The minimum wage is again up for review by the Fair Work Commission. With around 2.3 million workers relying on the minimum wage or Awards for their increases, employer organisations have pronounced doom and gloom if a decent wage rise follows.
According to them, a significant rise in wage levels would decimate jobs and sink economic growth across Australia. Their claims however are not backed up by real evidence. Over the past 20 years employers have had it all their way, with the minimum wage decreasing when compared to median and average wages. 20 years ago it was 63% of the median wage while now it is only 54%.
In addition to employer attempts to hold down minimum wage increases, workers in hospitality are now facing a pay cut with penalty rates set to be slashed for Sunday work. The still yet to be implemented decision, has been described as the greatest cut to wages in Australia since the great depression.
The cuts to penalty rates need to be opposed, and if we are going to start to close the gap between rich and poor the minimum wage needs to rise significantly. An increased minimum wage would help alleviate poverty and even act as a boon to the economy through increased spending.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is calling for a rise of $45 a week to the minimum wage. ACTU Secretary Sally McManus has said that a $45 a week rise could also lead to at least 30,000 jobs being created.
Socialists support the call for an increase to the minimum wage but would argue that $45 a week does not go far enough, especially when housing and energy costs are through the roof. Unless pressured, the Fair Work Commission, are unlikely to support even the modest increase of $45 a week, a little over a dollar an hour for full time workers.
Last year ACTU called for a $30 a week increase to the minimum wage, the Fair Work Commission only granted a tiny $15 a week increase.
While the ACTU’s claim for a $45 increase is modest, it has excited a number of workers as it is a much-improved position compared to recent years. The question however is how to turn this claim into a reality. While Sally McManus’ comments in the media are useful, the ACTU’s campaign at this stage is merely a written submission to Fair Work.
Any real campaign for a minimum wage increase needs to go well beyond written submissions and media commentary. Never do the courts of government bodies agree to anything that has not already been won in the real world.
The only way to win a $45 a week increase would be to mount a serious industrial campaign which included strikes and protests. Given the fact that poverty is widespread in Australia (2.5 million people live below the poverty line) such a campaign has the potential to win mass support. This is especially the case when many businesses are making record profits.
The model for winning significant minimum wage increases is Seattle in the US. There, workers forced authorities to adopt a minimum wage of $15 an hour, more than double the federal rate. Mass campaigning built support for $15 which was facilitated by neighbourhood committees that organised rallies and mass meetings.
In addition, fast food workers had protests and strikes demanding $15. Kshama Sawant, a socialist councillor in Seattle pointed out: “This was not won at the negotiating table, it’s not a result of the generosity of the Democratic Party – it is a reflection of what workers won on the streets.”
The way for workers to win a real victory on wages is not through pleading to Fair Work. Only a mass movement with ordinary people at the helm can force the employers to part with their wealth. It is an outrage that the richest nine people in Australia have as much wealth as the poorest 4.5 million.
If we are to begin to deal with wealth inequality in Australia the ACTU will need to change their approach. Instead of being content with crumbs we need a union movement that openly fights for a socialist society where the wealth is shared equally and the needs of working people are prioritised.
By Corey Snoek