Union boss Sally McManus has declared she is “sounding the alarm” on rising inequality and unfairness and signalled she would turn to a Shorten Labor government to deliver more industrial relations reforms.
- Unions’ calls for economy-wide pattern bargaining fail to gain traction at Labor conference
- Labor pledges “multi-employer bargaining” in situations where enterprise bargaining fails
- Julia Gillard, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd are given lifetime memberships in a gesture of healing
Addressing the final day of the ALP conference in Adelaide, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary received a standing ovation as she demanded action to address insecure jobs and stagnant wages growth.
“The union movement is the early warning sign for this country,” she told delegates.
“We are the earthquake sensors in the ocean that feel the tremors before they reach the shores, the siren that wakes you up before it’s too late.
“It’s time to listen and it’s time to act.”
Ms McManus told delegates the Labor Party “was doing just that” but on the floor of the conference, few changes were made to the party’s industrial relations platform.
Unions have been campaigning to get rid of enterprise bargaining, where workers negotiate pay and conditions with their employer, and return to industry-wide bargaining, a system which would set wages for entire sectors.
Labor industrial relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor, wary of the proposal, signalled a willingness to meet unions halfway.
“Workers need and deserve a seat at the bargaining table, but too many are not afforded that right,” he told the conference.
“That’s why a Shorten Labor government will improve multi-employer bargaining, particularly for those workers, so it is an effective pathway for fair outcomes.
“Where enterprise bargaining has failed or is failing, multi-employer bargaining should be another available option.”
ACTU secretary Sally McManus called for the end of enterprise bargaining at Labor’s national conference. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
Labor’s conference committed to addressing the gender pay gap by making a series of changes, including forcing the Fair Work Commission to take into account “pay equity” when setting wages in female-dominated industries.
It builds on existing commitments to restore cuts to penalty rates “within 100 days” of winning government and to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission and Registered Organisations Commission.
Ms McManus has been pushing for an overhaul of Australia’s workplace laws, through the ACTU’s “Change the Rules” campaign, which argues the existing rules are stacked against the workers.
She won cheers from the audience as she attacked the “obscene” wages of Australia’s top chief executives, who she claimed were “living in another world”.
“A world where they don’t even see us,” she told the audience.
“They do not even see what life is like for the majority of working Australians.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten described low wages growth as one of the “biggest challenges facing the economy” and made the case for changing Australia’s workplace laws.
“We are seeing growth without wages growth,” he told delegates.
“We see rising corporate profits and witness stagnating workers’ wages.”
The industrial relations debate had the potential to prove problematic for Labor leaders, given the breadth of union demands, but like almost every other policy at this conference, it was settled with little controversy.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd received a lifetime membership of the Labor Party. (ABC News: Marco Catalano)
Unity and stability
In a gesture aimed at healing the party, Mr Shorten opened the final day of the conference bestowing ALP life memberships on former prime ministers Paul Keating, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.
Mr Shorten played a pivotal role in the removal of Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd from the prime ministership, but told the conference it was time to draw a line under that era.
“There has been a lot of pain but today I say to the conference, it is time for healing, to make peace for our past in the same way we are united for the future,” he said.
“The time for recognition that what unites us is greater than what divides us has come.”
Mr Rudd was at the conference to receive the honour and received a respectful, if not muted, reception from delegates.
The former prime minister referenced Labor’s difficult recent history but acknowledged how far the party had come in opposition.
“In the history of every political party, there is a time for healing,” he told the conference.
“For us to fully grasp the future, we have to put to bed the disagreements of the past. That time has well and truly come, that’s why I’m here”.
The speeches were very much in keeping with the theme of this conference which, given its proximity to the next election, is all about presenting Labor as a united team that is ready to govern.