The ACTU Congress of 2009
Davis, Ed, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History
The 2009 Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Congress was held from 2-4 June in the Great Hall of the Convention Centre on Brisbane's Southbank. It was the second Congress in Brisbane; the first was in 1997. The 2009 Congress was the first since 1995 with a Labor Prime Minister in office. The intervening Congresses took place during the 11 years of federal government led by John Howard. He had been an ever present spectre at these events. ACTU Assistant Secretary, Geoff Fary, reported on the opening morning of Congress that there were 645 delegates from 43 affiliated unions and from state and provincial labour councils. (1) In accordance with the ACTU's rules permitting delegates to hold up to four votes, there was a maximum possible of 1,583 votes. (2) Following the practice of recent Congresses, there was no occasion on which delegates' votes were counted. The delegates represented 1.9 million members. (3)
The previous Congress in 2006 had limited its attention to one issue: endorsement of policy aimed at ousting the Howard government. Unanimity was secured and the Congress was over within one and a half days. (4) The 2009 Congress saw a return to consideration of the full range of issues before the ACTU. The future of work, organising and campaigning, and a fairer society were identified as the major broad themes for delegates' consideration.
A feature of this Congress was the allocation of time during Congress to concurrent sessions on the first and second days. These ran for just under two hours. There were nine concurrent sessions on both occasions looking at policy resolutions under the respective umbrellas of the future of work and a fair society. Former ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty had also experimented with concurrent (syndicate) sessions, at the 1993 and 1995 Congresses. (5)
The economic context for the 2009 Congress provided a contrast to its predecessor. The 2006 Congress had taken place during a period of continuing strong economic growth. The 2009 Congress grappled with the Global Financial Crisis (GFC); the check to growth of Australia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and increasing unemployment. The 2009 Budget, handed down in May by Treasurer Wayne Swan, had forecast zero growth for real GDP for the financial year 2008/09 and a reduction of 0.5 per cent for 2009/10 before an anticipated resumption of growth. The unemployment rate was forecast to be 6 per cent in mid-2009 rising to 8.5 per cent in mid-2011. (6) Increased unemployment was believed to pose a further threat to union membership. The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) survey reported that in 2008 overall union density was at 18.9 per cent. (7) The gap between male and female density had now closed at respectively 19.0 per cent and 18.8 per cent. There remained a significant gap between public sector (41.9 per cent) and private sector (13.6 per cent) employees. Union membership remained a grim story.
On the eve of Congress, several questions stood out. What light would the Congress shed on the authority and influence of the 'new look' team of President Sharan Burrow, Secretary Jeff Lawrence and Assistant Secretaries Geoff Fary and Tim Lyons? Sharan Burrow was the odd one out, having served as President since 2000. Her other three colleagues had been elected to their posts within the past two years. Would the extraordinary consensus of past recent Congresses be sustained? What impressions would emerge of the state of the relationship between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement? What were unions doing to check and reverse the erosion of union coverage?
President Sharan Burrow extended a warm welcome to all delegates soon after 9am on 2 June. She was followed by a Welcome to Country performed with great energy and to acclamation by the Nunukul Yuggera Dance Troupe. In her President's Address she identified the distance travelled since the last Congress:
When we met three years ago, working Australians were experiencing the threat of Work Choices. …