Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Labor is killing the union movement

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A recent report commissioned by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) highlights the depth and breadth of the attacks being levelled against the Australian working class.

Written by The Australia Institute, the report – titled The Consequences of Wage Suppression for Australia’s Superannuation System – estimates that 25% of the workforce has experienced some form of wage suppression.

Data taken from the Federal Department of Employment shows a rapid decline in Enterprise Bar-gaining Agreement (EBA) coverage. Some 479,000 people have been pushed off EBAs since 2013, the majority of these workers going back onto minimum awards.

The current disputes at UGL, Crown Casino, and at Streets ice cream are merely the tip of the ice-berg with millions of workers having already been stripped of their wages and conditions. In addition, wage theft is rife with 7-Eleven and Domino’s pizza being just two high profile examples.

While The Australia Institute report focuses on the loss of superannuation payments, figures produced by the superannuation industry show that 30% of Australian workers are either underpaid or not being paid at all. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ most recent report shows an overall fall in wages of 0.5% in the December 2016 quarter, while profits surged by 20.1%.

Australia has suffered rapid deunionisation. As recently as the 1980s roughly half the male workforce was unionised. Today that figure has dropped to 14%. This figure itself is skewed by 39% of public sector workers being in trade unions. In the private sector, it is only 11%.

This picture highlights the monumental failure of the Labor Party, for its politics dominate the movement with the bulk of trade union leaders today being operatives of Labor. This march towards poverty was far from inevitable. Rather it has been a result of the rotten politics of the pro-Labor union leaders.

For example, here is the response from the TWU’s Tony Sheldon to this devastating report: “if a company has high labour standards and appropriate governance you have a more profitable company.” Like the bulk of the pro-Labor union leaders Sheldon rejects the idea of a struggle over the wealth created and instead pretends that workers and bosses have shared interests. This outlook is steering the movement towards destruction.

As we approach another election we are being told by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) that the laws are broken and need to be fixed. They claim that a Labor government will introduce new worker-friendly laws. But the laws that have facilitated wealth inequality and the diminishing of union influence were put in place by former Labor governments!

Labor has already begun to initiate the very same process that gave us the Fair Work Act. They are going cap in hand to various bosses organisations to see what they are willing to tolerate. This is in stark contrast to the approach of the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn’s election manifesto clearly promised the reinstitution of trade union rights to the horror of the capitalist class. He did not run to the employer organisations begging for scraps but had the courage to articulate policies that would serve the vast majority.

At present, all we have heard from the ACTU is talk and support for strategies that have already failed. They haven’t even clearly articulated the laws they would like to see implemented, let alone tried to force Labor to pledge support for their demands.

The union movement is in deep crisis. The only way to turn things around is to wage a real industrial campaign with strikes and mass rallies in every town and city. Unless we replicate the sorts of mobilisations that the union movement waged against the Howard government in 2005-07 we are not even in the game.

Only by workers demonstrating their real power will we be able to reshape the industrial relations environment. We need to say “no more blank cheques to Labor”. If Labor are not prepared to replicate Corbyn’s pro-worker program then they should be ditched. We cannot afford to endure more years under these conditions.

The trade union movement needs its own political voice. This is why socialists call for a new workers party and campaign for new fighting leaderships of the trade unions. We also fight for the introduction of genuine democracy in all unions so that rank and file members can once again be part of determining union policy.

By SA Millar


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