Unless the trade union movement changes tack, workers are staring down the barrel at continued wage stagnation, a further erosion of conditions, and more job insecurity.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions’ (ACTU) ‘Change the Rules’ campaign failed to have an impact on the recent federal election. There is now an urgent need for the unions to reassess their approach.
The biggest problem with the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign was that its aim was to get Labor elected, but Labor had not even committed to the unions’ modest demands! Workers were also keenly aware that the very rules we were trying to change were introduced by Labor themselves.
The ACTU focussed their energy on 16 marginal seats, but despite spending millions of dollars, the Labor vote actually declined in a majority of these seats. Because of Labor’s weak program there was very little enthusiasm for them, even amongst union members.
Three big ‘Change the Rules’ rallies were held in Melbourne over the course of the past year but they got smaller, and more sombre, as the election approached. Instead of this sounding alarm bells for the union leaders they doubled down and became even less critical of Labor.
If the union leaders are serious about turning things around, they need to draw the lessons from this disastrous result. A focus on the electoral arena, without building a proper campaign in the workplaces, is inadequate.
But also, workers want and need more than just a few tweaks to the rules. They need the ability to organise unhindered, but at no point did the ACTU make overturning the anti-strike laws in the Fair Work Act into a prominent issue.
To do so would have meant exposing Labor’s inadequacies, as the Fair Work Act is Labor policy. Exposing these inadequacies is necessary, but the union leaders instead put the needs of Labor ahead of the needs of union members.
Labor did promise to reverse penalty rate cuts in the hospitality sector, but this would have only returned those workers to the status quo. A bigger problem in that sector is the fact that most bosses don’t even bother paying Award rates of pay.
How can you expect someone to get excited about changing the rules when the current ones aren’t even enforced?
Labor were also mealy-mouthed about the minimum wage. They only committed to slightly modifying the criteria Fair Work looks at when determining the base rate.
In the last days of the campaign, Shorten made a big deal about making a submission to Fair Work about the minimum wage, but again it would have been non-binding. The unions should have demanded that Labor legislate for a real living wage, rather than allowing the pro-boss Fair Work Commission to decide how poor workers should be.
The union leaders need to be honest about Labor’s weaknesses and drop their electoral focus. Instead we need to focus on building a proper industrial campaign designed to protect workers from the Morrison government and its big business agenda.
Delegates meetings must be now called to determine the way forward. These meetings should draw up a concrete list of demands that we commit to fight for. For example, a $25 per hour minimum wage, laws that allow casual workers to go permanent after 3 months, the unfettered right to strike and the right to pattern bargain, so that we can lift less organised workers up.
These demands should be levelled at all the major parties and a plan of action should be put in place so that we can pressure the government and the bosses. The starting point should be a national strike day where we send a message to the government that we are not prepared to accept any more steps back.
This is important because in the coming months we are likely to see more difficult economic times. When a recession hits, the bosses will try to make workers pay. The union movement needs to unite around the idea that we will not accept this.
For far too long the bosses have been winning the struggle over the wealth that’s created. We need to turn that situation around. That is best done by fighting on our terms, not in the parliaments but where we have power, in the workplaces and on the streets.
Only fighting trade unions will have the potential to push back Morrison and his big business agenda. We need to work hard to rebuild our trade unions so that they are up to the task.
By Kat Galea