How bad are things today when even the head of the Reserve Bank of Australia agrees workers are feeling too insecure to demand wage rises.
Speaking at the Australian National University on June 19, Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe said: “People value security and one way you can get a bit more security is to not demand a wage rise.” Although his argument was about the impact on economic growth, it highlights the level of insecurity felt by workers today.
When workers don’t demand a wage rise because they fear for their jobs, the bosses celebrate. It is exactly what they want. When workers are on their own, they are in a weak position: only when they are united can they put up a fight against the bosses.
Jim Stanford from the Australia Institute recently reported: “Total labour compensation (including wages, salaries, and super contributions) fell to just 46.2% of total national GDP in the March 2017 quarter. That falls below the previous record low, 46.4%, dating back to 1959.”
The report concluded that “policies to strengthen income redistribution would be required to stimulate wage growth and reverse the long-run decline in workers’ share of GDP — including stronger minimum wages, protecting penalty rates, and expanding collective bargaining.”
This situation is a result of “the erosion of wage-supporting institutions like minimum wages and collective bargaining”. In other words, the decline in the union movement over the past three decades has helped the shift from wages to profits.
The recent ABC documentary Future Tense attributed the situation to several key factors: the successive anti-union laws introduced by Labor and Liberal governments since the 1980s, which have never been repealed; the “free rider” situation where 60% of workers are covered by enterprise agreements but only 15% are union members; and the generational, demographic change where only 6% of those under 25 are in a union. Other reasons include technology, the gig economy and globalisation. It also noted a detrimental impact from unions being too tied up with the Labor Party.
A key reason for the union movement’s decline is the inability of unions to strike or take any industrial action outside bargaining periods, for fear of legal action and fines, along with the red tape around even considering such action.
However, there is hope. ACTU Secretary Sally McManus’ statement that “unjust laws must be broken”, in defence of the CFMEU taking unprotected industrial action, is a call to action for all workers.
The breaking of unjust laws has been a key element in the victories of the Australian union movement. In 1969, Clarrie O’Shea decided not to pay the fines imposed on the Tramways Union by the “penal powers” against striking. O’Shea was jailed, resulting in widespread outrage. Several unions called for a 24-hour state-wide strike, which cut electrical power and public transport in Victoria.
The ACTU eventually called on all unions to not pay fines for industrial action and the public donated money to pay for any fines imposed on unions. The key factor in this victory was the widespread support for the Tramways Union. It took a combination of union action along with strong support from the community.
The large number of workers at the recent national day of action for the CFMEU, many of whom defied their bosses to attend, along with the militant speeches by union leaders, provide hope. The question is whether union leaders have the courage to match their words with deeds and continue the fight with ongoing action.
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