Unions must campaign for workers’ interests

June 16, 2020
With permission of Alan Moir, moir.com.au

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has invited unions and employers to work together with his government to reform the industrial relations system. Morrison wants everyone “to put down their weapons”, claiming this is the way jobs will be created. However, he has refused to say that no worker will be worse off. 

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus has essentially agreed, writing in The Guardian on May 28 that this is the general approach of unions. “Every day unions negotiate improvements with employers – it’s what we do. The announcement by government this week brings this to a national level, without prejudice, and is a genuine attempt to find common ground. Now we will discuss these ideas with business and government.”

But talk of “common ground” between employers and workers is a fairy tale: that much should be obvious to a unionist as experienced as McManus. She may have been young during the Accord years, but not living through that disaster is no excuse. The end result of that tripartite experience was a weakened union movement, making it easier to hobble resistance to the Labor government introducing its neoliberal deregulation and privatisation agenda. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the priorities of the bosses and their political representatives have been obvious: to protect their own narrow financial interests, as much as possible, while talking about the “Australian economy” as if they were also trying to protect workers.

Essential profits

As mining and construction were deemed essential, millionaire mining magnates were assured of increasing profits during the pandemic shutdown. Green Left reported in late May that overall, the value of Australian exports of metal ores rose by 32%, or more than $3.5 billion in March alone according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Despite the Black Summer fires, the value of coal, coke and briquettes exported from Australia in March increased by $274 million to more than $4.8 billion and export volumes of liquefied natural gas are expected to increase significantly.

By contrast, many casual and temporary workers, government employees and international students, who were ineligible for the JobKeeper subsidy, were expected to survive no income at all. 

Now, as quickly as the well-paid Coalition MPs can arrange it, the mutual obligation requirements are being reinstated to vulnerable groups, such as single parents. The rules include reporting income every two weeks, attending appointments with a provider and undertaking some sort of training or employment. For single parents, for whom childcare is expensive and difficult to access, such requirements are extremely stressful. 

The same Coalition MPs have determined that JobKeeper will be withdrawn for early childcare workers, a move that will have a greater impact on low-paid workers and women who are still overwhelmingly employed in the lower-paid “caring” professions. 

Even before COVID-19, the under-resourcing scandals plaguing the aged care and disability sectors had been brought to light. Apart from the elderly and those with a disability suffering as a result of neoliberal policies, workers in these sectors are underpaid and have to endure poor working conditions.

Wealth gap grows

According to new research, poverty is also growing. In their Poverty in Australia 2020 Report, the Australian Council of  Social Services and UNSW say that in 2017–18 one in six children were living in poverty, defined as income for a single adult of $457 a week or $960 for a couple with two children. Nearly 14% of the population, or more than one in eight, live below the poverty line, after taking their housing costs into account 

“Poverty in Australia is just above the OECD average level, placing us among a group of wealthy nations with above–average poverty”, the report noted. It also said: “The clearest trend to emerge from the data was a rise in poverty during the boom years (between 2003-08), after which it plateaued.”

The drivers for this trend include: rising housing costs and changes in household incomes (hours of paid work, wage rates, social security and tax changes). The freezing of Newstart for the past 25 years, together with the recent transfer of many sole parents to Newstart, increased poverty and the “depth of poverty”.

Meanwhile, the wealth gap continues to grow. Oxfam figures show that Australia’s rich keep getting richer. The top 1% has more than double the wealth of the entire bottom 50% — or more than 12.5 million people. The wealth of Australian billionaires, mostly men, grew by an average of US$460 million from 2018 to 2019. Just 250,000 people own nearly US$1.6 trillion or about 22% of the nation’s wealth, Oxfam found in January. Meanwhile, the wealth of the bottom 50% continues to decrease over the last decade as wages continue to stagnate.

Considering this, how is it that trade union officials believe workers share common ground with bosses? Past experience has demonstrated how treacherous such an objective can be. 

The Accord

During the Prices and Incomes Accord between the Bob Hawke–Paul Keating government and the ACTU, workers’ wages were significantly reduced, while productivity increased: it was a win for corporate Australia and a blow to workers. The Accord led to the union leaderships deliberately making their demands modest. This happened for years.

In 1993, the Keating Labor government, with the support of several key unions, reformed the industrial relations system. Enterprise bargaining superseded the award system and prevented the gains made by strong unions from flowing to workers in less powerful unions. 

Some former ACTU leaders now acknowledge that workers today are paying the price for decisions made when the Accord helped end the system of centralised wage fixing in exchange for the promises of improvements in the “social wage” — a reformed Medicare, superannuation and a family allowance supplement for poor families.

The Accord did not deliver a win-win outcome. Rather, it delivered a severe setback to the labour movement — one that it has not recovered from.

Not all conservatives are backing the new push for class collaboration push between unions and employers, however.  The Australian’s Peter van Onselen wrote on May 29 that a pact between the trade unions and the Coalition government was doomed to fail “because the two parties come to the negotiating table with profoundly different world views on how the industrial relations landscape should be configured”.

Trade union leaders should be making the case against class collaboration. When more than 2 million people are out of work and many have no sick leave, no annual leave and no job security, workers need leaders to put our interests above some fairy tale plan that class collaboration will deliver more security.

The lessons of history say otherwise.

Workers need union leaders who can lead a mass campaign for higher wages, better and safer working conditions, secure employment and for a living wage for all. McManus’ promise that “the voice of working people [will] continue to be at the table” is not enough, given that union gains have always come from a fight because our class interests are profoundly different from those of the bosses.

[Mary Merkenich is a teacher unionist and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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