Change the Rules or Change the System?
07-10-2017 – Australian workers are enduring wave after wave of an ongoing onslaught against their wages and conditions. It is not just penalty rates either. The Union movement has arguably never faced such governmental restriction on what was previously regarded as lawful activity. The right to organise a Union, the right of Union officials to meet with members on the job, the right to speak to workers about a Union – all of these and more are in danger of being legislated out of existence. Then we have the assault from employers themselves. Some of them have already tried – successfully – to cancel previously agreed enterprise bargaining agreements, and throw workers back on award conditions – potentially meaning the loss of thousands of dollars per year in employee income.
“Ensuring Integrity” Bill
Currently before federal parliament is the outlandishly misnamed Ensuring Integrity Bill, put as an amendment to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009. The measures contained in this bill would not be out of place in Nazi Germany. It was the Nazis who, on coming to power, outlawed Trade Unions in toto. This “Ensuring Integrity” bill does not outlaw Unions as such, but outlaws major parts of their activity. The Bill, if passed, will allow the Federal Government to directly interfere with the internal operations of Unions. The Bill would allow the government to: disqualify certain Union members from holding a Union position, prevent basic Union activity – such as stopping work over a health and safety issue or incident, to deregister Unions, to place Unions into administration and to prevent Union mergers from going ahead. On top of a restriction where it is basically illegal to take industrial action at any time apart from “bargaining periods” – and then only through secret ballots – this Bill is arguably an attempt by the ruling class to see just how far they can go.
It is not enough for capital to keep wages of workers down. It is generally agreed that the rate of wage growth in Australia this year is the lowest in recorded history. The dire crisis of profitability means that capital also wants to control even more about what potential struggles Unions can lead. The “Ensuring Integrity Bill” seems to be an attempt to head off a Union campaign before it even starts, by using the ability to dismiss certain Union officials if they actually start to organise workers to fight back. Failing this, the Bill could be used to simply deregister the Union, and dismantle it altogether. There is little that is different between a fascist government outlawing trade unions as per the Nazis, and a “liberal democratic” government deregistering and disbanding a union. The effect is the same – a massive blow to virtually the only organisations that stand in the way of workers being subjected to unfettered capitalist exploitation. There is an economic, political and psychological aspect to this insidious attack on all working people.
The fruits of Enterprise Bargaining
The industrial relations situation for Australian workers today is almost totally weighted in favour of the employers, especially big industry groups and the government, and almost totally against workers and their Unions. Arguably, this is the end result of the Enterprise Bargaining system brought in by the Keating Labour government from 1991. Prior to the introduction of Enterprise Bargaining, workers and their Unions were not restricted as to when, and over which issues, they could take industrial action – up to and including strike action. While going on strike was never enshrined in law, prior to the introduction of Enterprise Bargaining, Unions could go on strike and push for their demands to be met. The government and employers would have to go to court themselves in order to claim damages, for example. However, Enterprise Bargaining brought with it the notion of “protected industrial action”. This meant that workers and their Unions could legally take industrial and/or strike action – but only during a “bargaining period”, i.e. the negotiation of a new Enterprise Bargaining agreement, usually once every three years. For the rest of the three years, workers were legally prevented from withdrawing their labour – over any issue at all.
Enterprise bargaining changed the landscape of industrial relations, almost wholly to the benefit of employers over workers. While some workplaces were able to gain pay rises and conditions that were above award conditions, many others did not. The horizon of workers was especially narrowed, as they were encouraged to see themselves not as part of an entire industry, but as an individual company or area battling away, competing against all others. Employers were often encouraged to use Enterprise Bargaining to introduce all kinds of practices which assisted them, to the detriment of workers, such as “multiskilling” – the virtual elimination of specialised roles. For workers, it led to a situation of profound disempowerment. Instead of working with thousands of other workers across an entire industry pushing for the best pay and conditions for all within the sector, workers only had the small confines of their enterprise. This dramatically shifted power to the employers. What is more, workers were encouraged to see themselves as bound to protect the profitability of their own enterprise – often at their own expense. Hard won conditions could be traded away with the excuse that the enterprise could no longer afford them, in order to be “competitive”.
“Change the Rules” campaign
Many workers mistakenly believe that corporations and the governments which serve them are now too powerful, and that Unions are not able to fight back because they are legislatively prevented from doing so. This sentiment reflects not the power of capital per se, but the dire lack of leadership on the side of labour, which boils down to the Trade Union leaderships around the country. Enterprise Bargaining may have begun the breakup of workers across an industry, but this has been facilitated at each step by conservative officials, who are ideologically tied to the capitalist system – and therefore the employer class itself. There are a few exceptions, but there are scarcely any Union officials willing to organise a class struggle fightback not only against anti-worker laws, but against the profit system as a whole.
What we have instead from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is the “Change the Rules” campaign. While it is welcome that there is any national campaign at all, the ACTU’s “Change the Rules” has little chance of repealing the misnamed Fair Work Act, and replacing it with pro-worker and pro-Union legislation. This is because it is ultimately an electoral campaign, rather than an industrial campaign. In its purest form, it is yet another re-elect the Australian Labor Party effort – in two years’ time! Correctly, the ACTU note that 40% of the workforce is in casual or contract employment, and thus many workers do not experience a paid holiday or a paid sick day. They note that inequality is at a 70 year high, and that wage growth is the lowest it has ever been. All well and good. However, for this disastrous state of affairs, the ACTU point the finger at…the Liberal Party and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash.
However, it is evident that the all sided assault on workers is coming from the entire political establishment – Labor, Liberal, One Nation, the lot. The Greens offer some cautious words of support, but are tied into the parliamentary gravy train just as much as the major parties. This is because the real source of the attacks on workers is private capital itself (the basis of the parliamentary system), which is facing an ongoing crisis of profitability, and can only react by making workers pay. The increasing application of automation to workplaces – including “robotisation” is eliminating jobs, rather than reducing working hours and increasing the standard of living. The means of production remain in the hands of private profit-seeking business. State and Federal governments are privatising more and more functions previously peformed by the public service – and handing them directly to the private sector. Yet even with this massive assistance, the private sector is not able to re-engage in the serious production of goods and services. Capitalism has reached an impasse – and it is not going back to the “mixed economy”, or the “welfare state”.
Class struggle leadership of the Unions desperately needed
When Sally McManus became head of the ACTU, some left parties welcomed the apparent change of outlook. “Bad laws have to be broken”, Ms McManus stated. But it soon became obvious that it was not going to be followed by any action – other than token online petitions, the occasional rally and a press release. Socialist Alternative correctly note that Union activism has to be rebuilt on the workplace floor, after three decades of attacks on Unions which have largely led to demobilisation, and thus demoralisation. They also note this is a political task as much as an industrial one. Solidarity urge workers to heed the words of Sally McManus, and launch themselves into the struggle. The Socialist Alliance laud the work of Sally McManus for heading the campaign, albeit with the plea for more to be done. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA), are the most enthusiastic in signing up to the “Change the Rules” campaign, with not even one iota of a critique of the ACTU leadership. They even endorse the ACTU leadership’s diversionary calls for a “community” campaign. What all of these left parties lack is a perspective of seriously challenging, and ultimately replacing, the class collaborationist ACTU and local Union officials with leaderships dedicated to hard class struggle. We will be waiting an eternity for the ACTU and local Union officials to even contemplate such a struggle. It’s not on their agenda.
Many Unions can go for two to three years, without the officials organising even one general meeting of members. There are intense political reasons why the conservative officials avoid organising basic meetings. For one thing, they are aware that the resentment of workers over the loss of pay, worsening conditions, harassment by management at work and a host of other issues, are at a peak. But at a gathering of Union members, the officials’ control over the Union is potentially threatened. Ideas for action can be raised, proposals put forward, workers can draw strength from one another, and more. All of this confronts the no-action approach of conservative officials head-on. So the officials simply refuse to organise even the most basic method of giving Union members some form of say over the direction of the Union they pay their fees to. Whether the Union organises 24 meetings per year, or zero meetings per year, the considerable pay of the officials does not change one iota. Meanwhile, workers suffer.
Workers need to start organising as soon as they are able. Perhaps with some exceptions, rank and file groups will need to be organised within virtually all Unions. Within these rank and file groups, leftist and anti-capitalists should, wherever possible, work together to encourage workers to demand urgent action from the Union officials. Unilateral actions called by these rank and file groups will also be needed – with or without the endorsement of the Union officials. These rank and file groups should also be prepared to picket the offices of their own Unions, demanding action. Organising meetings of members without the sanction of the Union officials will be an unavoidable necessity.
At the very least, the Unions should be leading a national industrial struggle for a shorter working week with no loss in pay. A 30 hour week would be a good start. Serious, nation-wide struggles over this basic demand, which, if won, would substantially undermine unemployment and increase the amount of disposable income of workers, returning a stimulus of the economy even on the terms of the business class itself. This could then set the stage for winning permanent jobs for all workers, and would embolden workers to demand adequate health and safety, the retention of penalty rates, and more.
The reign of capital will resist furiously, which would only point to the need not for a changing of the rules, but a changing of the entire system. Working people need not only a new industrial relations act. Workers ultimately need a state and a government which they own and which defends their interests. No capitalist government, no matter how liberal, can ever fully meet the needs of all workers of all generations to come. What is needed is a workers republic – a government which rests on the organised power of workers themselves. Leading them will be the most class-conscious workers, composed in a vanguard party of activists committed to the struggle for the sweeping away of the power of private capital and the initiation of a socialist order. This system change is the only one which can “change the rules”.
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