Internationalism, inequality and the real value of organising were on the agenda at the inaugural MUA-CFMEU WA Branch Conference in Fremantle today, with an impressive line-up of domestic and international union leaders addressing delegates.
More than two dozen union flags from around the world were presented to the conference, accompanied by bagpipes and around 300 rank and file members from both unions.
Speakers included MUA WA Branch Secretary Christy Cain, CFMEU WA Branch Secretary Mick Buchan, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus, MUA National Secretary and ITF President Paddy Crumlin, CFMEU National Secretary Michael O’Connor, CFMEU National President Tony Maher, CFMEU Assistant National Secretary Dave Noonan, MUNZ National Secretary Joe Fleetwood and ILWU International President Bob McEllrath.
ACTU President Ged Kearney, TCFUA National Secretary Michele O’Neil, ITF General Secretary Steve Cotton and ILA International Vice President Ken Riley were also present, along with ETU Victorian Secretary Troy Gray, MUA Deputy National Secretary Will Tracey and MUA Assistant National Secretaries Ian Bray and Warren Smith.
Cain and Buchan welcomed delegates and guests, saying it presented a great opportunity to learn from one another.
"This conference is about the rank and file, about great debate, about internationals and their experiences,” Buchan said.
Cain told delegates the Labor Party should be owned by the workers.
"This is our party and we want Australian jobs, Australian wages and the right for Australians to work in their own country - what is wrong with that?” he said.
"MUA Here to Stay, CFMEU Here for the Blue, They don’t like us, we don’t care."
ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow praised the new leadership team at the ACTU – Sally McManus and Ged Kearney.
"Two women at the head of the ACTU – who would’ve thought?” she said.
“I have no doubt they will stand up against the worst the Turnbull Government dishes up.”
Burrow said there were many points of vulnerability across the globe, including United States President Donald Trump and his geo-political threat, the rise of dictatorship in Turkey, and ongoing human rights abuses in Russia and Palestine,
Freedom of association, and end corporate greed, and action on climate change also remain great challenges.
"Building workers’ power is the only answer, so organise, organise, organise,” she said.
"84 per cent of people worldwide want corporations to be held to account. The people are on our side, we’ll take that!"
"Samsung makes $10,000 profit per worker yet their workers can’t afford baby formula, Apple makes $17,000 per worker, while five cents extra on a bunch of flowers would double the wage of Kenyan labourers.
"This year we’re going after those wages like we never have before."
McManus said we need to fight to ensure more jobs aren’t casualised, offshored and outsourced.
"Employers are abusing the visa system and engaging in wage theft while we have a minimum wage that means inequality is at a 70 year high,” she said.
"No wonder Australian workers are saying this is not how things should be in this country.
"These are all symptoms of corporate greed. Some people have too much power and wealth and workers do not.
"We will need to re-write the rules. The rules of the past are no longer working.
"This isn’t just about the next election, we’re trying to change the rules for the next generation so they don’t have to have the same fight."
Crumlin said everyone in the room should strive to live the life of true labour activists with a focus on human rights delivered with compassion and empathy.
“But it’s not just for us,” he said.
"This is about reclaiming our society with the values we have fought for – such as the right to live in retirement with dignity and decency, annual leave, penalty rates and universal access to health and education for our kids.
“We carved out a society that we believe is exemplary and they’re trying to take it away, we’re being criminalised in our own country by bad laws that protect the elites.
Crumlin also took aim at multinationals who don’t pay their corporate tax.
"That’s our gas, our oil, our iron ore, our coal, our bauxite – that's our sovereign wealth,” he said.
“We need to reserve our sovereign wealth so we can guarantee our electricity supply and address the lack of labour certainty for all Australian people.
“We’re sending our sovereign wealth overseas, not building ships, not building smelters, well why not?
Crumlin said Your Rights at Work wasn’t about the ALP, it was about working class men and women in this country.
McEllrath described the value of internationalism and paid tribute to Crumlin, Cain, Fleetwood, the RMT’s Stevie Todd.
"What does great leadership do? They have conventions and conferences. We all can’t be the President but we can all help them,” he said.
“This is how you build relationships, you understand each other and what’s going on.
"You mix that together and you get solidarity. You have to build it. Leadership plus relationships equals solidarity.
"United and strong. You’ve got all these flags from all these unions - put it together and you have unity, strength and solidarity."
Fleetwood said strong unions and international solidarity were key to the future of the labour movement.
"For a lot of unions internationalism is just a word but for us it’s a reality,” he said
“The goods we carry, the people we meet, the bonds we’ve forged.
“As for the amalgamation, the papers and the bosses don’t want it to happen and that’s enough for us, the strongest and most powerful union in Australia.
“We look forward to being part of it and the benefits it delivers for all members."
O’Connor said the CFMEU respects the cultures and histories of the unions we come from.
"Why do we have to do it? We didn’t start this to get bigger for the sake of it, we did it because we’re in a struggle, because we’re in a fight, because we want to win the fight.
"We’re in it to win it. nThis isn’t about t-shirts and logos it’s to take on bosses and governments who don’t want to look after workers, who don’t want to look after our industries, who don’t want to look after our families and communities.
"Whenever there's a fight, that’s where you’ll find us. We’re not just a union, we’re a movement that’s national and international. There are no boundaries for workers united."
Noonan quipped there were more flags here than a Tony Abbott press conference.
"There aren’t many union meetings where the leader of the global trade union movement comes to talk,” he said of Burrow’s attendance.
“On the building code: we’ve said we are not going to allow you to casualise, destroy apprenticeships, remove safety.
"John Curtin went to jail for three months and then became prime minister.
“But what do you do with a prime minister such as the one we have now? You get rid of him.
"We need to think about the future and we face a stark choice. Do we lead a union that can stand up to government and make lives better for the working class?
"If we decide we’re going to build this union we don’t look at the obstacles, we look at how we build power and strength and change this world for the better – now and forever."
Todd said: "It is important we stick together because whether the fight is in the UK, US, Australia or India – it’s the same fight
"We’ve got to use the resources at our fingertips. Make sure you use the ITF.
The ILWU’s Willie Adams spoke of the importance of youth in unionism.
"The question for the WA Branch isn’t who is going to let us, it’s who is going to stop us?
"The youth are our future. That’s why we encourage them to network with young workers from the US, Canada, all around the world.
"I look forward to the young people of today downloading our brains and using their algorithms to get the job done."
“You are leading something that’s important, you are fighting for the generations that are yet to be born.
"So much is weighing on what we do. What do you want to be remembered for?"
In the afternoon session, CFMEU National President Construction & General Division Joe McDonald paid tribute to the “magnificent seven" CFMEU officials who were attacked day in, day out during the Royal Commission into Trade Unions.
"Brian Parker, John Setka, Shaun Reardon, Dean Hall, Johnny Lomax, Darren Greenfield and Michael Ravbar were on the front line every day during the royal commission
"O’Connor, Noonan, Maher were also in the firing line.”
McDonald said the amalgamation of the MUA/CFMEU and TCFUA "has to happen and it has to happen this year.
"One struggle one fight, workers of the world unite."
Gray thanked the CFMEU, MUA and ITF for their assistance during the marathon CUB dispute, where maintenance workers from the ETU and AMWU were on strike for 182 days.
The workers picketed the CUB plant in Abbotsford after management told them they were sacked and would have to apply for their jobs through a new contractor – doing the same job for up to 65 per cent less pay.
“Don’t underestimate the role of international unions in resolving this dispute,” he said.
Maher said we need to be vigilant when it comes to globalisation, given international companies are hiring the worst law firms to run their cases.
"We need a clear right to strike. Employers shouldn’t have a role in that,” he said.
“Power station workers can’t take protected action, well why not?"
Maher cited the example of Hazelwood power station in Victoria as the way forward.
“We said the Victorian Government that we wanted a worker transfer scheme as the plants reach the end of their life,” he said.
"50 per cent from Victorian Government and the rest from energy companies to allow voluntary redundancies elsewhere to free up jobs for Hazelwood workers.
"We’ve had to fight for it but that’s what unions do."
On the proposed merger: "I can’t wait, bring it on."
CFMEU Victorian Secretary John Setka said you need to rebel against the system when it is flawed.
“If we didn’t, women and indigenous Australians would not be able to vote,” he said.
"The Liberals get in and chip away at all our rights, then Labor replaces a little bit of it.
“When the ALP used Freehills to create the Fair Work Act, can you imagine the Liberals using Slater and Gordon or Maurice Blackburn?
"The laws are designed to stop us from recruiting, that’s what they were supposed to do."
On the amalgamation: “People are hung up on the name but it’s what we are going to do that’s important."
Cotton thanked Cain and Buchan for their role in promoting internationalism.
“The MUA fights on the waterfront, on the ships, always fighting from the front,” he said.
“As for the amalgamation, this is two militant unions who are willing to stand up.
"We need powerful unions driving the ITF. That’s why Big Bob comes here to Western Australia.
"The ITF is nothing without its unions and their members, we need to shape and use your power.
"The ITF is determined to building national union power to be used domestically, regionally and internationally."
Riley spoke of the dispute with Spanish dockworkers and said International Dockworkers Council (IDC) General Coordinator, Jordi Aragunde would have liked to be at the conference.
"Solidarity must be progressive, it must be built on offence more than defence, we must know what’s coming ahead of the struggle,” he said.
"I believe in international solidarity and the international trade union movement."