'We do this because we believe in the fair go for everyone.'
“We are the people who stand up against injustice, even if it takes courage, even when it is not personally convenient to do so,” said Sally McManus before a packed theatre at the Brisbane Convention Centre.
“We do this because we believe in the fair go for everyone.”
With those words the ACTU Secretary welcomed the delegates and representatives of the Australian trade union movement to the 2018 Congress.
More than 1000 unionists from across the country, and some from around the world, were in Queensland for the triennial event to discuss and formulate plans to fight and Change the Rules.
Restoring the “fair go” for all was on everyone’s mind. A fair go for all, even those down on their luck.
“The unemployed worker and the migrant are our brothers and our sisters. We know we are all in this together,” McManus said.
“The reason why our jobs are less secure and our pay is not keeping up with the cost of living is because big business has too much power. The rules are broken and the Turnbull Government refuses to fix them.
“The things we believe in – sticking by your mates, supporting the underdog and standing up for the fair go is far removed from Malcolm Turnbull or Pauline Hanson.”
Sticking up for those at the bottom has long been core to the union movement, but for too long in Australia those at the bottom have been neglected and forgotten by successive governments.
That has been the plight of Australia’s First Nations people. But the fight runs deep and long in their blood and they are just getting started.
“The First Nations Workers Alliance (FNWA) was established just over a year ago,” said McManus about the union aimed at organising Community Development Program (CDP) workers, most of whom are Aboriginal or from the Torres Strait.
CDP is nothing short of modern slavery, with one critic saying it has made some “very poor” people “a lot poorer” by redressing work-for-the-dole in purely racial terms.
“It is not acceptable that people work for free, it is not acceptable that we have a racially discriminatory program,” McManus said.
CDP workers are paid as little as $11.60 an hour for working for 25 hours a week, far less than minimum wage. But in some communities where the FNWA has been organising, four in 10 people have signed on to be members and fight this horrible modern slavery.
For championing this monumental effort, Wayne Kurnorth won ‘Organiser of the year’ at the ACTU Awards for the work he’s done with FNWA, United Voice NT and One Mob, a Northern Territory Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander union connected to Unions NT.
The ACTU also welcomed its new President, Michele O’Neil of the TCF division of the CFMEU.
The new president came out firing with the plan for how the Australian union movement will fight to Change the Rules, with taking back the right to strike being one of the top priorities.
“Our current rules and laws effectively stop workers taking a united stand,” O’Neil told the plenary in Brisbane.
“Our basic human right to withdraw our labour is highly regulated and restricted.
“We drown in obstructionist rules and processes, choke in red tape and have the effect of our industrial action weakened by the limitations and bureaucracy around it.
”When all else fails we simply need the right to strike. We need a fair system.”
Days after delivering her speech to the Congress, O’Neil appeared on ABC’s 730 where she was met with the some of the most hostile and biased questions about her union, with host Ellen Fanning asking whether the CFMEU was a “criminal outfit”.
But the new Pres kept her cool and handled the combative questions with grace under fire.
“Ninety-five per cent of those breaches you’re describing were about breaches to do with industrial law, about going onto workplaces to try and ensure that workers were safe,” O’Neil replied.
It was the coolest of responses from someone who has been fighting the good fight all her life. O’Neil, who joined her union at age 14 after she was sexually harassed at work, is the kind of veteran we need leading the Australian union movement. She’s a fighter and an organiser and a builder.
“My history tells you that I will bring to the ACTU a thirst for justice,” she told the Congress after being voted into her new role.
“A belief in the power of solidarity, in the importance of building connections, alliances and finding new allies in working class ethnic communities, in our neighbourhoods and country towns and in our global movement.
“Workers, our members, our families, our communities want change and are ready to fight for it,” she said.
And we’re just getting started in this fight to Change the Rules.