05-05-2018 – It is not a grand statement to make to acknowledge that wages and conditions for workers in Australia have never been at the state they are now. Outright wage theft is rampant, from small business to large scale private and public sectors. The right to strike, an elementary condition without which the line between the modern workers and slavery is blurred, is all but non-existent. Up to 40% of the workforce is not employed on a permanent basis – they are either in casual, temporary or contract arrangements. Enterprise bargaining is failing to deliver much but derisory pay “increases”, many of which are below inflation. Construction workers and their Unions face ongoing government attacks on their right to organise, with massive and crippling fines being imposed even for stopping work if there is a serious health and safety issue. The average pay gap between working men and women is being maintained, pushing many women of near retirement age into precarious housing situations. Penalty rates, a hard won gain from over a century of Union struggles, are being whittled away in industry after industry.
‘Change the Rules’ ?
One response from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign. On the surface, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus appears to be a “breath of fresh air”, in contrast to previous ACTU stale officialdom. The demands and issues she highlights are urgent and need addressing, and her calls for action sound militant. But there is little or no action following the speeches to the National Press Club and the like. The overall political approach soon reveals itself. The ‘Change the Rules’ campaign is ultimately a re-elect the Australian Labor Party (ALP) campaign, being ramped up in a Federal Election year. No matter how much McManus and other top Union officials avoid directly stating it – this is an arm of ALP’s efforts to unseat the Liberal National Coalition government led by Malcolm Turnbull, and install the almost invisible “opposition” ALP leader Bill Shorten. Needless to say, an elected ALP Federal Government will barely change the dire situation for working people.
What McManus and other officials studiously avoid admitting is that the very rules that do need changing were almost entirely put in place by the ALP when it was last in government! The ‘rules’ largely referred to include the (grossly misnamed) Fair Work Act (FWA), the anti-construction Union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), and the secondary boycott bans in sections 45D and E of the Trade Practices Act. The Fair Work Act was put in place by the Rudd and Gillard ALP governments, which also retained the ABCC and failed to even attempt to get rid of the bans on secondary boycotts – solidarity actions across workplaces. Predictably, there has been no commitment from the ALP that ANY of these anti-worker laws will be repealed, or even amended. It barely needs repeating that the ALP, no less than the Liberal Party, governs for the capitalist class, despite the occasional but fraudulent “pro-worker” lip service. It is a dangerous dead-end to go through the pretence, yet again, that the ALP will do much else other than force workers to swallow more privatisation and public spending cuts. Governing for capital, the ALP makes no apology for whole industries closing, large corporations paying no tax, high unemployment, increasing homelessness and widening inequality.
Lack of Union organisation
Prime responsibility for this situation lies with politically conservative Union officials, who, with a few exceptions, have allowed Union organisation to sink to its lowest ebb. From Sally McManus down, these are the very same careerists who are now claiming that the rules are stacked against them! In a recent speech to the National Press Club, McManus rightly points out that wage theft is continuing across many industries, from celebrity chef restaurants, to 7-11 convenience stores, to Caltex, to Woolworths and more. She then states that wage theft has become a business model but the laws have been too weak to stop them. To put it bluntly, this puts the cart before the horse. Official industrial relations laws, like wages themselves, come about as a result of the balance of class forces. As long as conservative Union officials fail to organise and mobilise workers to defend their rights on the ground, a thousand laws can be written that benefit employers. Or, more than likely, the absence of Union led struggle emboldens employers – leading them to conclude that there is nothing that can stop them disregarding the remnants of the laws that are on the books. Wage theft – the underpayment of wages to the tune of thousands, or millions of dollars – is one direct result.
Well-heeled Union officials are now comparing the situation for casual labour in Australia to the United Kingdom (UK). In the UK, employees can apply for the benefits of permanent employment (sick leave, annual leave etc) after a period of only three months. Whereas in Australia, there is currently no limit to the amount of time workers can remain on casual or temporary arrangements. In some areas of the public sector, this time limit has been set at two years – but even this is difficult to enforce. Two million workers, or around 40% of the workforce, remain in casual or temporary work. This is a huge proportion. Casual and insecure work has a drastic effect on workers, who cannot begin to plan their lives. But much more than this is the effect it has in the workplace itself. Casual workers can barely question their employer on any issue, such as health and safety, pay and conditions, or anything much at all – as they can be replaced at a moment’s notice. From the employers’ point of view, casual work is the perfect anti-Union measure. This casualisation has been ongoing for more than two decades, yet many Union officials have turned a blind eye, leaving workers to suffer the consequences.
The right to withdraw your labour – without which little there is little differentiation from slavery – is all but illegal in Australia. Under current industrial law, striking is only permitted during an enterprise bargaining period, and even then it is subjected to severe conditions, such as the balloting of members and sufficient notice being given to the employer. And even then, a strike can be ruled illegal, and workers can be ordered back to work, if the action is deemed likely to cause “significant damage” to a part of the economy. In January this year, Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) members were ordered by the Orwellian named Fair Work Commission to abandon a 24 hour strike, as well as planned bans on overtime. This was after train drivers were regularly being forced to work 13 out of 14 days in a row, and being directly rostered to do overtime without their consent. The response of the RTBU officials was to accept the decision of the “independent umpire” !! That was a precise opportunity for the officials to defy the alleged “umpire”, go through with the strike, and call on other Unions and all workers for support.
The only response from the ACTU was that this was a demonstration that the rules are broken, and the rules have to be changed. Yet the only way the “rules” are going to be re-written is by Union led industrial action to challenge the legitimacy of the laws – the laws have to be openly defied, and the state must be challenged to see what they will do in response. “Bad laws have to be broken” – this was the message originally put forward by McManus – but it has scarcely been followed with any action. And only now, with a Federal Election in the offing, does a “Change the Rules” campaign – complete with fancy logo – appear. The blurb of the “Change the Rules” campaign gives the game away – it calls for a government to back working people, not big business. This is code for a return of the Labor Party to federal government.
Capital in Crisis
The ongoing wage theft, the theft of penalty rates, outlawing strike action, lowest wages in history: all of these are a result of the direct crisis that the private profit system is undergoing specifically in Australia, Europe, the United States and Japan. Stagnating economic growth and extremely low rate of return on investment means that investment simply doesn’t happen. The more difficult the conditions for private capital to operate, the more it demands the capitalist state funnel more public funds towards it. In Australia, Liberal and Labor governments oblige, in the form of relentless cuts to government spending, as well as the privatisation of healthcare, education, aged care, public transport, legal aid, the provision of welfare services and any other area where it can politically get away with it. The floundering profit system, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, is the real reason that the “rules” have been changed to give employers unparalleled advantage. Calling for a change of the rules without challenging the political rule of big capital dooms working people to continually beg for things they themselves could achieve.
The threat of war
It should be noted that the fragile and desperate crisis of the profitability of Western capital has its reflection in the reckless and criminally dangerous wars that Canberra flings itself into, which threaten the world with nuclear holocaust. Canberra, Washington, Paris and London recently brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with Russia over a blatantly staged and fake chemical weapons incident in Syria. This followed the blaming of Russia, without a shred of evidence, for the alleged poisoning of a retired double agent in London. The Liberal and Labor parties do not hesitate to ramp up deliberate provocations against the People’s Republic of China, with both gunning for extremely risky provocations with the Australian and US militaries in the South China Sea. After the US came close to a nuclear strike on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or “North Korea”) last year, the Australian government will now reportedly send military aircraft to “monitor” the DPRK’s adherence to punitive sanctions. Both Liberal and Labor parties have not hesitated to back the actions of NATO, constantly mobilising troops right throughout Eastern Europe. Whether it is Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran, China, Russia, the DPRK, the Ukraine or elsewhere, the Australian ruling class risks world war through its war alliance with Washington.
These are directly Union issues, but conservative Union officials have their careers guaranteed by the profit system – if they can contain and restrict the insurgent workers within certain boundaries. This means they are tied to the foreign policy of the “Australian” corporate magnates. Their silence on potential nuclear war is the flip side of their plaintive pleas to “change the rules” with regard to industrial law within Australian shores. Economic crisis in the West can ultimately only be solved by them through recourse to imperialist war, which is one reason Canberra pushes so hard for it. Workers must therefore oppose the entire political outlook of the Australian corporate elite, from working rights on the job, right through to its reckless threat to human civilisation through unthinkable war.
This pre-supposes a struggle for a pro-working class leadership of the Unions. The need is urgent for rank and file committees of workers within the Unions, which exclude the well-paid organisers and officials. Within these committees, leftists need to push an explicitly anti-capitalist line. Marxists need to push for socialist measures within these groups, directly bringing working class politics into the Unions on all issues facing working people – from the threat of catastrophic climate change to the need to oppose imperialism’s drive to World War III. This will entail a bitter but necessary struggle against the Laborite Union leaders, and a whole host of Union organisers and staff who shepherd their own careers. Working people are suffering, and we cannot wait until the day sell-out Union officials decide to seriously organise the working class. For this is a day that will never come.
A pro-worker and class struggle leadership of the Unions would strive to organise workers around demands for a six-hour day, or a 30 hour week. This would address the huge issue of high unemployment, as well as the threat to jobs through automation. Such a demand could seriously galvanise a Union movement in dire need of rejuvenation, after decades of decline. Legions of the unemployed could be mobilised to help the Unions achieve this, which could strongly increase the fighting spirit of working people, and giving impetus towards a drive for a living wage for all of those relying on welfare, such as students and pensioners. This could then spur demands for full public funding of healthcare, education and public transport and other services which have endured savage cuts.
The struggle for a pro-worker leadership of the Unions is necessarily bound up with the struggle to forge a Leninist vanguard party. There are a whole host of left parties who recognise the dire limitations of the conservative Union bureaucrats, and the obstacle of the Labor Party directly on many Union officials, but fear to break politically from them. Some grumble about the lack of action, while others excuse the right-wing politics which accompanies the huge salaries of some officials, which are sometimes double or triple the wages of the workers they are supposed to represent. Rather, what is required is a workers’ party which fights for a workers’ government. Only with workers in power will the numberless crimes of capitalism be able to be curtailed. Then the workers will not only ‘change the rules’, but write them.
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