It's good to be here today at the launch of the 'Our Common Wealth' project — which is a welcome contribution to the national debate.
I come to today's forum with a particular perspective:
– The changes to the federal industrial relations laws;
– The impact of these changes on the working families I represent;
– And the way unions are building a community alliance from the ground up to fight the changes.
I want to focus on the way these three elements have been linked under the Rights At Work campaign, because they give some hints on how the national political debate has shifted and how organisations that want social change must shift also.
The changes to the laws
There are several readings of the Howard Government's changes to industrial relations
An economic reading would see this as the agenda of big business taken to its extreme — a project in labour market deregulation more extreme than anything tried anywhere. There are obvious short-term benefits for the business lobby — reduced labour costs in particular. But there are also dangers. Productivity based on lower wages is false productivity, low-road economics that leads to shortages of skills and lack of innovation. It is a quick fix for a lazy business community.
A political reading would see the Howard Government, with the total power that control of the Senate provides, pursuing a long-held ideological obsession — the eradication of trade unions.
But there is a third reading, less public, that makes these laws extremely relevant to the Our Common Wealth project — and that is the attack on the basic democratic right to be treated fairly and bargain collectively.
These laws shift the power balance in the workplace so far that an employer can unilaterally decide that there will be no collective agreement. Even if there are workers wanting a collective agreement, there is no longer a right to bargain collectively — an employer can unilaterally decide to switch to contracts, sack the workforce and rehire on AWA's (Australian Workplace Agreements) on a take it or leave it basis.
The response from the community to the changes has been interesting.
The union movement has focused on building ties with the broader community and explaining the impact of an unstable labour market on the broader community.
We have forged links with most of the major faith denominations, sporting clubs and other organisations that rely on volunteers who commit regular hours.
The government's response has been to throw money at the problem.
They assume that all they need to do to push unpalatable policy down the throat of the working public is put a slick name to it and throw $55 million into selling smiling faces of approval on television.
These ads — the largest sell in Australian advertising history – actually made the changes less popular!
Why? Because theirs was a misguided attempt to arrange community values from the top down.
Values — the values that underpin government policy – should actually come from the ground up. This is the government of the people, by the people, for the people that Lincoln was referring to in his Gettysburg address.
The Union movement is taking a back to basics approach to politics, it is redefining itself in the political environment.
You may have seen from the weekend press, that this campaign is biting — the Labor Party, for so long timid about their union links, have made the decision to back the campaign and abolish AWAs.
This is a significant move in the development of the ALP — not a back flip — but a recognition that the will of the people, as is now being articulated through the Rights At Work campaign, can not be ignored.
Building the movement
Finally, I want to talk about the new ways unions have campaigned to build this alliance.
The first is the TV ads — the latest round of which we have just launched.
These are the result of extensive research, understanding the values of the public and the way they intersect with these laws.
They are not cheap — they are an important investment in staking our case.
Significantly the latest round of ads focus on the plight of real workers who have fallen victim to the IR laws — these stories are a one day headline in the free media, but are well worth repeating.
The ads also address the ethos of the so-called Howard battlers, and the value that if you work hard you get ahead — something that has been discarded under WorkChoices.
But fancy ads are not enough. We have also committed to doing the hard yards.
Campaign committees with workers motivated to campaign around the issue — not simply for the ALP but against the changes — are being nurtured around the state.
We also have committed to engaging with regional NSW.
Last year we launched our big orange Rights At Work bus on tours throughout New South Wales. We visited towns along the south and north coast and went West to the inland as well 5,500kms in 3 weeks.
We established 29 regional networks of people who were concerned about the changes – though we knew what the legislation looked like we were waiting to see what its actual affects would be.
So what have we learnt? Well, I've found that it's when you talk with local people directly that you find out how important values are to them.
It's human nature to discuss and exchange information. In this way we are taking politics back to its beginnings and away from the one-way communication of the mass media, which people are turning away from daily.
We live in a world of superficiality and spin and people are aware of this and they are looking for other institutions in which they can express their value system.
That's the thing about values, when you've got them you want to share them, debate them and apply them.
So, while the Government's policy decisions on Industrial relations represent an enormous challenge for the Union movement, I think they represent an enormous policy failure for the government, and the slow fuse to its destruction that I've seen smoldering out there in the communities.
It's a fight I'm glad to be involved in.
This article is an edited version of a speech given at the launch of Reclaiming Our Common Wealth: policies for a fair and sustainable future at NSW Parliament House on Tuesday June 13.