when at his peak earning years he might have taken in just a bit over $90,000 annually.
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Strap yourself in, and stock up on supplies, because if you thought politics had become a bit exhausting the Prime Minister gave us a not so subtle reminder yesterday that, barring something unforseen, we’ve still got a long way to go until the next election.
Ironically, Julia Gillard delivered this wake-up call with a speech that sounded suspiciously like a campaign launch. It’s no secret the real campaigns now begin well out from when the starter’s gun is fired five or six weeks before an election.
But Gillard’s point was clear when she addressed the ACTU Congress in Sydney yesterday. She’s remembered she’s a Labor Prime Minister and she’d like even a half-decent shot at the next election.
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There are just 1.83 million members of trade unions in Australia, roughly 18.4 per cent of the national workforce. Take out the heavily unionized public services and the proportion is 13.2 per cent. That means about 1.3 million out of 10 million workers in all areas are employed in private companies and are in trade unions.
It’s these 1.3 million workers - a scrap of the dwindling union membership - that the Opposition will be targeting today with claims that the entire union movement is led by self-indulgent shonks who have been wasting their money and their trust.
There will be indications of this having happened in one trade union, but all will be painted by the Health Services Union brush. The Fair Work Australia report on the Health Services Union has been bouncing around the bureaucracy unloved and unwanted but today will be released to those most eager to embrace its 1100 pages of findings.
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Sometimes a change creeps up so stealthily that you hardly notice how far it’s gone. That’s how I feel about insecure work, something that used to be restricted to small part of our workforce, but has now spread, like the crown of thorns starfish, to trap millions of Australian workers.
Today, the reality is that 40 per cent of Australians are in some kind of insecure work.
That’s the combination of people who are casual (which is a quarter of the workforce alone), on short-term or other contracts, and in labour hire, as opposed to the normal definition of permanent jobs – with all the conditions and entitlements that come with them – that were the norm until a few years ago.
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You can’t understand the history of social progress in Australia without understanding the union movement.
Unions have been the way in which ordinary Australians have made their voice heard in Government.
The way in which workers from shearers and nurses to factory workers have got together to build a common cause and combine their strength.
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I’ve got a confession to make: I’m not a climate scientist. Nor am I an economic modeller. I am the president of the ACTU, representing every Australian union and nearly two million Australian workers and their families.
In that capacity I think I have an important role to play in the climate change debate. Our members and their families have a big stake in this debate because they are the ones who have the most to lose if we don’t get it right.
Their job security and income security must be protected as we change our use of carbon; but more profoundly we should resist inaction, because this is an even greater threat to their jobs and their income.
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Each year the debate over the minimum wage seems to be dominated by people who’ll never have to live on it: economists, politicians, business lobbyists, and, I have to be honest, union
We can all forget that a dollar means different things to different people. That for one of the 1.4 million Australians on a low wage an few extra dollars a week can be the money that keeps the lights on, pays the rent or buys new shoes for a fast-growing child.
Last week the ACTU lodged its minimum wage claim - $28 extra per week for a full time worker.It’s not a big ask when you think of the rise in electricity prices, fuel costs, rents and other expenses.
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Kevin Rudd has a big political problem. Tony Abbott has thrown him off balance with a couple of short jabs and he is struggling to regain its composure.
Tony Abbott has achieved this by punching at the key failures of the Rudd Government. It has changed the dynamic on the ground all of a sudden.
Labor’s marginal seat holders who just months ago were dreaming of an easy victory in the campaign this year are now talking darkly about the PM’s performance and wondering whether Julia just might be better. They are demanding some action to turn this around. They want something done to stop Tony Abbott and his momentum.
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