Hands Off Our Penalty Rates!



11-03-2017- In late February, the grossly misnamed “Fair Work Commission” handed down its decision on the penalty rates of some of Australia’s lowest paid workers. It decided that Public Holiday and Sunday penalty rates be watered down to Saturday rates for workers in the Retail, Fast Food and Hospitality sectors.[1] The decision means some of these workers would be up to $6000 dollars a year worse off.[2] There have been all kinds of social spending cuts for the last 35 years that workers have had to endure, but this one is different. This is not like not offering a much needed pay increase – this is a pay cut. This is literally capital taking money out of workers pockets and forcing them to work longer for less pay. Worse than this is the precedent it sets. If there is no sustained backlash, it will be only a small step towards abolishing the Saturday rates of pay, and from there effectively establishing one flat pay rate no matter what time of the day or night workers toil, from Monday to Sunday.

In addition, there is little doubt that this will flow on to other industries, and into all areas of the private and public sector. Employers negotiating collective bargaining agreements, where they still exist, will simply point to other industries where weekends are treated as weekdays, and use that to lower their wage bill – regardless of the effect on workers livelihoods. The argument that most workers now work from Monday to Sunday is spurious. This is more about the falling rate of profit, and the inability of capital to restart production, which went into a downward spiral with the onset of the “global” financial crisis in 2008. In fact it was only “global” for the capitalist economies. Yet even from the point of view of the “captains of industry”, less income in the pockets of workers means less money spent on goods and services, leading to more business slowdown, and thus further job losses. We have seen this repeated throughout history, most especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Union Officialdom complicit

In the face of one of the largest full frontal assaults on working people in a generation – and there have been many- what has been the response of the Union leadership?  Essentially, nothing. From what can be observed by the mass of workers, there have been no meetings of Union members organised, no strikes, hardly any demonstrations, and hardly any Union officials even speaking out. This had been coming for at least the last two years, and still nothing. Some Union officials have sent emails (!) to their members, denouncing the cuts to penalty rates, and asking them to sign an online petition (!!). This type of response is risible, and can barely be taken seriously. It is no wonder that large numbers of workers see little point in joining a Union, when most officials disappear at the very time that they are needed. Unfortunately, due to the absence even of a statement in defence of workers, many workers believe that Unions are legislatively prevented from taking action.

Yet this is far from the case. With some exceptions, Union officials effectively operate as agents of capital within the workers movement. Their entire careers, for which they are paid much more money than the workers they supposedly represent, are guaranteed IF they can restrict workers from challenging the destruction course of the profit system. They do this in a number of ways – even by organising rallies which on the surface appear to be militant. For example, on March 9, rallies were held in most cities by some Unions such as the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU). The theme was “Stop the War on Workers” by – the Turnbull federal government. That is, the politics of the militant rallies, with militant unionists in some cases walking off the job – was electoral. Their basic message, even if not stated openly, vote Labor – in 2019. No pledges to undertake a nationwide industrial campaign – just electoralism.

Demand Officials Act

It should be clear that the real source of the penalty rate cuts, and all of the other attacks raining down on workers, do not just come from the Liberal Party. The Labor Party is no alternative, and works in tandem with the Liberal Party to maintain the system. The source of the penalty rate cuts is the  declining capitalist economy – but workers are far from powerless in the face of these attacks. The depth of the crisis of profitability for capital means that even a well co-ordinated struggle will face stiff opposition. Yet the possibilities for this have not even been tested. Union members, and all working people, should direct their demands to the top Union secretaries of the Union bodies in each state, and demand they immediately call meetings of members and delegates, to organise a nationwide campaign. Union members need to be able to discuss and put forward their own proposals for action.

It needs to be recognised that the struggle to force Union leaders to act in defence of workers is at the same time a struggle to forge working class political leadership. This needs to take the form of a mass, class struggle based, workers party. Hundreds of years of social democracy, and the experience of the socialist countries, have taught us that even just to defend the existing living standards of the current generation of workers, a vanguard party which fights for a workers government is the only type of organisation capable of leading a genuine resistance to the onslaught of a system in peril. Such a party can be built out of efforts to forge a general strike, and similar actions. The catalyst for action now can be the assault on penalty rates, but once in struggle, larger questions begin to be posed. HANDS OFF OUR PENALTY RATES!



E: workersleague@redfireonline.com


[1] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-23/penalty-rates-decision-likely-to-reignite-political-debate/8293952 (11-03-2017)

[2] http://www.mamamia.com.au/penalty-rate-decision/ (11-03-2017)

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