Good evening Delegates and Comrades.
Happy one hundredth birthday! 100 years of history is looking down upon us!
Firstly, I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are on, the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung peoples of the Kulin Nation and pay respect to their Elders, past and present. I want to thank everyone who is here today for your contribution to our great union… the Finance Sector Union of Australia, the longest operating stand-alone union in the world for finance workers. I want to acknowledge the work and dedication of the former FSU office bearers in the audience tonight, we are all custodians for a short amount of time, but the union lives forever.
Our Union was founded in in the wake of WW1 in 1919 for the same reasons Trade Unions have always been set up: to improve the wage and conditions of members, build power in the workplace, to give people a better life. The founders met in secret as the Banks worked hard to put down previous attempts to form a bank employees union.
Bank workers worked long hours without being compensated (today we call this wage theft), they did not receive adequate allowances, they were moved along with their families at short notice.
The more things change the more they stay the same.
The Melbourne Argus (now the Age) reported that on October 7, 1919 the Bank Officials Association had been formed and was seeking registration under the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. The paper also mentioned that there was a proposal that the minimum wage for adult workers be 4 Pounds- a rate to apply to men and women!
Although there was pay parity amongst male and female bank clerks this wage solidarity did not extend to all positions. Today we call this the gender pay gap. There were no women in positions of leadership. Fast forward to 2019 and there are 4 women out of 7 leadership positions across the country.
I wonder what a union official from 1919 would make of 2019? Yes so much has been gained but they would still see Conservative Governments and their business boosters pursue and harass the labour movement. They would recognise globalisation as colonialism, capital has always been transnational. The fledgling union movement of the time went on to endure a Great Depression and another World War then saw its best days terms of power, influence, and membership.
Are our best days in front of us? Their causes then are still our causes now.
The most obvious difference they would see now is the prominent role of women in our movement. However, we know that women have always played a major role in the development of organised labour even though our contribution has been written out, moved to the margins, and our significance played down.
Sally MacManus is the first woman to hold the ACTU Secretary’s position in its history, I am only the second FSU first National Secretary in our 100 years.
I can say with certainty that we won’t be the last and in the next 100 years we will see leadership that reflects our diverse community because the future of our movement depends on it.
We like to say at the FSU that we work at the pointy end of capitalism. It’s worthwhile reminding people that the Finance Sector Union had been telling banks, the media and anyone else who would listen that the culture in too many of our financial institutions was utterly toxic, and we’d been saying it for years.
THE FSU was calling for a Royal Commission before it became fashionable. We had heard the stories, we had seen the reality, we had dealt with the impact on our members.
And, whilst the Royal Commission highlighted these practices, it’s fair to say that the recommendations arising from the Royal Commission were a disappointment.
If anyone doubts this, they should note that the share price of the big four banks went up when the recommendations were released.
In most other sectors of the economy, an excoriating Royal Commission would be followed by a period of reflection and reform as the industry sought to restore trust and position itself for the future.
2019 has been a tough year for our side of politics, we all know what happened and I’m not going to pour over the entrails of the ALP’s defeat tonight. One of the things I would like to reflect on though is when I hear or read things like nostalgia for the 1970’s is a bit passé. I think oh for the days of 60% union density, a seat on the RBA, a thriving the Trade Union Training Authority, those things don’t sound too bad.
The post WW2 consensus gave way to market fundamentalism, but things are swinging back. When neo-liberal organisations like the IMF are saying that we might have got it wrong or gone too hard you know the thinking is starting to change.
When investment bankers are saying the leader of the UK Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn is the more stable bet than the Conservatives-the thinking is starting to change.
The American labour leader Eugene Debs, said:
“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked and clubbed into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, traduced by the press, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, , deserted by cowards, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders, but notwithstanding all this, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission of emancipating the workers of the world is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun. “
He said that over 100 years ago. That is my hope and my message tonight. The labour movement is still the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known.
And that is why we must reclaim some language from our opponents. How have we let them outflank us on aspiration? The desire for a better life and to lift the living standards of all workers and their families is in the DNA of our movement.
John Falzon the former CEO OF St. Vincent De Paul encapsulates this idea in a recent an essay on aspiration:
“Perhaps unions, and indeed progressive grass-roots social movements in general, are hated by neoliberal governments today precisely because they are a vehicle for collective aspiration, historically showing that the real improvements to the lives of ordinary working people come when they are fought for collectively. Rather than limiting aspiration, which is a common neoliberal claim, unions organise aspiration: the aspiration for better pay and conditions, health and safety regulations in the workplace, paid leave for when you are sick, when you need to care for someone you love, when you are having a child, when you need to deal with gendered violence, or when you need an annual break.”
Aspiration is about having a vision for a better society. We are at our best when we are offering people to be part of something bigger, a collective entity that provides solutions to the struggles of their everyday lives.
We shape the future by acknowledging the past. It was the Labor side that built the post WW2 settlement, the ushered in the modern era in 1972, that took on the difficult but necessary task of restructuring the economy in 1983, who apologised to the original inhabitants, and who shielded us from the great recession in 2007. We achieved these things by offering something distinctively Labor.
One of our sides famous if not most famous speeches ‘The light on the hill’ defined aspiration for all time when Ben Chifley said:
“We have a great objective- the light on the hill- which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for. If the movement can make someone more comfortable, give to some father or mother a greater feeling of security for their children, a feeling that if a depression comes there will be work, that the Government is striving its hardest to do its best, then the Labour movement is completely justified.”
In 100 years’, time when the leadership of our union is celebrating its bi-centennial maybe they will reflect on 2019? How will we be remembered? I know we don’t do these things for ego but legacy is important all the same. Like the American civil rights activist Dorothy Height, I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom. I want to be remembered as someone who tried. I want to have inspired my daughters and their daughters.
I want to be remembered as someone who did not accept the things I could not change because I tried to change the things I could not accept.
Thank you and here’s to the next 100 years of the FSU!