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Issue #1860      March 13, 2019

Wage against corporate greed

As the Australian Council of Trade Unions launches its wages campaign in the lead up to the May federal election, the scare campaign around workers’ wages that is being run in the mass media on behalf of employers, flies in the face even of calls for the need for wages to increase by the likes of the Reserve Bank governor.

The inverted and illogical nature of the parasitic capitalist system has seen employers push to drive down living standards while wage growth has fallen to record lows, penalty rates have been slashed along with the constant opposition by employers to an increase to the basic wage, which sits at around $18 an hour.

In terms of plain common sense, political economy-101 tells us that the more disposable income the working people have – the great overwhelming majority – the more they will consume beyond paying for basic needs, consumption that lifts the economy.

The scare campaign is reflected in the headlines: “Industry alarm for Shorten’s living wage”, “Leaders warn over Labor’s wage plan”, “Labor, ACTU hose down wage fears”

In that context, it is positive that as the “recession” word looms over the economy like a threatening cloud, the umbrella union body, the ACTU, has re-stated its call for a living wage in Australia, noting that Australia was the first country in the world to win a living wage for working people – a recognition of the basic principle that nobody should work full-time and live in poverty. This is the basis of the fair go.

The current minimum wage of $37,398 per year is not a living wage. In its last determination the Fair Work Commission admitted that it leaves many people working full-time in poverty.

Australia needs a pay rise, states the ACTU, noting that the problem of low wage growth has been repeatedly called out by Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe. Last week’s national accounts figures, which show lower household spending, is simply further confirmation that a lack of pay rises is holding the economy back.

Wage increases for the lowest-paid workers stimulate demand and can get our economy moving again. When people on low incomes get pay rises they spend them in their local communities.

This means more money circulating for small and medium businesses as demand is stronger.

“We have been saying for a long time that our current minimum wage – just over $37,000 a year – is too low and needs to be raised to a living wage,” said ACTU secretary Sally McManus. “A living wage means that nobody should work full-time and live in poverty. If we do not introduce a living wage we will end up like America where teachers and even pilots have to work two jobs just to survive.”

Background to poverty wage

The Hawke Labor government, elected in 1983, commenced the process of dismantling the central award system, a process continued by the Howard government’s Workplace Relations Act which limited the scope of awards to 20 “allowable matters”.

“Simplified” (i.e. gutted) awards remain a policy objective of Australian governments to this day. The Hawke government introduced “enterprise agreements” which broke down the dominance of awards as the basic industrial instrument.

The flow-on effect of this movement away from all-encompassing industry agreements was the introduction of individual contracts, AWAs, and an attempt to enshrine this form of individual contract as the primary means of specifying wages and working conditions.

The Howard government’s reactionary WorkChoices legislation effectively did this and the Australian people through the union and community campaign for “Your Rights at Work” were successful in removing Howard from office, largely because of that unpopular industrial legislation.

The Accord

One of the main features of the Hawke and Keating government was the advocacy of collaboration between the government, trade unions and the employers. This process which took the form of a Prices and Incomes Accord (the Accord) relied upon removing basic and irreconcilable differences between capital and labour.

The process could not achieve this but succeeded in disarming the rank and file of the trade union movement who were withdrawn from struggle, particularly strike actions, while trade union leaderships assumed their place at the table negotiating on behalf of workers under the false illusion that there were common interests between labour and capital.

This destructive period of class collaboration resulted in huge decreases in trade union membership density and the loss of wages and working conditions in many areas. The trade union movement has not recovered from this period.

The Your Rights at Work campaign proved to be a positive influence on unions and saw a re-engagement of trade union members in the huge campaign to get rid of the Howard government. The workers who participated were interested in getting rid of WorkChoices; the removal of the Howard government was seen as the way to get rid of ant-worker laws. The Howard government was defeated but not all the laws associated with WorkChoices were removed.

From collective to individual

The Howard government took this process of promoting and imposing individual Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) to a new level by making this individual form of employment arrangement the very basis of their IR policy.

All governments since the Hawke class collaborationists have been part of the process of moving away from broader industry type arrangements for workers. The Howard government accelerated the process toward individualism first with the Workplace Relations Act and then with WorkChoices, which in both cases further increased penalties against trade union activity and introduced more difficult conditions for recruitment and contact with union membership.

Many forms of industrial action were for all intents and purposes banned. The Rudd Labor government which followed Howard, further dismantled awards by reducing them to 10 minimum standards and maintaining them purely as a safety net. The Gillard government continued with this policy through Fair Work Australia.

Successive governments have been implacably opposed to any form of industrial action by trade unions and supported and encouraged the use of the penalty provisions. The Rudd and Gillard governments continued this penalisation of industrial action through penalties for unprotected action and, in the construction industry maintained the Australia Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

The creation of specific forms of state organisation such as the ABCC was and is used to control and penalise unions and in- dividual workers. The formation of a state-sponsored group with police powers to monitor construction trade union activities and to spy on individual workers was implemented by Howard, remained essentially untouched by Rudd and Gillard.

Your Rights at Work

Industrial relations was the main issue at the federal election of 2007, moving many thousands of people to alter their vote and shift towards removing Howard, the Coalition and their WorkChoices laws. The Australian people expected to see the removal of WorkChoices with the removal of Howard and with the ascension of a Labor government. Many were bitterly disappointed.

The CPA calls for a concerted campaign from workplaces, trade unions and the community at large should to be built and expanded to ensure maximum pressure is put on any future Labor government following the election in May to implement IR laws in line with community expectations.

The campaign against WorkChoices demonstrated the power of a united community campaign. We need to learn from this campaign and apply it to the current circumstances to build union and working class power.

We hope you will join with us in this industrial relations debate and in the campaign to ensure Australian workers get the IR laws they deserve.

CPA campaigning demands

The CPA believes there is a need to continue to campaign around IR to eventually see industrial relations legislation enacted which provides working people with the best opportunity to take on the forces of corporate greed prevalent in society today.

Collective bargaining as an absolute right for all workers, to be negotiated between unions and employer organisations with rank and file involvement. Individual contracts to be abolished and replaced by collectively bargained agreements;

Collective agreements to cover all workers in an industry. NO restrictions on pattern bargaining;

The right to strike to be incorporated in law;

Trade Unions to have right of entry to workplaces to represent workers and to organise the workforce in appropriate forms;

Legislation banning secondary boycotts and strike action be repealed;

The abolition of ”Greenfield‟ agreements;

Legislation targeting a specific union - such as the Australian Building and Construction Improvement Act, the legal framework for the ABCC be repealed;

Labour shortages to be overcome by skills training of Australian workers as the priority. The importation of guest workers be arranged through international cooperation and international agreements between trade unions and by agreement between Australia trade unions, employer organisations, and the federal government. Guest workers to be guaranteed established Australian rates of pay and conditions;

An Industrial Relations Commission be retained with appointments to the Commission comprising an equal number of trade union and employer representatives;

The Commission to have powers of conciliation but not arbitration except by agreement. The reference of a dispute to the Commission to be a last resort;

The Conciliation Commission not to have power to make orders or impose penalties.

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