Speech delivered by ACTU Secretary Sally McManus
Parliament House Canberra
1 September 2022
The Australian union movement wants to see successful businesses and for the living standards of all Australians to rise.
We are painfully aware that we are experiencing the largest real wage cut in history after a decade of wage stagnation.
We face real wage cuts for years to come.
Yet many businesses are doing well and posting very healthy profits.
The is not the future Australians would choose for themselves or for the next generation.
People see this unfairness. It is not sustainable.
Falling living standards should be unacceptable to all of us, and it should be our shared objective at this Summit to turn it around.
I want to be clear about the union movements ambitions.
Australia needs sustainable pay increases so that working people’s pay keeps up with the cost of living and productivity increases.
We also want the work of people like health care workers, aged care workers and teachers to be properly respected and valued.
For this to occur we need to modernise the collective bargaining system.
We must have a system that is simple, fair and accessible and does the job of getting wages moving.
Employers and unions agree that bargaining is not simple and that it should be.
There are too many hurdles, many for employers and even more for workers.
We should aim to remove as many of them as possible.
The only rules that should exist are those that are absolutely necessary to ensure fairness.
Most employers and unions can just get on with bargaining and should be able to do this without rules restricting how and what they talk about.
They should be able to simply commence bargaining and when done simply lodge an agreement with the independent umpire applying the BOOT.
This test can be made simpler without compromising on fairness.
Simplicity can be delivered by empowering the Fair Work Commission.
The Commission could assist and resolve issues for those employers and unions who need it – for example in situations where bargaining has gone on for too long or where either party is acting unfairly.
In strengthening the role of the Commission , we can achieve a system which is fair, efficient and simple for the vast majority of employer and unions who bargain, while also delivering fairness and efficient bargaining for the minority who need assistance.
Collective bargaining has become extremely lopsided.
This is why wage outcomes are low and so few agreements are now reached.
Our bargaining system should aim to facilitate bargaining between equal parties and the Fair Work Commission should play a role in ensuring this.
Loopholes which had made bargaining completely unfair must be closed.
Employers should not be able to threaten to cancel agreements as a bargaining tactic.
Employers should not be able to take their own extreme forms of industrial action like locking out workers for weeks in response to minor forms of industrial action by workers. This disproportionate use of power should not be allowed.
For collective bargaining to thrive we also need to invest in supporting and skilling those doing it.
Negotiating, collaborating, representing, problem solving, creative thinking and team building are high level skills, essential to building positive work cultures and to working together to increase productivity.
For too long productivity has been just code for cost cutting and driving down wages.
Cost cutting and combative approaches are easy, but real productivity by innovating and collaborating is much harder.
We must focus on the latter and this means we must commit to skilling up and supporting workplace representatives.
Our current bargaining system is one size fits all and these days it hardly fits anyone.
For 30 years the system has stayed the same while the economy and labor market has changed dramatically. 30 years on, our economy looks totally different. It is now dominated by the service and care industries – whose workers are being totally failed by this old system.
We need a new modern option for bargaining alongside enterprise bargaining to get wages moving. Multi-employer or sector bargaining makes sense for funded services, small business and other employers who have been effectively locked out of a system designed for large enterprises. The benefits of collective bargaining should be accessible to all. Industries dominated by women have been effectively locked out of collective bargaining for too long and this must change.
We cannot afford inaction on wage growth.
We cannot afford a lack of courage or to waste a day. Every day we waste is a day Australians and their families continue to go backwards, continue to cut back spending and to cut back their ambitions.
The current and future working generation deserve to have rising living standards.
The union movement is committed to working with the Government and employer groups who also believe we can do so much better.
Cover photo credit: Supplied