Sally McManus argues for workers' rights at Press Club

Sally McManus at the Canberra Press Club.

In her March 21 address to the National Press Club in Canberra, ACTU secretary Sally McManus successfully skewered the Malcolm Turnbull government for their woeful disregard for workers' rights.

She pointed out that “inequality in Australia has nearly doubled” since 1980. “Even the IMF has said that Australia is among countries with the highest growth in income inequality in the world,” she said.

In a context where Australian billionaires have doubled their wealth in the past ten years, she said “Australian workers are not getting their fair share”. “This is not the country we want to be.”

She framed her comments around ten areas of injustice faced by Australian workers, including:

  • Stolen wages where companies literally pay workers less than they are entitled to;
  • The spread of casualisation and insecure work; and
  • Poverty wages: the Fair Work Commission admits the minimum wage is not enough to ensure all full-time workers are above the poverty line.

McManus said the enterprise bargaining system is “broken”. Nearly one quarter of workers are dependent on “substandard safety net awards” and this figure is growing.

“There is no fairness in bargaining where employers can just cancel agreements and cut pay in the middle of bargaining — like at Murdoch University, Collie in WA, Port Kembla Coal Terminal and Streets Ice Cream,” she said.

“Or companies can just lock out workers as they did over the past 12 months at Myrtleford, Singleton, Villawood, Port Kembla, Brisbane, Echuca, Pathology workers across Victoria, Dandenong and Oaky North.”

She also pointed out that the Liberals are “stacking” the Fair Work Commission with appointees from the “extreme end of big business” and creating partisan commissions such as the Registered Organisations Commission and the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

It is this framework of injustice that demands change and hence the ACTU’s “Change the Rules” campaign.

The change McManus is calling for can be summarised as:

  • Workers must have more job security;
  • Workers need a pay rise; and
  • The broken bargaining system needs to be fixed.

This speech to the Press Club is the latest manifestation of the breath of fresh air that McManus has brought to the ACTU since she became secretary a little over 12 months ago.

In marked contrast to her stale and uninspiring predecessors, McManus made a splash with her early defence of workers' right to break unfair industrial laws. This paved the way for the Change the Rules campaign which is aiming for changes that are sorely needed.

McManus made an excellent speech, but the real question now is: what is to be the scope of this campaign?

Nobody in the union movement who has been around the block a few times could possibly hope a new Labor government will simply see the error of its ways and suddenly make industrial law (“the rules”) fair, just because the ACTU is running a social media campaign.

Labor's Accord in the 1980s played a major role in weakening the union movement and making industrial law unfair. During 13 years of government they could not even repeal sections 45D and E of the Trade Practices Act which outlaw solidarity actions by unions. Instead, they brought in enterprise bargaining — the first step in destroying industry-wide bargaining.

When Labor was re-elected in 2007 under Kevin Rudd, it failed to implement its promise to “rip up WorkChoices”. Instead, we were saddled with the Fair Work Act (aka “WorkChoices Lite”), which was arguably further to the right than John Howard's Workplace Relations Act of 1998.

For the Change the Rules campaign to be successful, the union movement needs to be prepared to break the rules — to make the current unjust system unworkable. This means moving beyond a predominantly social media campaign and organising union by union campaigns to win industrial rights for workers.

The “Change the Rules” campaign could be an important first step in laying the groundwork for such a movement.

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