True to form, the bosses’ wages court delivered a miserly 3% increase to the minimum wage from July 1. This increase of 56 cents takes the hourly rate to a gut-wrenching poverty wage of $19.49 per hour, or $740.80 per week for those with enough hours.
The Fair Work Commission justified this, a lower increase than last year, on the basis that economic conditions didn’t justify any further improvement to wage levels. At the same time, the Commission acknowledged that some workers will continue to experience “significant disadvantage”.
What a kick in the guts for the millions of Australian workers that rely on minimum wage decisions for pay rises. The reality is that workers have suffered from stagnant wage growth while corporate profits have reached all-time highs.
Despite all this, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) called the decision a ‘win’! ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien said: “This is a welcome pay rise for millions of low paid workers, especially in the face of further penalty rate cuts in a few weeks”.
The truth is, this tiny increase will be quickly eaten up by rising living costs. Rent in particular – which is not capped or controlled – is a huge burden on many low-income earners.
The stark reality of the gap between the haves and the have-nots has been laid bare in a recent Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development study which revealed that in Australian cities the average income in the highest paid neighbourhood was five times the lowest paid.
The study revealed only three other countries with such a high ratio: Mexico, Japan and France. What an indictment of the ACTU’s leadership and its inability to achieve decent pay increases amidst almost 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth.
Instead of touting this as a ‘win’, the ACTU should be outraged and instead outline plans for an industrial campaign that would fight for a real living wage.
The only way for workers to improve their lot is to take on the greedy bosses and their huge profits. This means the ACTU must move away from mere submissions and organise workers to strike in pursuit of a bigger share of the wealth. Strikes coupled with mass protests are the way to win.
Of course, this would require that the unions break from their current approach which is to reduce unionism to voting for the mis-named Labor Party. The union movements current strategy is like the students (ACTU) asking the teacher (government) if they can run amuck. Even when in power Labor have never delivered better wages and conditions without a struggle.
The tame cat approach of the ACTU has resulted in workers’ wages and conditions going backwards. But the other downside has been that workers have been mis-trained, and a layer of organisers and delegates have forgotten how to fight.
It is the job of unions to organise workers on the job, not to waste valuable resources on getting Labor Party flunkies elected to parliament. These people only do the bidding of the bosses.
It is urgent that organised labour charts a new course. This is even more essential now given that the economy is slipping into recession. An economic downturn will lead to the bosses wanting to make cuts to jobs and hours in order to preserve their profits and wealth.
Preparing for this means returning to the ideas and methods of class struggle – of actually engaging in a fight over the wealth that we produce.
The first step should be the calling of delegates meetings to agree on a broad set of demands including for a real living wage, an end to casualisation and for the right to strike and pattern bargain.
To win these basics we will need to build an active campaign that puts pressure on all the political parties, as well as the bosses themselves.
If the ACTU won’t organise such a campaign the more left wing unions should take the lead. A real fight to improve our living conditions would enthuse millions of workers and put the unions back on the front foot.
By Michael Naismith