Union movement

Sharan Burrow & Greg Combet

Australians want a fair country back

Sharan Burrow

Fairness, tolerance, 'a fair go' - these are the values Australia has always aspired to but they are now in contest. John Howard's government has legitimated the right to challenge the very core of our national dignity: a commitment to egalitarianism.

The standards of basic decency, progressively enshrined into legislation and social policy reflected the inherent generosity of spirit for which we were known - characterised in our language by the right to a 'fair go'.

Despite being a much wealthier nation after twelve consecutive years of economic growth, or a massive 50 per cent increase in GDP, which of our families and neighbours believe we are a more generous nation than we were a decade ago?

  • Not the children in need of childcare forced to wait up to two years for a place;
  • Not the schoolchildren who go to school hungry yet their parents are asked to pay fees in public schools;
  • Not the young Australians who can't afford a university place;
  • Not our apprentices on lousy wages with no job security;
  • Not trained professionals starting work with a HECS debt larger than a home deposit;
  • Not women forced back to work within weeks, even days, after giving birth because they can't afford not to and don't have the minimum income security of paid maternity leave;
  • Not older workers made redundant who face the age discrimination that prevents them obtaining secure work;
  • Not the unemployed, all too often punished and penalised for being poor;
  • Not the families forced to pay three times to see a doctor because John Howard despises the universal nature of Medicare;
  • Not the elderly Australians seeking an affordable place in a quality nursing home; and
  • Certainly not asylum seekers locked behind barbed wire for the crime of desperately hoping for a better life in free country like Australia.

Is egalitarianism dead in Australia? Are the social guarantees of health, education, childcare and transport, the social wage, increasingly a romantic dream as we face the rise and rise of the user pays society? Is Australia a nation where we passively accept the widening inequality as we watch escalating corporate greed and simply blame the disadvantaged for their plight?

Not on our watch comrades - these are not union values!

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Rebuilding union power

Greg Combet

I am very angry about what's happening in this country. Australia is becoming less fair, and less equal. We now have an army of two million low paid, casual, part time workers. One million people work for less than $15 per hour.

At the same time salaries at the top end of town have spiralled beyond the obscene. Twenty years ago, executive salaries were 3 times the level of average wages; today they are 30 times greater. The earnings of the top 5 per cent of income earners now outstrip the combined earnings of the bottom 40 per cent.

This overpaid executive class includes the same people who oppose, year after year, increases in minimum wages. Some of them get pay-outs worth millions, while ordinary workers lose their entitlements.

In the workplace, employers routinely refuse to collectively bargain. They undermine wages and conditions by using contracting, labour hire and casual employment.

Record profits and productivity have been achieved, but the business community is not keen to share this with workers. Even basic things, like security for long-term casuals, or the full protection of workers entitlements, are opposed.

Unions and their members remain under attack. When we last met in Wollongong three years ago, we had successfully repelled the assault on the MUA. Now we face a federal government attack on the construction unions: the same unions that delivered the Olympic Games, and many other projects, on time, on budget; the same unions that came through a rigged $60 million Royal Commission without any major findings against them.

Just as we stood with the MUA, so we will stand with the construction unions. What really angers me the most about the government's attitude to unions, though, is that everything we do is cast as illegitimate.

All of the good work done by so many decent people is derided - the lives saved, and the injuries prevented, the improved living standards, the entitlements retrieved from crook employers - it's all ridiculed.

Little wonder that Australia is also a place where tolerance is losing out to prejudice.

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