Jenny Simms and Ged Kearney
Australian unions: the people who give a pluck!
Ged Kearney, the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) was in town to talk about superannuation (Australian occupational pensions) last week, and the TUC got together with Unions21 to host a lively discussion (honestly, there was never a pause and we had to end before everyone who wanted to had asked their question!). Ged gave us what Unison blogger John Gray called an “honest and articulate appraisal of the labour movement in Australia.”
In particular, she stressed the challenges facing unions in a country which still has restrictive union laws and huge amounts of insecure work. Luckily, the ACTU is full of people like Ged who are capable of thinking up innovative campaigns like the one calling for better contracts for insecure workers in the chicken industry: ‘Because We Give A Pluck’!
Ged told us a lot about the state of the Australian trade union movement. A staggering 80% of local union reps in Australia are women, she said, but only 18% of national leaders. The ACTU Executive, however, is different, with a rule which requires parity between men and women, and Ged is the second female President (one of a dual leadership structure, along with a full-time Secretary) in a row. The density rate in 19% overall, so lower than in the UK, with 40% of Australian workers covered by collective bargaining and 14% membership in the private sector. Unions want a wider collective bargaining agenda, as we do in the UK where nothing is excluded. However, the Australian “Award” system provides minimum standards for every worker, sector by sector.
The Labor Government elected in 2007, and re-elected as a minority administration in 2010, had improved industrial relations by replacing the anti-union (and mis-named) Work Choices legislation of the previous National Liberal Government with the Fair Work Act. But the replacement was still not good enough, and the campaign to replace Work Choices with Fair Work did not concentrate enough on boosting organising or building membership. With the possibility of a National Liberal victory at the 2013 election, employers were becoming more militant.
Ged stressed the importance of insecure work, which the ACTU had made a major political issue with a public enquiry based on the TUC’s Commission on Vulnerable Employment. She told us about a group of building workers she met during the enquiry who hadn’t been paid for 8 weeks: when she confronted the employer, he claimed that he couldn’t pay them until he received an invoice, and he didn’t know who was supposed to issue it! Insecurity covers all sectors, from textiles to teachers. Ged said the rise of casual contracts across all sectors was a deliberate attempt to deunionise Australian workplaces.