Sent in by Barry Camfield
Good afternoon, itâs a pleasure to be with you today.
I want to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal people and their elders past and present.
I would also like to acknowledge the members of the Australian Services Union who here today as well as some of my dear friends, and my dear comrades from other unions.
I am here because of you. And there are some things I need to say.
Australiaâs workplace laws are broken.
Our minimum wage has fallen to a dangerously low level.
This is why today the ACTU will be making a claim to increase the minimum wage. Significantly.
Wage theft is a new business model for too many employers
Inequality in our country is the worst it has been for 70 years and 679 of our biggest corporations pay not one cent of tax.
Our strike laws are out of step with international law.
Our bargaining laws are inadequate and unable to deal with the new and ever changing business models being adopted by the big end of town.
Now, the Fair Work Commission makes decisions to cut the wages and conditions of some of our lowest paid workers. And the mechanisms we have had to improve our living standards are no longer working.
In short, the very wealthy have too much power in our country and ordinary Australians – working people – do not have enough.
So let me tell you a little bit about the person who will lead the movement to change that.
In 1988, I was just 17 and I donât think I really knew what a union was. I was at school, studying for my year eleven exams, when my history teacher lost her job.
I and my fellow classmates were confused and then angry. But it wasnât just my teacher. Across the state, thousands of teachers were sacked as a part of an aggressive cost cutting agenda by the new Liberal Government. Thousands of devoted teachers like mine, lost their jobs, in the middle of the school year.
When you are young, you hear things adults say. What we heard was that our teachers were losing their livelihoods.
It was wrong for us and it was so very wrong for them.
The teachers decided to take strike action. I decided to join them and so did many of my friends at Carlo, Carlingford High School, in Sydneyâs northwest.
So we got on the train, I think it was one of the first times Iâd been into the city, and we went with other teachers and students and parents from across the state to Sydneyâs Domain.
I will never forget that day. Trains flooded in from all the suburbs of Sydney, filled with people with banners and streamers, signs students had made. We all got off at Central together and walked to the Domain.
There were tens of thousands of people who felt the same way I did.
What the state Liberal Government was doing to teachers and students was unjust. And at that moment, I recognised people power â union power.
That strike action was illegal.
The power of so many people coming together, taking a stand against injustice, demanding they be treated fairly at work, at school, in their communities resonated with me in a way that has shaped my beliefs and my actions ever since. And it always will.
Thatâs who I am. Iâm a unionist. First, second and third.
There will be some who find this difficult to understand.
I told 7.30âs Leigh Sales two weeks ago that our current industrial laws are wrong. I told her that it should not be so hard for workers in our country to take industrial action.
I believe in the rule of law, but laws must be fair and just and right. When laws are unjust no, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking them.
Some people responded in just the way you might think it would respond. Play the woman, not the ball.
Instead of arguing about the right to strike, their approach was to attack me as a person.
The right to strike is a human right. Itâs our government that is out of step, not the Australian trade union movement.
The United Nations has declared strike action to be a right. The International Labour Organisation declares Australia to be at odds with international conventions. Professor Andrew Stewart, an Australian expert on labour law, says:
“The ILO for the past 20 to 30 years has told governments of both political persuasions that we are in breach of international labour standards.”
In breach of international labour standards.
Yet our government and some major media institutions have a meltdown when workers stand up for themselves.
Itâs sad really.
The question of what is a just or an unjust law and when it is ok to challenge unjust laws has been debated for a very long time. In our movement we take the examples of our heroes to heart.
For example, Martin Luther King Jr wrote a letter in 1963, defending the use of nonviolent resistance to racism when he sat in Birmingham jail. He wrote:
“One may well ask: How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others? The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.â
Then he wrote:
âI would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all.â
And he goes on to quote St Thomas Aquinas: âAny law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
There are plenty of examples of Australians standing up to unjust laws in our own history:
- In 1938 wharfies refused to load pig iron that was to be sent to Japan.
- People broke the law to oppose apartheid.
- There was the resistance to conscription.
- Indigenous workers walking off stations to demand equal pay.
- The Green bans which saved the beauty of Sydney.
- And then there were all the illegal strikes by generations of union members that lead to the very living standards we all enjoy.
Working people in their unions stood up to unjust laws and they changed them.
I have always had a job, from the moment I could legally work. At 14 years and nine months, I did Thursday nights and weekends refilling shelves and working behind the counter at the newsagency down the road.
When I left school, I had a series of casual jobs, including delivering pizzas where I joined my first union, the SDA.
That was really the moment when I first became an organiser, not that I would have used that word then. I was a pizza delivery driver from Seven Hills.
A few of us thought we werenât getting enough to cover fuel costs as they skyrocketed with the first Gulf War. But we had no skills and no experience of what real organising meant. We knew we had to work together – we just didnât know what to do.
We met at a fellow driverâs house with an organiser from the SDA and he taught us what we needed to do. Eventually the rates were changed but it took a while. I was lucky, I still lived at home with mum and dad and my two apprentice brothers. Some of the other drivers werenât so lucky.
And while all that was going on, I made it into university.
I wasnât exactly sure what I wanted to do when I grew up, but an arts degree at Macquarie University seemed like a good idea to me.
My parents werenât really convinced. No one else in my family had even finished their HSC, let alone gone to university and when I decided it was philosophy I wanted to study, it was pretty hard to explain to my parents what career opportunities this would lead to.
The wisdom in my household was to âget a trade behind youâ. Good thing my brothers Wayne and Scott did exactly that.
I loved philosophy but university was not just about what went on in tutorials. There was an entire group of people who wanted to be involved in much more.
Here I had my first experience of making a tough decision I knew would make me unpopular.
By now, it was the early nineties and Australia was just beginning act on the negative health impacts of smoking.
Iâd just been elected President of the University Union. We decided to ban smoking in the student bar because of the health and safety effects on our workers, we were one of the first bars in the country to voluntarily do this. It was well before laws that made it compulsory.
Now we ran a bar for students, so you can imagine it didnât go down too well with many. It was unpopular, but we argued the case and it was also the right thing to do to protect workers.
Just as I was finishing university, Australia experienced its worst period of unemployment since the Great Depression. My entire graduating class â except for the accountants â were worried about getting jobs.