Happy Birthday ACTU

Bill Shorten

I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I pay respect to elders past and present.

I’m honoured to be here tonight with so many inspirational people. When I call you inspirational, I’m not trying to be nice for the sake of it. It’s because I’ve never forgotten where I come from. Every day I sit opposite those champions of privilege and vested interest, the angry men’s club of the Liberal front bench yelling abuse about unions—and I know that I’m part of something greater than they will ever be. I’m a member of the trade union movement.

So whilst I hear their noise, I think of you. You inspire me every day. Because you stand up every day in workplaces to improve the circumstances of workers, their families and ultimately our community and society. You inspire me because your success is never guaranteed, only your efforts and your commitment to the fair go.

One measure of your history is years—and tonight we celebrate 90 of them. But the more important measure, I would submit to you, is your achievements in those years.

It’s the country you’ve built.The families you’ve lifted out of poverty. The apprentices you’ve helped find a start. The mature-age workers you’ve given a second chance. The lives you’ve saved and the injuries you’ve prevented with safer workplaces. The people for whom you have ensured fair compensation for unfair injury And the people for whom you've provided security in retirement through universal superannuation.

The achievements aren't just the personal. We should celebrate the achievements that have made our country and our society fairer, more productive, more modern. And the ACTU and the union movement's greatest contribution I suggest to you tonight, is that we've been partly responsible for creating a unique society. We created, our predecessors created, an Australian model which chose to create rather than copy, to build instead of borrow.

A long time ago—we made the decision that we would not be a new Britain or a little America. We would be ourselves, truly Australian. A social democracy, prosperous and fair, with the voice of working people at the very centre of decision-making in this country. The union movement has given Australia the courage to be different, the imagination to be better, the confidence to make our own way in the world. The resilience for hard times, the faith to pick ourselves up again when we fall and the compassion to hold a helping hand out to all who need it.

Economic hardship and depression have broken older and bigger societies than our own but here in Australia the union made us strong. Other nations have fallen into the trap of extremism of the far left and the far right—but we had the unions to keep us squarely on common ground. 

And we have remarkably been blessed with union leaders and union members prepared to fight for the common good. To write Australia large. That’s what Bob did, that's what Bill did, that's what Greg has done—it’s what so many union leaders have done and that is what Sally McManus is going to do in spades.

It is how the ACTU and union leaders have led for 90 years. You have never relegated yourselves to just being a protest movement. You have been the ones in the arena, not in the grandstand. You pick a side and you fight, my word you fight.

You haven’t complained about democracy, you’ve helped build it and renew it and you've used democracy to deliver for working people. It was the unions who encouraged politicians to imagine a life outside of work—time for recreation as well as rest. It was the unions who demanded that we plan for life after work: a decent retirement income. It was the unions who said it should not matter how much money you have in your pocket—you should be able to see a doctor and afford the medicine when you are sick. And when Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji walked off Wave Hill, it was union agitators, union troublemakers who sent the food and the supplies to help them win that fight for their land.

And to our honoured guest Bob Hawke tonight—we need to acknowledge two causes for which, I think, you and the union movement do not get enough contemporary credit. I talk of the fight for Nelson Mandela and against apartheid. When the conservative media and the conservative politicians were calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist, you called him a hero. We were the best union movement in the world in fighting against apartheid and we were the best union movement in the world fighting against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, our predecessors make us very proud.

Friends, I'm deeply conscious that this is a 90th birthday. I’ve never attended a 90th birthday and been so bold as to tell the recipient of the birthday wishes that you've got more work to do. But you have more work to do. We honour our past, we salute our legends. But the modern Australian union movement should not live and does not live in the shadows of the giants—we sit on their shoulders.

That is why tonight is not just an occasion for self-congratulation, it should be a call to arms. To fulfil a generational contract that every Australian unionist has to pass on better conditions to the people that come after them, better than the conditions that we inherited in the past.

Can I tell you another name for this generational contract: hope. We need to rebuild hope in this nation, hope that the middle and working class people in this country can get an equal deal, that is the hope that people want us to fulfil. I understand very well that unions are doing it tough: declining participation, industries off-shoring, growing disengagement. The membership bases built on your hard work and bolstered by long years of constructive relationships between employees and employers they are being eaten-away by insecure work, by casualisation, by labour hire and by the sense that the Fair Work Act is not delivering.  Bargaining has become too easy for employers to ignore and undermine. There are simply too many legal loopholes which are allowing people to slip through in a race to the bottom.

And it’s no coincidence that as membership numbers have fallen, inequality has risen, exploitation has spread and wages growth has flat-lined. Our job is to restore value to the collective bargaining process, to add more voices to the democratic decision-making in our workplaces. We should be able to ensure that every employee enjoys the right to be a union member free of discrimination—and that more employees exercise that right.

We cannot afford a shred of complacency. There is always another injustice to fight, a new cause to champion, Australians, our fellow Australians doing it tough who need someone on their side. And there is always the threat of Liberal Governments, it is in their DNA. Not just to be anti-union, when the Liberal Party and the Coalition are anti-union, it is a code: they are anti-worker, they are anti-fair pay, they are anti-job security—this is the challenge.

There are people who are born with money and power who resent the idea of the fair distribution of a national income, of sharing the power. And as much Mr Turnbull and his grievously divided party love to fight each other, there is one thing they like to do more—go after trade unions and the work that they do. Like Pavlov’s famous dog, they foam and froth at the mouth as soon as they hear your name.

But when they attack unions—they do not understand that modern democratic, independent trade unionism is a prerequisite in our democratic society. And I want to remind you that when people came off the boats in the mass migration of the late 1940s and onwards when they clocked into our factories and our textile mills, onto our construction sites and our farms, they may have come as Greeks and Italians, they may have come as Macos and Turks and Maltese and Vietnamese—but the great thing, the great thing about Australian unions is they may have come off the boats as migrants but when they started work and joined the union they were unionists.

That is the gift of modern trade unions. Unions are agents of social cohesion. I remember when I was a new Secretary of the AWU in Victoria, it was about 1998 and Pauline Hanson was enjoying her first rise to victory and people said to me the blue-collar workers were attracted to her brand of negative division politics. I remember being in the Victorian Trades Hall Council with 300 other delegates, and I asked every delegate in the room who was born overseas that they stand up—and quite a few did. And then I asked that the remaining delegates, whilst these ones stayed standing, I said: 'How many of you have got a parent who was born overseas?' And more stood up. And then I asked of the remainder 'How many of you have got a workmate who was born overseas? How many of you have a neighbour that was born overseas? How many of you have kids that go to school with a child of a parent who was born overseas?' And nearly everyone in the trades hall stood up.

That is the gift of modern trade unionism, we unite the country. Wages and conditions are absolutely critical, absolutely. But tonight on this 90th Anniversary we celebrate something, I suggest even stronger: solidarity, respect, tolerance, understanding, that is what we bring to modern Australian life. It doesn’t matter if it was Bob Hawke or Bill Kelty, when they used the word ‘consensus’ they meant we are and you are agents of social cohesion.

Friends This government won’t give up power easily. Because vested interests and the establishment never like to surrender their dream of a low-wage, low-skill, easy-to-hire, easy-to-fire economy. An industrial relations system where it is the rule of the jungle, an economic plan built on survival of the fittest. I know you won't give up either, you'll never accept that bleak philosophy that if you fall behind, you get left behind.

Australian unions do not condone the complacency that one Australian’s misfortune is somebody else’s responsibility. And you will never give up simply because the most out-of-touch Prime Minister in the modern era tells you to ‘know your place’. And all that furious indignation from the Government and from the conservative media cheer squad, they love to say that you have too much power but also, by the way, you don't have any power, you're irrelevant.

As if the question of fairness is settled, that there are no more problems to solve in our society. To look the other way and that somehow the sun has set on unions. I do not believe the sun has set on the day of unions. When you have off-shore, casualisation, labour hire, delivery contracts, when you have wages theft. I know you will not give up. When you have a gender pay gap which means women of Australia work two months longer each year than men, just to get the same pay. When you have a government arguing against minimum wage increases. When you have a government putting two sets of laws in place for construction workers and other workers at the same time that workers get injured and killed on building sites—unions will not give up.

When coal miners are dying from black lung disease. When carers and teachers keep getting told to do more work with less support—you will not give up. When you have Australian seafarers being marched off their ships at the same time as Australian ministers are holding press conferences in front of an Australian flag, they love to wrap themselves in the flag, they just don’t like seeing it on Australian ships. When carers and teachers keep getting told to do more work with less support—you will not give up. When public servants are daily vilified by their employer—you will not give up. 

When even the federal police can’t get a pay rise from the people they're protecting—you will not give up. I know, that on 1July and 2 July when 700,000 workers in retail, fast food and hospitality are having their award penalty rates cut—you will not give up. This weekend in Malcolm Turnbull’s Australia: someone who earns a million dollars will get a tax cut worth $16,400. And a Mum working a Sunday shift in retail will get her penalty rates cut. Cut this Sunday and cut again on 1 July 2018. And again on 1 July 2019. And again on 1 July 2020. Not negotiated for a better base rate of pay, or improved conditions—just a straight-up cut to wages. 

My team and I have stood with you to fight this cut in the parliament and the community—and I know you’re still fighting it in the courts. Tonight I give you this solemn pledge for the fight beyond 1 July. I promise you this: a new Labor government will restore the Sunday penalty rates of every single worker affected by this cut. And we will change the law—to protect the take-home pay of working Australians into the future. That will be the choice at the next election—a Liberal party offering a tax cut for millionaires and multinationals—and a wage cut for workers. And a Labor party more determined than ever to stand up for a fairer tax system, and to fight every day to protect the pay and conditions of working Australians. Labor will not support this government increasing the income taxes for people on $87,000—while they're handing away $65 billion to the top end of town. Not now, not ever. 

Friends, The message from your conference is right—it’s time to change the rules. It's time we stand up for all of those Australians who feel the deck is rigged. That the fix is in, that the deal is done, that there is nothing that an individual without power can do. We shouldn't just say that we hear your concerns and we feel your pain. We should say we're determined to do something about it. Not just that we believe in something, but that we will do something. We are determined to help flat-lining wages and growing inequality.

We want working Australians to share in the benefits of the wealth they create, for a fair distribution of the national income. We want to stop unfair contracts, workplace exploitation and wage theft. We want to put power back into bargaining—so instead of cancelling agreements, we settle disputes. We want to make sure that women have an equal voice in society and equal pay in the workplace. 

We will close the gap in equality between our first Australians and all Australians. We will change the law so that the tax system is fair to all and not just favours some. We will change the law so that we have a level playing field for our first home buyers, not just free-kicks for rich investors. We will change the law to start a Royal Commission into banks in this country. We will change the law so Australians who love each other can just get married.

If we want to see this future—if we want to change the rules and change the law—then we need to change the government. And to Bob Hawke, I want to say this to you. Bob, we've got a chance to win the next election. We seriously have a chance. I’m not getting ahead of myself, but surely to goodness we are competitive—because we are united and focused on working and middle class Australians. And Bob one thing I say to you tonight is we will use your model of government. Conciliation, getting people together in the union way. I promise you that, Bob.

I just want to say to all of you, I am proud to be a member of a union. I'm proud tonight and I'm proud every day. I'm proud to stand with you in the struggle ahead, all the way to victory. Thank you very much for everything you do for your members, and for the country we all love. 

Happy Birthday ACTU!


Bill Shorten is the leader of the Australian Labor Party. This is the text of his speech to the ACTU's 90th Anniversary Dinner at the International Convention and Exhibition Centre, Sydney, Tuesday 27 June 2017. Image shows Bill Shorten with the former President of the ACTU and former Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke.


Suggested citation
Shorten, Bill, 'Happy Birthday ACTU', Evatt Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3, July 2017<http://evatt.org.au/papers/happy-birthday-actu.html>