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Issue #1532      25 January 2012

Make 2012 the year of struggle

The year 2012 is shaping up to be a big one for the working class in Australia. Employer organisations are preparing an all out offensive to slash wages and rid their workplaces of trade unions. There is the threat of new regional wars and possibly a world war as the Obama administration embarks on a dangerous escalation of military interventions in pursuit of global domination.

Photo: Anna Pha

The Durban climate change summit at the end of 2011 was sabotaged by US, Australian and other Western governments, all but killing off the Kyoto Protocol. There will be a battle around the proposed changes to the Australian Constitution and recognition of Indigenous Australians as the original owners of Australia and their rights. The government is still playing the race card in competition with Opposition leader Tony Abbott, showing no mercy in its inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.

The big car companies kicked it off with their annual ritual of demands for more handouts from the government or they’ll go offshore. The big banks and insurance companies wished their employees a Happy New Year with news of thousands more sackings.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) boss Leigh Johns plans to lift his offensive against workers and trade unions in the building industry. His first shot will be a whopping $600,000 damages claim against a building union. Instead of just fining trade unions and their members millions of dollars, Johns now has plans to also sue them for millions more with damage claims!

Stevedoring company POAGS also decided to give its workers at Fremantle and Bunbury a merry Christmas by locking them out for putting in place work bans due to safety concerns and as part of their 12-month campaign to get an Enterprise Agreement. POAGS is owned by Chris Corrigan’s Qube Logistics. It is the same Corrigan that set rottweilers and hooded goons onto wharfies in 1998 to remove them from their jobs and bring in Dubai-trained scabs with the assistance of the Howard government. DP World also locked out workers on the waterfront earlier this month.

Mining giant Rio Tinto is leading the charge for employers in the mining sector, fighting off union attempts to recruit members and negotiate enterprise agreements. Rio Tinto never lets up in its attempts to increase the rate of exploitation of its workforce. It made over $16 billion in post-tax profits in the financial year 2010-11 and is not short of cash for expansion. In the next five years it plans to boost production by 50 percent to 333 million tonnes a year in the western Pilbara region (WA), at a possible cost of more than $15 billion.

Community sector workers have a huge struggle ahead of them if the equal pay case is to actually deliver money in their pockets.

State public sector workers face massive cuts in jobs and funding for services across Australia. The year 2011 ended with some of the largest protest actions for many years by public sector unions and their members, including in NSW the Police Association.

Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and social security are all under attack. The government is still pursuing a budget surplus for 2012-13. Never mind that most of the economy is recessed and unemployment on the rise or that taxation revenue will be less than expected.

Austerity measures

In May last year, Treasurer Wayne Swan claimed the main theme of the 2011-12 Budget was: “to put opportunities that flow from a strong economy within reach of more Australians.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as The Guardian warned at the time in an article titled “Lies and deception” (Guardian, 18-05-2011).

“The ‘strong economy’ referred to is the mining sector. Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP) – an overall measure of the growth of the economy – might look good, but it hides the reality that most other key areas of the economy including manufacturing, tourism and retail are recessed. At a time when the rest of Australia requires an expansionary budget, the government responds with harsh austerity measures, not seen since the early years of the Howard government”, the article said.

The austerity measures referred to included cuts to health, social welfare, the public service and environmental programs. Not surprisingly a contractionary budget that found more money for the military, corporate tax cuts and corporate welfare, failed to create jobs or “put opportunities … within reach of the more Australians”.

The overall economy is not strong and millions of Australians are struggling to make ends meet as prices continue to rise. The phenomenal amounts being invested in the mining sector do not constitute a strong economy. They are not the pathway to an eternal paradise; the impression being given by the Australian government in its migrant recruitment blitz in Greece.

Manufacturing, retail, tourism and housing construction are flat or in decline. A credit squeeze by the banks is only compounding the situation, especially for homebuyers. At least the Reserve Bank of Australia came to its senses and did not increase interest rates at its last meeting. The small reduction of 0.25 percent was not enough; a further and more substantial reduction is required from its meeting in February.

Figures released last week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that unemployment has increased over the past 12 months and the actual number of people in work fell during 2011, despite a growth in the number of people of working age. The official unemployment rate rose from 5.1 to 5.4 percent. The ABS counts anyone who has had one hour or more paid work in the past week as employed!

The ABS’s latest estimate of under-employment, which includes people who are working part-time and are seeking longer hours of work, is 7.3 percent (November 2011). That puts the official figure of “labour force underutilisation” at around 12.6 percent – one in eight workers are under-employed or unemployed.

Labor treasurer Wayne Swan continues to pursue his neo-liberal, anti-people agenda and proving to the financial markets and the mining conglomerates that Labor can manage the capitalist system better than any Abbott government. Instead of turning policy around, halting the privatisations and corporate handouts and increasing funding for public services and social welfare, the next budget is set to be even more pro-big business and anti-people with cuts where it hurts people the most.

Swan boasted that it is “the first time in Australian history that we have received the gold-plated AAA rating from all three global rating agencies”. The financial institutions know whose side he is on!

The Fair Work Act is under review, with the government under substantial pressure from a highly organised employer lobby to further restrict trade union rights. Their agenda is union-free workplaces and individual contracts.

Fight back

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is waging a campaign for job security. The number of workers employed as casuals, in fixed or short-term contracts, labour hire, and contracting has almost doubled in the last two decades. Around 40 percent of the workforce now face all the difficulties of low or uncertain income, lack of access to bank loans and other social and economic problems associate with job insecurity.

The building and construction division of the CFMEU, despite over $6 million in fines over the past two years, has not given up its fight to unionise construction sites and defend the safety, jobs, wages and conditions of its members. The Maritime Union of Australia has not backed off on the waterfront. The public sector unions have taken the fight to defend jobs and services to the streets.

Individual trade unions are to varying degrees of success recruiting new members and fighting their battles as they arise. These struggles tend to be isolated, putting out small fires, and sometimes making some small gains where possible.

These and other struggles are indicative of a growing preparedness to fight back, but the trade union movement as a whole is still far from strong enough to meet the challenges ahead and cannot do so on its own.

One of the key challenges in 2012 is the building and strengthening of the labour movement, not just in numbers and organisation but also ideologically so that it can take on the broader economic, social, ideological and political struggles as well as provide solidarity in the smaller more localised battles.

There is also an urgent need to take up a broad and united struggle for jobs, for public services, for an expansionary budget that serves the people, to halt corporate tax cuts, to improve social security, increase the age pension.

It cannot be left to the nurses to fight for public hospitals, for teachers to defend public education, manufacturing unions for manufacturing sector jobs, building unions for trade union rights, pensioners for a pension increase, the unemployed for their rights, etc. As the trade union saying goes: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

The Your Rights @ Work campaign that brought together trade unions, left and progressive forces and members of the community provides an excellent model for building a broad united front in defence of workers’ rights, living standards, the public sector, small farmers and businesses. It saw the back of the Howard government, and such a movement could be used to build a pro-people, political alternative.

The present two-party system, in which government is alternately shared between the Liberal-National Party Coalition and the Australian Labor Party, is not serving the people.

The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) has set as one of its priorities for 2012 the important task of building the Party. The CPA believes there is a way to overcome Australia’s economic and social problems. To do this it is necessary to change the direction of politics in Australia and, eventually, to replace the capitalist system with a socialist one.

The Communist Party is a party of activists who work in trade unions, peace and environmental groups, solidarity organisations and a variety of other community movements as well as running campaigns in the name of the Communist Party.

The members of the CPA work to eliminate unemployment, poverty, injustice, homelessness, racism and war. These problems arise from the domination of our society by huge profit-hungry private corporations.

What better New Year’s resolution than to join us, or at least find out more about us, perhaps send a donation of support and take out a subscription to The Guardian.

Subscription details, contact details.  

Next article – Editorial – Words won’t replace need for struggle

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