Solidarity forever

75 years of the ACTU
Bob Hawke

I thank you for the honour of delivering this keynote address at the 75th anniversary of the ACTU. I do so on the condition that having spoken at the 50th you will invite me again for the centenary celebrations.

When I read these days about the toughness of factional fighting in the labour movement I allow myself a wry grin. I think back to my arrival at the ACTU in Melbourne in mid 1958 as the raw young Research Officer and Advocate in the depths of the split in the industrial and political labour movement. Politically the very word "Labor" had been hijacked by the enemies of Labor on the Right and on the Left. On the right the DLP whose main purpose in life was to sustain Menzies and keep Labor from office - a purpose which was equally served, but without such manifest intent, by Bill Hartley the Secretary of the ALP and his equally misguided acolytes. At the industrial level that intensive political warfare was reflected in the bitter unrelenting struggle between the Groupers on the one hand and, on the other, the sympathisers of the ALP and the Communist Party, sometimes acting separately sometimes together.

The depth and intensity of the political animosities had to be seen to be believed. Long-standing friendships were shattered - even families were sundered. Each side had its own watering hole - the Groupers on one corner in the Dover Hotel, Non-Groupers in the Lygon/John Curtin on the other, with the Victoria Trades Hall across the road in the centre, forming a triangle of turbulence. And within that we had then our own C&MEU - Catholic and Masonic Enmity Unincorporated. Prima facie judgements were made on a man - and it was nearly all men then - by the digital test: did he cross himself or did he use the secret grip.

You youngsters today in the labour movement who think you operate in a tough environment are kidding yourselves - as compared with those days of my Melbourne initiation to the ACTU yours are like a playground skirmish.

Of course it took me - fresh from the kid-gloves atmosphere of disputation in academia - some time to come to terms with this new and at times ugly reality. But gradually I became aware of a basic and reassuring truth.

However bitterly men fought out their ideological differences within both the political and industrial structures of the labour movement, there was a discernible identifying unity of commitment to improving the wages and conditions of the working men and women of Australia. I have written before of the most dramatic illustration I witnessed of this truth, but let me repeat it tonight.

If you wanted to pick two men of considerable capacity who epitomised the extremes of the Left and Right you couldn't go past Jim Healey, the charismatic Communist leader of the Waterside Workers Federation, and John Maynes, the dedicated and talented Secretary of the Clerks Union, a pivotal figure among the Industrial Groupers and the DLP. Jim and I were having a drink in the back bar of the Lygon when an amazing thing happened. The inviolate line had been crossed, the doors swung open and in walked John Maynes. He wanted to talk to Jim about benefits for his members on the waterfront which might arise from negotiations Jim had recently completed. The troops wanted to throw Maynes out, but Jim quietened them, invited John to sit down with us, and proceeded to advise him on how to get the best deal for his members.

My basic point is that through all the trials, tribulations, bitterness of those years, the ACTU and its affiliated unions maintained the fight to improve the conditions of Australian working men and women. And, almost miraculously they did it through a national trade union organisation - the ACTU - which, unlike most other countries in the world, did not split into rival national groupings based on political or other differences.

I say almost miraculously for much credit needs to be given to the astute diplomacy of my predecessor, Albert Monk, who averted proposals at different times by both the Left and the Right to establish alternative national centres. Indeed, under Albert with the affiliation of the AWU and, in my time, with the absorption of the ACSPA (Council of Australian Salaried and Professional Associations) and CAGEO (Council of Australian Government Employees' Organisation) the ACTU became probably the most comprehensive and representative national trade union organisation in the democratic world.

The achievements of this great organisation in advancing wages and conditions of employment, including retirement income, are well known to all of you and I do not want to take up your time dwelling on the details of these achievements. However, let me make this point. There is not a man or a woman on a wage or salary in Australia today who is not either directly or indirectly indebted for that wage or salary and their conditions of employment to the men and women of the ACTU affiliates who, by their membership dues and commitment to collective action, have made the emergence of those conditions possible.

But let me remind you of how, in other ways, the nation is profoundly indebted to the ACTU and the commitment of its members.

For decades consumers in this country had been exploited by Australian manufacturers' ruthless use of the system of resale price maintenance. Under this system goods were supplied to retailers on the condition that such goods were sold at the price fixed by the manufacturers. If the retailer attempted to sell at a lower price, supplies were refused. As ACTU Advocate I had argued to government and in the Arbitration tribunal against the iniquity of this practice, but without avail. When as President of the ACTU I began the association with Bourkes Store, we had the opportunity of taking RSM head-on. Manufacturers refused Bourke Stores supplies because the store insisted on selling at prices lower than those fixed by the manufacturer. Dunlop was one such manufacturer, and with the support of our affiliates I told Dunlop that we would stop their business unless they left us free to set lower prices than they insisted upon. After a brief confrontation Dunlop capitulated. This was the end of the pernicious practice of RSM. In the event Australian consumers have been saved scores of billions of dollars.

This was the triumph of collective action over collusive action - the ACTU harnessing the collective power of a united trade union movement to bring lower consumer prices to the people of Australia by smashing the collusive practices of big business, supported as they always had been by conservative governments. And, as always, the hypocrisy of that unholy alliance stank to high heaven.

How sanctimoniously they condemned trade unions for taking action to get a fair price for the only thing their members have to sell - their labour - while big business collectively set the prices for what they had to sell, conservative governments condoned the practice, and the Australian consumer paid. That wasn't good enough for the ACTU - it wasn't good enough for the people of Australia - and by its collective strength and determination the ACTU exposed the hypocrisy, smashed the practice of RPM and permanently changed this country for the better.

And I put this simple question - what have these conservative forces - so quick to invoke the "public interest" against the trade union movement - ever in their history done to begin to match this profound and permanent contribution to the economic and social interest of the Australian public? You know the answer: nothing.

This willingness and commitment of the ACTU to take account of the broad national interest continued to be reflected during the period of Labor government from 1983-96. From the very beginning, not just with the Accord, both from the Summit of 1983, and through the Economic Planning Advisory Council - the ACTU sat down not only with government, but also with employers and other representative community organisations to consider the economic challenges confronting Australia in a rapidly changing world - and participated in the planning for policy changes that had to be made in an Australian economy which had become increasingly sclerotic under more than a generation of conservative government.

As you all know, this was not always easy for the ACTU - its leadership and many of its affiliates. Wage restraint was exercised in return for additional expenditures in breathing life back into a disgracefully neglected education system, declining efficiency and equity in health and hospitals, and research and development which under the conservatives had Australia rapidly moving to the bottom of the ladder among the developed economies.

Exercising that restraint and accepting some of the associated measures, like reductions in tariffs, as I say, was not always easy. But I knew the Australian trade union movement would deliver - and I knew it for this reason. Part of the greatness of this trade union movement historically has been its internationalism - its embrace of human rights across national borders; for example, the struggle against apartheid. I knew that it could not and would not be politically internationalist and economically isolationist.

Of course we had our problems and our differences, but there is one thing that is certain and is attested to by every economist of note in this country, and by many abroad. The foundations of today's competitive Australian economy were laid by the policies adopted in that period of government - and they could not have been made as effectively and as permanently without the commitment, restraint and internationalism of the ACTU. When I hear ministers of this government attacking or deriding the ACTU, I feel that if there were a divine justice the words would choke in their collective gullets.

To this point, my friends, in reminiscing about and analysing the history of the ACTU, my emphasis has tended to be on economic and material matters - and these are of course important. But in starting to move now towards the present day - and the challenges we all face - let me try to turn your minds to the very heart and soul of the trade union movement.

If we lived in a perfect world there would be no need for trade unions - those who used the labour of others would, in the order of things, behave justly and honourably toward them. But there never has been such an order of things, on any widespread scale, particularly since the industrial revolution.

The ACTU is the inheritor of many philosophical and political strands of thought which repudiated the exploitation and degradation of men and women employed under systems of production which have emerged from that revolution. A common element in most of these strands was that in an unequal contest between employer and employed, strength could only come from combination and unity with other workers - the industrial truth still most eloquently expressed in Solidarity Forever, the anthem of trade unionism: "what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?" - a truth attested to by Adam Smith himself.

The unions of workers in the Australian colonies which later became the original members of the ACTU were imbued with these influences, and developed in an atmosphere where the concepts of mateship and a fair go were congenial to this fundamental truth. These early trade unions and then the ACTU came, therefore - in a way, more than other institution in this country - to represent those Australian images we grew to cherish. At their heart was the conviction that a worker was not just another production input - this was a human being entitled to dignity, and the right to a decent standard of living.

There were until the second half of the 20th century three inherited fault-lines in this fundamental humanity at the heart of the trade union movement - its relegation of women to a second class category of concern, support for the White Australia Policy and neglect of the most disadvantaged Australians - the Aborigines. The ACTU is able to say proudly that it has admitted to and rectified these fault-lines. Now, in the fullness of its humanity, the ACTU represents total opposition to any form of discrimination based on colour, creed or gender.

And let me say to you Sharan, Greg, to your affiliates - never in the history of this great organisation you are privileged to lead and to be part of, has it been more critically important to declare with all your strength your determination to defend these principles - the dignity of the individual, the right of every individual to a decent standard of living and to act collectively to achieve that goal, and the repudiation of racial, religious or gender discrimination.

I say never more important because I have an aching fear that these images of the fair go and mateship by which we like to define ourselves as Australians - which these principles of our trade union movement have done so much to nourish - are being put at risk by a capricious and opportunistic government. Deliberately dishonest perpetuations of a lie about a class of people who would throw their children overboard, a twenty-four hour ambivalence before rejecting the insult to immigrant Muslim women by a raving fundamentalist Christian cleric - this is not the "fair go" Australian way.

We do live now in a vastly more dangerous world. We grieve with the scores of Australian families devastated by the demonstration of the reality of that danger in the atrocity perpetrated in Bali. But we do nothing to assuage their grief, we do nothing to meet those dangers to a fondly remembered past security by abandoning or weakening our commitment to the principles and practices which have made Australia the great country it is today.

And, as I said to your seminar this afternoon, no single decision in our past has been more important in creating this great Australian society than that of the wartime Labor government to undertake the vast post-war immigration program. A nation of seven million people in 1945 of predominantly Anglo-Celtic stock has been economically strengthened and culturally enriched by the influx from about 150 countries of some 6 million immigrants and 1 million people who have come under the refugee and humanitarian programs to make Australia their home. And as Curtin, Chifley, Menzies and Holt publicly attested, this transformation of Australia would not have been possible without the courageous and visionary support and involvement of the leadership of the ACTU and its affiliates.

The ACTU, more than any other non-governmental institution, has put its imprint upon the character and the quality of life of this nation. More than any other body you have the right to defend that character and that quality. I am confident that you will do this, that you will honour those who have gone before you by asserting the fundamental humanity at the heart and soul of this great organisation - by insisting that no person in this country shall be demonised or in any way diminished in dignity because of their racial origin. In doing this you will continue the abiding contribution the ACTU has made to a more decent, compassionate Australia.


This speech was given by the Hon R J L Hawke AC on the occasion of the ACTU 75th Anniversary Dinner held on Tuesday 25th November 2002, in Melbourne.


 

Suggested citation
Hawke, Bob, 'Solidarity forever', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 8, December 2002.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/solidarity-forever.html>