The Abbott government has ordered a far reaching Productivity Commission inquiry into the nation’s workplace relations system. The inquiry is specifically looking at the possibility of lowering or abolishing the minimum wage, scrapping penalty rates and changes to unfair dismissal and strike laws.
This inquiry is being driven by the government’s big business backers who are seeking to increase their profits at the expense of workers. From the employers’ point of view this is becoming all the more urgent as the economic situation worsens.
At the moment tens of thousands of workers are already forced to work for less than the minimum wage, getting paid ‘cash in hand’ with no penalty rates for working anti-social hours. The blight of casualisation means that the working poor also mostly live without any security in their lives.
As the Australian economy slows, and company profits are squeezed, employers are seeking to replicate these conditions much more widely. They want to create a situation whereby the burden of the economic crisis is shouldered by workers and not by them.
It is in their profit interests to create a much more compliant, low waged workforce. This is why side by side with pushing for industrial relations reforms they are also supporting moves by the government to push people off welfare. This helps create conditions where people have no choice other than to work for low pay with very few rights.
With the Abbott government in crisis it is highly unlikely that they will attempt to push any major industrial relations changes through the parliament in this term. The main threat is posed at a workplace level. With this in mind it is absolutely correct for the union movement to resist moves by the employers to drive down wages and conditions. The question, though, is how best to do this?
At the moment the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is seeking to replicate the campaign it ran in 2007 against the Liberal’s hated Work Choices legislation. Amongst other things those laws wound back the right to strike and introduced divisive individual contracts.
While a series of protests and one-day stop work actions took place the main goal of the ACTU was to replace the Liberals with a Labor government. Labor, they claimed, would ‘rip up’ Work Choices. Unfortunately far from ripping up anything Labor retained all of the key components of Work Choices under the rebranded Fair Work regime.
The Fair Work Act retains many harsh restrictions on the right to strike, restrictions on union right of entry to workplaces, no unfair dismissal protection for many workers, and even a form of individual contract. The conditions created by the Fair Work Act have ensured that real wages have continued to go backwards, casualisation has increased and union membership has declined.
The last Labor government unashamedly carried out policies in the interests of big business and was seen as anything but pro-worker. As a result it was unceremoniously thrown out of office. Yet this is the party that the ACTU wants to see reinstalled!
Far from sowing illusions in Labor the union movement should be exposing it as a party eager to carry out the interests of the bosses. Instead of relying on the laws introduced in parliament workers need to build a fighting trade union movement in the workplaces. Industrial rights are best won on the industrial front, where the collective power of workers is strongest.
In contrast to this type of approach the current leaders of the ACTU have overseen some of the lowest strike figures on record while a huge shift in wealth from wages to profits has taken place. Both their industrial and political approach needs to be challenged. No long-term gains can be made by rallying behind Labor in the next election.
Side by side with rebuilding the union movement along fighting lines workers need to create a new political vehicle that represents their interests. Far from coming in behind Labor, these are the real challenges that need to be addressed as employers push for our wages and working conditions to be reduced.
By Anthony Main