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Senate speech on workplace relations motion

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Allman-Payne 5 Sep 2022

I rise to speak on this motion as a proud unionist. Unions are essential to the protection and advancement of workers' rights in this country. They ensure that the economic, social and environmental interests of workers are protected. All Australian workers should receive fair pay for fair work, but the reality is that many workers are falling through the gaps of our industrial relations system because they have been hamstrung by successive governments, who've denied them the right to collectively bargain across sectors.

The assertion that industry-wide bargaining would result in large parts of the Australian economy being shut down is nothing but a scare tactic. The coalition's attempt to make unions and the rights of workers their political punching bag should be strongly rejected. It is a sentiment that is inherently damaging to the rights of Australian workers. But this is to be expected from an opposition that is out of ideas and out of energy. All they know how to do is run scare campaigns and attack workers. The lack of creativity is truly breathtaking. But we shouldn't be surprised. This is run-of-the-mill stuff from the Liberals and Nationals, who've not had an approach to workplace relations in their history that didn't involve deliberately making wages stagnate and trampling on working people.

The Greens are in agreement with the ACTU on the need for the implementation of industry-wide bargaining, and we welcome the commitment by the government to its reintroduction. All the evidence shows that enterprise agreements negotiated by unions result in better pay and conditions for workers. We want to see more workers covered by these agreements and more workers being represented by their union. Union membership has been dropping for too many years.

Today only 14 per cent of employees are members of trade unions, and less in the private sector. This drop in union membership is a direct result of deliberate policy by successive governments dismantling legislative support for unions, placing restrictions on organising and forcing workers to negotiate individually with their employers. Today we see a continued lack of political commitment to encouraging the increase of union membership. Even this morning the Prime Minister refused to commit to encouraging increased union membership. As head of the so-called 'workers' party', his lack of support for union participation is disappointing. Falling membership and decreased collective bargaining power only serve to negatively affect Australians' living standards. We need stronger unions today. Unions are their members. When the coalition and big business denigrate unions they are in fact attacking working people.

Today, more women than men are members of unions. Industry-wide bargaining is particularly important and relevant for employees in traditionally female-dominated industries. The face of modern unionism has changed, and, increasingly, union member are frontline workers in aged care, early childhood education and teaching. In that sense, I am perhaps the archetypal union thug. And I have been a proud union thug for 30 years.

By improving the bargaining power of workers, we are not going to see the Australian economy being shut down as a result of strike action, as Senator Rennick has asserted. It says a lot about the Liberal and National parties' lack of understanding about what matters to Australians that this is their primary focus.

Increasingly, we are seeing industries such as early childhood education and aged care being eroded as workers leave this sectors due to inadequate wages. Improving worker pay in sectors such as early childhood education and aged care would go a long way towards improving the current gender based economic inequity in Australia and ensuring that the deficiencies in workers wages do not force them into a cost-of-living crisis.

In focusing on the potential for strikes as the predominant issue facing our economy, Senator Rennick has demonstrated once again how the Liberals side with corporations rather than working people. Australians need wage rises now to deal with the increasing cost of living. Access to industry-wide bargaining is an essential element to ensure Australians' wages continue increasing to meet the demands of inflation and prevent a cost-of-living crisis. This is why the adoption of industry-wide bargaining is so important. Instead of being scared of the potential for strikes, we should be scared of the impacts the cost-of-living crisis will have on Australians. Fearing strikes cannot be the perennial reason for a lack of support for union strength, increasing union membership and expanding workers' rights. Stronger unions are an essential part of ensuring all workers receive equitable wages and fair working conditions.

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