Ged Kearney: 'We can do anything'

Key pointsSix months after being elected president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Ged Kearney has a positive - and unapologetically assertive - message to pitch to her constituency of some 1.9 million union members across the nation. 'We removed a government', she reminded an audience of industrial relations academics and unionists at the University of Sydney on 18 November, proudly acknowledging the union movement's role in the fall of the Howard government in 2007. 'We removed a Prime Minister. We can do anything.'

Kearney has been conducting what she describes as an 'exposure' campaign to meet union officials and workers across Australia, encountering both 'passion and disillusionment' from union activists. Kearney has also spoken with non-unionists, 'and wondered how to tap into their worries and hopes with union ideals and collective fortitude.'

The former federal secretary of the 175,000 member Australian Nursing Federation brings a wealth of union leadership experience and an articulate voice to the task of leading a union movement buffeted by decades of economic change, a tough bargaining environment only modestly alleviated under Labor's new Fair Work laws, and a persistent problem of declining union membership - although Kearney claims the movement is 'growing'.

Kearney's strategy for union growth focuses on building campaign capacity, including positioning the union movement more independently from the Australian Labor Party. The union movement established the Labor Party as its political voice in the late nineteenth century; Kearney seemed to suggest that historic relationship, if not headed for imminent divorce, is drifting apart.

Kearney claims she's had 'a great response from all corners' to her call to develop an 'independent voice for unions that speaks for workers and an active civil society. There's a feeling that the movement needs independence from the political machines, even the one born of our own movement. And while I understand and support the political ties with the ALP, there's something encouraging and exciting in the fact that union people are wanting a voice of their own.'

Kearney implied that the ACTU has been disconnected from government decision making since Labor's election in 2007, as she argued that an independent voice 'will lead to a regeneration of our movement, where we are once more setting the agenda, and forcing the politicians to respond to us, rather than lending support to decisions made in some back rooms.'

In the shell-shocked wake of federal Labor's June 2010 leadership coup, and the subsequent chaotic election campaign in August, Kearney observes a Labor Government 'which seems to be in total flux, torn between the demands of the neo-liberal world dominated by corporate interests, and the needs of working people, for whom decent work and strong social infrastructure are vital.'

Kearney notes that a number of blue collar unions are 'disillusioned' with the Labor government on policies and legislation 'bordering on anti-worker, anti-union even,' issues like the Australian Building and Construction Commission, and restrictions on bargaining and industrial action. Kearney observes that the recent French strikes over the increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62 would be illegal under Australia's Fair Work laws.

Kearney acknowledges that the campaign landscape for unions is challenging. The workplace is changing: 'traditional workplace models are disappearing'. The changing workplace includes migrant workers employed by labour hire firms with little knowledge of unions, and are engaged under 'precarious' employment contracts. 'They are a challenge to organise but they are part of our future.'

Women are also a significant part of the changing workforce - and the union movement. Increasingly important in union campaigns are the white collar unions representing nurses, teachers and community workers, often with a high proportion of women members concerned with broader social issues. 'They value their craft, and social and professional advocacy', Kearney says. 'And they are joining unions; by 2020 over fifty per cent of union members will be women.' But they are both 'a little under-politicised, and a little undervalued by the movement. I see them as an untapped resource. They are our future.'

Kearney also notes that many young workers are 'disconnected' from unionism, but 'not at all adverse to activism', and linked to each other through technology. 'Many of them consider long-term membership of a union as old fashioned. They are more likely to engaged by spur of the moment actions around a campaign, and perhaps that's why Get Up! has been so successful.' Long-term activists are important, but getting young workers active in specific union campaigns also represents 'a drastically important part of our future.'

Kearney is also disturbed at how the future is increasingly being defined by an ideology hostile to unionism. 'We all know we live in a neo-liberal world dominated by market fundamentalism. Big wealthy corporations rule the world, and we as individuals conform to their rules: dress in fashions dictated by them, we eat what they tell us, we work to their rules, and education is even driven by them and the needs of their industries. Railing against corporatism is tantamount to heresy.'

Kearney's distaste for market fundamentalism has fed a suspicion of the free trade agreements that have been embraced by the Labor Party since the 1980s. 'Free trade agreements I think have developed over time as a means for the corporations to maintain their rule.' Kearney adds that 'many commentators are now saying that the union movement is the only voice of opposition to the current economic forces', potentially positioning the union movement in a polarised "us and them" relationship with economic change. It might be argued that many unions might have more successfully coped with the challenges unfolding since the 1980s had they accepted a need to adapt to change.

In terms of adapting to change, Kearney seemed to make an implicit criticism of the amalgamation strategy pursued under the auspices of the ACTU's 1987 Futuries Strategies plan. 'Unions need to find ways to add value to the working lives of their members and not just at bargaining time. Perhaps this is why some professional and craft unions have weathered the storms a little better than some other unions over the last twenty years.'

Kearney stressed the need to counter the language and ideas of neo-liberalism which prevails in much of the mainstream media, and the outlook of many employers and their peak councils, and 'their pursuit of individualism and their blatant market fundamentalist tactics', as profits are put ahead of decent workplace conditions and community development.

'Our economic and social language has moved into the realm of the neo-liberals. Social constructs that protect us from corporatism and the free market have been carefully framed to make us believe they are bad. This includes unions, taxes, regulations, wages and decent work. We constantly hear of "wage pressures", of tax and regulatory burdens; why are they burdens?'

'The gaps between the haves and have nots is widening. Wages, as a proportion of national income, is the lowest its been since 1964. Profits in the private sector rose 25 per cent this year and wages rose 2.7 per cent; there's no "wages pressure". The gender pay gap sits at 18 per cent and is rising; female dominated industries are critically undervalued.'

Kearney believes that the biggest challenges facing union members are 'the nature of work and inequality. We have a conundrum in this country where those in full-time secure work are working themselves to death, they're doing unpaid overtime, they're not taking leave, and they're stressing trying to balance work, home and caring responsibilities. On the other hand, we have a growing trend towards precarious employment. More and more work is structured around casual employment, short term contracts, or sham contracts.'

'Frighteningly, less than fifty per cent of the workforce is now in full-time, permanent employment. The financial risks once borne by employers and governments have been shifted onto individuals and households. No longer can sick leave be taken for granted, or workers' compensation, or holiday leave.'

Kearney argues that union activists need to start the conversation about how to address these problems, 'and I'm going to do that with the union movement by campaigning on a big scale on these issues. As activists, we have to start using a different language, and promote the other side of economics that stands for collectivism, for strong social supports, for appropriate regulation and intervention, and for the fair distribution of wealth.'

Despite the challenges Kearney says she has faith in the strength of unionism. 'The Australian union movement has 1.9 million members. We are the only organization in Australia that can boast that. And we are growing. Never let anyone tell you that the union movement is irrelevant.'

Published 23 November 2010

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