What about the worker? 2015 Harold Peden Memorial Lecture

The Labour History Society brings an important focus to our collective history as a movement in this State.  Thank you. It’s a great privilege to be given this opportunity to present the Harold Peden lecture.  I have always believed that in the trade union movement we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

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Meredith Hammat, Secretary, UnionsWA

The working conditions and living standards that workers and union members enjoy today are a result of the hard work, commitment and passion of those unionists that came before us.  We therefore have a responsibility – a moral duty – to protect what we have inherited.

We also have a responsibility to work to improve living standards for those that will come after us.

In writing my comments for tonight I have reflected a great deal on the legacy of those like Harold, who came before us – and how important it is in the shifting sands of the current political environment, that we protect what they have won.

Harold Peden was one of the most respected union leaders of his time – for his honesty, integrity and his commitment. 

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1985: Keith Peckham (L), Harold Peden (C), Neil Byrne (R)

He was a rank and file member and shop steward for the Boilermakers and Blacksmiths Society (now the AMWU) for 20 years. He went onto be an AMWU organiser and their State President from 1978 to 1985.  He also served on the Executive of the Trades and Labor Council from 1963, the year it separated from the ALP and went on to serve the TLC (as UnionsWA was then know)  as a Senior Vice President.

He was a member and President of the Communist Party. 

He was made a life member of the TLC and awarded the Order of Australia in 1990 for his services to the trade union movement and to West Australian workers.

I never knew Harold but those who did know him tell me that central to all his decision making was the question – ‘what about the worker?’

As all good organisers know, a good question is often more powerful than a statement.

In this case we have a refreshingly straight-forward question, which both reflects our values and is also a call to action.

It is, I believe, still a valuable phrase for us today as we wade through clever acronyms and the jargon of corporate mission statements. 

The recent elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to Prime Minister of Australia is a case in point. 

He has changed the tone - but not the substance - of political debate in this country. 

Not so much a case of ‘’under new management”, as “under new management-speak.”

When Turnbull spoke on becoming leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister he said:

“now is the most exciting time to be an Australian. Our economy will be driven by innovation and productivity”

Of course Scott Morrison was more succinct in his choice of words, choosing to revert to a trusty three word slogan of ‘work, serve, invest.’

As Prime Minister, Abbott’s vision of Australia took us back to the 1950s – to knights and dames and the days when it might have been appropriate to have a man as Minister for Women.

Turnbull, however immediately set about making himself look contemporary, modern and forward looking.  Our national political debate is now to be about the future of Australia, rather than the kind of wistful backward looking nostalgia we got from Abbott.

The Liberal Government is trying to recast the public debate from one centred around the decisive, backward looking policies of Abbott to a national debate more sharply focussed on the future of enterprise, work and innovation.

Turnbull has been largely successful in re-shaping the debate.  It seems almost impossible to read a conservative newspaper like The Australian or Financial Review without seeing multiple articles and headlines trumpeting innovation, change or new enterprises.

However, scratching below these key phrases reveals a substance that is more about cutting wages, such as penalty rates or pursuing inequitable taxation, such as raising the GST.

The Liberal Party agenda sits before us a bit like Janus the God of ancient Rome who looked both to the future and the past.  We can clearly see Abbott’s wreckage of unpopular policies; most look weakened and shabby but it is an agenda that has not been defeated.

As we go forward with Turnbull as Prime Minister, our challenges will be different.  Having started a national discussion about innovation and the future, he will try to revive Abbott’s policy wreckage and make it look attractive, shiny and new.

Tonight, I wanted to consider what this new paradigm means for unions and as Harold would have asked ‘what does it mean for workers’.

While this Government’s agenda has been divisive and unpopular. Turnbull will be a smarter, slicker salesman and I think we all recognise that our task has been made more difficult with Turnbull as leader.

Turnbull’s approach will to appeal to the aspirations of middle Australia.  By imagining the new economy, built on nimble, innovative enterprise Turnbull hopes he can sell the dream that we will all be winners.  He will hope that he can sell fundamental changes to working conditions, superannuation, taxation and other fundamentals like Medicare and education, as being about being necessary to set us on a glorious path to the future.

For workers the Turnbull Govt will hope to sell the dream that innovation and change will create new aspirational jobs.

In this dream, workers will be able to cast off the shackles of full-time, Monday to Friday jobs and join the new economy, as some kind of flexible entrepreneur.  Rigid hours of work – with accompanying penalty rates and shift loading – will dissolve into inconsequence.   

Who will have a need for sick leave, annual leave or carers leave when the new economy worker is in control of when and how they work.

In the new corporate world of Bankwest and BHP workers don’t even need a desk as they get lockers and the opportunity to work in a flexible workspace.

Workers will be highly skilled, well paid.  New jobs in funky new enterprise will be created. 

Those of us in this room we understand that the future of work and innovation is no paradise for workers, but we should not under-estimate how powerful that dream will be too many of the workers that we hope to represent.

The labour movement must be an effective part of the public debate about how our economy and jobs will be transformed by new technology and innovation. 

If not unions, who will advocate for sharing the benefits that new technology and innovation will bring?

If not unions, who will advocate for economic restructuring that manages transitions in a fair and compassionate way?

If not unions, who will advocate for the good jobs, the local jobs that we need if we are to have a sustainable economy and sustainable communities?

When it comes to innovation, entrepreneurship and productivity, no one has more skin in the game than the working people we represent.

If businesses fail, businesspeople may lose some of their wealth, but working people can lose their livelihood meaning  financial hardship, a worsening of physical and mental health and pressure on personal and family relationships.

We know how the loss of a job or the closing of a workshop, power station or some other major employer can devastate whole communities. Look at Detroit in the US to understand that restructuring in our industrial heartland doesn’t just affect workers who lose their jobs.  It devastates whole communities, possibly for generations.

I am not cynical about change and I applaud Turnbull for putting innovation and jobs for the future firmly on the national agenda.  But what we in the union movement must do is ensure that this debate doesn’t happen without us. 

Left unchecked, the Turnbull agenda for reform will be a more sophisticated version of what we got from Abbott. Longer words. More sentences. But no real departure from the well-worn path trod by many Conservatives before him.

We know what that agenda will look like – driving down working conditions like penalty rates, minimum wages, no protection from unfair dismissal or unfair contracts and increasing insecure work.

We know that a deregulated, free market for workers doesn’t lead to good outcomes for working people.  For most it won’t lead to the dream of being part of a funky and flexible workforce.  A few people might do well but overwhelming people will be worse off.

Innovation and change are not in themselves bad things.  But if implemented without a strong set of underpinning values about the kind of society we want to be – technological changes will almost certainly lead to growing inequality and worse living standards for many.

And that’s why unions are so important in this debate.

Technological change and innovation can and should form the basis of a genuine revival of our economic fortunes and employment opportunities. 

Those employment opportunities must be good job’s – not just the new, lowly paid, insecure service jobs that economists tell us are to be created for the future.

We can’t build a robust, fair and sustainable society if the only jobs we create are driving for Uber or selling our labour by the hour performing odd jobs on Airtasker.

While we understand that the jobs of the new economy aren’t necessarily a nirvana for workers but many workers may feel differently. 

The expectations of new generation of workers may be quite different to what we might expect.

We should not under-estimate the power of Turnbull’s speaking of ínnovation’ and productivity, in a context where Australian workers derive deep intrinsic satisfaction from their jobs. 

We should not under-estimate how powerful Turnbull’s dream will be for many of the workers that we hope to represent.

Barbara Pocock recently shared at the ACTU Conference, Australia Disrupted some research on common attitudes to work.

Overwhelmingly people reported high levels of attachment to work.

Nearly 80% of men and 86% of women say they would enjoy having a job even if they didn’t need the money.

Only 12 years before those results were around 60%.

82% of people says that their work is very meaningful to them.

And three quarters of men and women say that their occupation is an important part of who they are.

It seems that workers like their jobs and derive a strong sense of purpose and identity from their work.

Our Agenda

I wanted to turn now to consider how unions might respond to this new paradigm.  How are we to make sure the interests of workers are advanced and protected?

Or as Harold might have said - What about the worker?

There are three things I think  we must do:

Firstly we must continue to campaign to protect those things that we know make Australia a decent, fair, equitable place to live.  What Abbott began still lives in the heart, minds and the legislative agenda of the Turnbull Government. 

Turnbull has begun as better salesman and a better negotiator with the cross-benchers. 

But these conservative policies are just plain bad.

We have much work to do if we are to defeat the Government and its agenda at the next election.

The Build A Better Future campaign is all about defending our living standards from the attacks of Turnbull. There has been no substantial change to the agenda of this Govt – they still want to cut penalty rates and other working conditions, undermine superannuation, cut funding for education and health, give away Australian jobs by signing free trade agreements.

The Build a Better Future campaign will harness the power of nearly 2 million union members and the wide support we have in the community. We will use that power in the community and at the ballot box.

We are campaigning in 23 marginal seats around Australia. 

We have had members of the community signing petitions.  Our volunteers and campaigners are handing out information, identifying and signing up volunteers at shopping centres, train stations, at community events like the town hall meetings and community markets.

Our campaign is also about talking to undecided voters in the key marginal seats about the issues we know are important to them.

Talking in detail to workers, particularly where they are undecided voters, about the Government’s agenda has proven to be a powerful way to influence the outcomes of elections.

The union movement has also embraced new campaign techniques and new technologies which have greatly enhanced our ability to directly communicate our message to union members and the public, allowing us to increasingly by-pass the privately-owned conservative mainstream media.

These technologies allow us to better identify supporters and undecided voters in marginal electorates.  Better communications allow us to find activists and keep them informed and motivated.

It was true in Harold’s day and remains so today - the most effective tools of persuasion involve direct, one-on-one communication and engagement.   Whether in workplaces or by calling people on the phone in their homes, purposeful conversations are the most effective method of bringing supporters to our cause.

We are now able to measure the importance of different methods with some precision. 

Formal letters, once the back bone of communication from unions to members, has been shown to have a negligible effect.

One-on-one conversations are far more likely to sway an undecided voter. This is hardly surprising when people express great frustration about the prevalence of 30 second sound bites, when we are dealing with the big issues about our society and our economy.

I think people have a deep desire to understand and discuss the big issues.  Conversations initiated by unions with their members were compelling, informative and very welcome.

Of course, this just reinforces what we unionists have known for a long time about workplace recruitment and organising - it’s best done by a co-worker, in person and at their workplace.

I believe we can all have growing confidence that the campaigning innovations being pursued by unions today will serve us well in the elections ahead of us and into the future, for whatever challenges we face.

The second thing I think the union movement must do is get into the debate about jobs and the new economy in a way that puts our values– equality, dignity,  and a sharing of the benefits of the economy – at the centre of the debate.

We can’t be luddites and pretend that things aren’t changing.  We don’t serve our members well by arguing for things to remain unchanged.

Yes it’s true that technology is changing work and workplaces.  There will be winners and losers from these changes.  Some industries will grow. Others will die.

Workplaces will change. 

And workers may see themselves differently – perhaps some will embrace the vision them being new economy contractors, mini entrepreneurs.

Unions working on behalf of working people cherish a proud history of great workforce and economic innovations that has navigated us through significant economic change and restructuring.

Around a century ago this included the creation of legislated standards for industrial arbitration, a living minimum wage and, more recently, compulsory superannuation.  All of these were imaginative and innovative at the time.  And our values are clearly imprinted on these reforms still.

The right of unions to be heard on economic and social policy is not just a result of our democratic place among working people, its also a result of our ability to contribute constructively to public debate.

We need to develop a stronger, clear and credible economic agenda that embraces technology, innovation and the new jobs that will be created.

Public debates too often focus on the levers that our politicians have available to them to manipulate the economy - often macro-economic measures such legislation or regulation.

Politicians too often believe that macro-economic changes that result in higher profits will be enough to boost economic productivity.

Yet most innovation and productivity happens at workplaces – not at the macro-economic level.

Politicians may not understand workplaces, but unionists do.  We are well placed to lead public debate about how Australian workplaces can be productive – and how they can also be fair.

We could probably also do better to recognise that many working people like their jobs, they “get” that innovations and improve productivity at a workplace level are important.

Thirdly we must grow our movement if we are to remain a powerful social force in this country with the authority to speak about the issues facing working people.

What are we to do about declining union membership?

Many of you will have seen recent ABS stats on the levels of trade union membership in Australia.  In WA we remain at the woefully inadequate level of 13% density.  The lowest level of density of any State in Australia.

Nationally the ABS reported only 1.6 million union members – down from 1.8 million only 2 years ago.  We could debate the accuracy of the ABS collection but regardless we have significantly lower levels of union density than we did when Harold was organising the workshops of Perth.

In challenging times unions also need to innovate, not only our campaigning models to advance our political agenda, but as also our structures and the models we apply.

Individually, unions largely apply their own unique and often inherited process for recruitment, and retention that seem less responsive to workforce mobility and turnover or churn.

Much more needs to be done making it easier to join and move between unions.

Further I think we could better share common strategies for promoting our values and purposes.

We need to be less a movement of unions and more a union movement.

One of the historic changes to union organisation has been the evolution of peak union bodies, including UnionsWA and the ACTU and we should acknowledge Harold’s contribution toward achieving that as a founding member of the Trades and Labour Council.

Among working people who are not union members, there are many - still a majority of the workforce - that have supportive attitudes toward unions. 

The values we act upon around the safety of work, pay and fairness still resonate widely.  In short, unions are credible on work and jobs.

We absolutely must find ways to grow our membership, grow our density and our resources and to unionise a new generation of workers.

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In conclusion, I believe that while the labour movement faces many challenges, we have proven ourselves to be resilient and innovative, in the ways we campaign and our ideas about how we can share wealth and reduce inequality.

Our immediate concern is to defeat the conservative agenda, not only because it promotes even great inequality, but because, contrary to the spin, will not address the real need our economy and community have for genuinely productive innovation.

Those solutions lie more at the workplace level, which is also where unions most belong.

I said at the outset of my comments tonight that we have a responsibility to leave something better for the workers that will come after us.

As our economy faces change and restructuring, I think we need to focus on what legacy we will leave behind.  We to leave behind a strong union movement with more density and more power than we have now.

We need to leave behind a decent safety net of working conditions that mean having a job means an escape from poverty.

And we need to ensure we leave behind good jobs that not only provide financial support for workers, but allow them to have a family, buy a home and build a community.

And in that sense perhaps not much has changed.

Thank you.

Meredith Hammat

Secretary

UnionsWA

 


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