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Union membership on the up as "people have had enough": McManus

The long-term decline in union membership has bottomed out, according to ACTU secretary Sally McManus. 

After a speech today to the Melbourne Press Club, McManus replied with an emphatic "yes" to a question as to whether the union movement could arrest their declining membership numbers. 

"I think there's a point where it won't go down any longer and I think that we've reached that point," she said. 

McManus argued that "people have had enough", and said that unions were "seeing membership growth now". 

In response to another question, McManus said she was satisfied with the policy positions adopted at the ALP national conference in December. 

She said the ALP "understands there's a problem with insecure work and low wages growth", while the Coalition and business did not acknowledge there was even a problem. 

However, Labor has yet to agree to two key policy positions sought by the unions – allowing broad industry-wide, multi-employer bargaining, and the right to strike. 

McManus argued that "enterprise bargaining" was falling in coverage and failing to deliver for many workers, meaning that "other options" were needed. 

She said it was "absolutely necessary" to have the right to strike as a last resort. 

The speech was to mark the publication of a book by McManus entitled On Fairness, in which she develops the critique she delivers in her speeches – growing inequality, the failure of neo-liberalism and "trickle down" economics, executive salaries, the need for the wealthy to pay their fair share of tax and workplace laws being skewed towards big business. 

"Huge expectation gap"

In response to another question, McManus contrasted the scant results from the two-year royal commission into unions with the scalps produced by the one-year royal commission into banks and financial institutions. 

McManus corrected a questioner who asked about the "AWU scandal" involving the police raids on union offices, saying she called it the "Michaelia Cash scandal". 

She said there was "one set of rules for the big end of town and one set of rules for us". 

"It's not good for the country to continually run down unions." 

In the speech, McManus argued that inequality and work insecurity were leading to loss of faith in governments around the world, as was occurring in the US, UK and the recent demonstrations in France. 

"We are now seeing a menagerie of individuals and parties on the right of politics. 

"They are all trying to take advantage of the unseen, the fed up." 

"Many of the working and middle-class people who've become invisible to the monied elites in the Coalition and big business are not necessarily racist or extreme. 

"They are angry that the country they thought they lived in – where every generation has a better life, where young people can buy a house and get a job – has been taken from them. 

"There opens a huge expectation gap. 

"That gap in Australia is larger than elsewhere as our promise of a fair go and fairness was a bigger and tangible one that is in people's lived experience. 

"People will look for explanations and some self-interested and cynical politicians will fill it with fear and misdirected blame, stoking division, prejudice and hate in the pursuit of their own self-interest." 

Sounding the alarm

McManus said that union could help avoid such tensions and were prepared to work business. 

"We are sounding the alarm now. 

"Yes, we have been pointing out that big business has too much power, but we are also providing solutions. 

"Solutions that can deliver fair pay rises, better job security, and a fairer Australia. 

"Business can work with us to deliver fair pay rises, they can work with us for greater job security. 

"We want business to be successful, working people want to be part of that success and share in its benefits. 

We want rules that mean good businesses giving workers a fair go is not undercut by unethical operators. 

"We simply want to change the rules so working people get what has always been the promise for working people in our country – a fair go." 

The book starts with the first media appearance by McManus as ACTU secretary, on the ABC's 7.30 program in March 2017 where she supported unionists and other activists breaking "unjust" laws. 

She portrays the Australian union movement as being at the forefront of winning economic and social gains over the last 100 or so years. 

This includes citing the first use of the term "fair go" in the Brisbane Courier in 1891 when it was used in court proceedings during the great shearers' strikes. 

McManus had her first taste of collective action while still a student at Sydney's Carlingford high school in the late 1980s, when she supported strikes by teachers who were protesting against education cuts by the NSW government. 

"The spectacle of that gathering, the might of its unified purpose, the feeling of solidarity and strength, resonated with me in a way that has shaped my beliefs and actions ever since," she writes. 

"Union power is this simple act of solidarity – of people realising what we have in common, and deciding both to stick together and act." 

Neo-liberalism on "front foot"

But McManus acknowledges that "union power" is not what it was, with union density having fallen to about 15% of the workforce. 

She gives a few personal insights like that she enjoys being under a bit of pressure and was advised once to "stand still" when in the middle of a storm. 

"Over the last 30 years our movement has found itself on the back foot so often because neo-liberalism as an energetic, active project, has been on the front foot." 

"Negative portrayals of what union is are and what we stand for saturate right-wing commentary," she writes in the book. 

These preferred forms of attack are repeating "neo-liberal inconsistencies" about economics that have been proven to be untrue; through pushing stereotypes of unionists as "dim-witted Godzillas"; and by paternalism, being patronising and character assassination. 

McManus notes in the book that she and many other current union leaders were junior participants in the 1998 waterfront dispute. 

"It's that generation who have come of age and we know there decades of damage to undo. 

"My generation of unionists has lived through it all, and learned lessons that have made us stronger, and more clear headed about what the problem is that we face, who is to blame and what has to be done."

Originally published on Workplace Express