Inequality and wages repression in Australia: workers’ experience is confirmed

Part 1

The latest Journal of Australian Political Economy (number 81) was published last week (click here) and reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday (click here).

This new issue provides an Australian explanation of the connections between wages repression and inequality, led by material from a symposium on this topic organised by Jim Stanford, from the Centre for Future Work, and are about “causes and consequences of the decline in labour’s share”.

Union and broader anti-poverty and social movement activists should be reading and discussing this material. It brings together a lot of stuff that has been treated to some extent, but superficially, in the daily media (mainstream and social), and also some that can be found in the ACTU and other progressive submissions to the National Wage Reviews.

The Introduction and Overview is a joint effort from Australia’s great political economist and activist, Frank Stilwell, and Frances Flanagan of United Voice (the union). They introduce and summarise all of the articles that follow.

The summary suggests that the articles reinforce widespread experience and shared data about the decline in labour share and its relationship to rising inequality, and provide new info and insights. I was not entirely convinced that we would get much insight on the “cause” of reduced labour share and rising inequality. There is no mention of exploitation in relationship to “labour’s share”, and precious little on profit.

The focus in this issue of the Journal of Australian Political Economy is on “Labour’s declining income share and economic inequality in Australia”.

Jim Stanford’s is the first and flagship article. He explains what “labour share” is, how it is measured, and what’s been happening to it. Except for a couple of important points (see more below), the exploration of “labour share” is quite meticulous and certainly enriches the capacity of labour movement activists to win debates about rising inequality.

“Labour’s share” of new wealth produced (GDP) and total national income (similar but not quite the same) is measured in Australia using data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. All of this data is publicly available and free of charge at the ABS website. In this total data the other shares go to corporations, small employers and the self employed, property owners, and government.

First, Jim establishes that, without doubt the labour compensation” (that is wages plus superannuation and workers compensation paid) share has steadily declined from the mid 1970’s highpoint onwards. And, further, that this translates as a consequence into downward pressure on personal income.

There are up and down blips along the way but the decline is steady, and is supervised by both LNP (right wing, pro-employer) and Labor governments. The Hawke Labor government (starting 1983) is marked by steep decline in the “labour share”. There are 2 good graphs that show this. There is a sharp fall again after the 2008 economic crisis – inherited at the time by the new Rudd Labor government – that then rises from a low level before falling to its current extremely low level since the current LNP governments.

Second, since the mid 1980’s there is a steep fall in the cost of labour to employers, again with a couple of blips along the way.

Third, and this is a big one: real productivity increases steadily and is much higher than both of the 2 measures of “labour compensation” that Jim uses.

Fourth, continuing his demolition job on those (especially employers and their cheerleaders) who wish to deny the reality of the decline in labour share, Jim presents and explains the data about inflation and prices increases, again using 2 measures. Again there are blips, price rises and falls are more volatile, and he integrates these into the story of what is happening to the “labour share”.

Fifth, we have his neat summary: since the mid 70’s there has been an 8% fall in the “labour share” and a 7% increase in the share going to corporations. The shift away from “labour’s share” works out at about $150 billion per year. The share going to small business and self employed falls by 4%.

Finally, Jim compares what’s been happening in Australia with 25 other developed countries. He shows that what is happening in Australia is widespread but not universal. In one third of those 25 countries the “labour share” has been stable or increasing.

Thus, in reference to the “cause” of the problem Jim puts primary emphasis on institutional and policy pressures against workers and their wages. There is nothing about the intrinsic dynamic of capitalism.

Jim concludes that “economic growth alone will (not) ‘lift all boats’ and (will not) automatically ‘trickle down’ into material improvements for working Australians.”

From Jim’s material you can pin this down further: “Trickle down” under Wayne Swan (the Labor government’s Treasurer 2007-2013) and other Labor leaders has been almost as much a mantra, and a failure, as it was under the LNP’s Costello, Howard, Hockey and Morrison.

Labor, as a potential new government in 2019, will have to do much better and different than the ones that have preceded it. There is no sign that Labor’s leaders are up for that.

Part 2

What makes all of this useful? After all, as one Facebook friend said to me, correctly in my view, workers like him don’t need academic research to tell them that their standard of living is under pressure and falling; that their jobs are not, when it comes to wages etc, jobs they can rely on.

There is much truth in this, even more so when workmates are agreeing with each other and then thousands and tens of thousands attest to the same experience.

However, there are lots of workers who are not convinced and / or do not yet care, superficially at least. It is a part of winning the struggle to improve living standards to have the more detailed information and explanation that is available to to confirm and reinforce and, perhaps add to, what the majority know from experience.

This material helps to win workplace level debates (not just public media) that convince more workers to join in the struggle and to join in more vigorously. Further, it can provide insight for the union movement to develop a much better strategy than it has been using in the last 20 years.

Clearly, an industrial strategy (core business for unions) that accepts the broken rules (union practice since 2008) is not working; enterprise bargaining has been destructive for everyone, even for those who have had some wins under it, and the decline in labour’s share coincides also with a decline in union density and the decline in strike based struggles.

Now, some remarks about what I think is inadequate in Jim’s article.

The concept of “labour share” is actually a superficial way of describing what the “labour share” is all about. The labour share is a measure of exploitation. Exploitation is the core rationale for worker combination and unionism. It works like this. The “labour share” is a proportion of the total wealth produced (however it is measured and who by). But the total wealth produced is entirely dependent on the labour carried out by the workers who receive the “labour share”. The workers only get a part of the total they have produced. The “profit share” itself does not produce new wealth. The total surplus after the “labour share” is extracted, “stolen” sort of, appropriated, “taken” by those who have not produced any of it, from those who have.

Labour compensation therefore exists in relationship to profits. What’s happening to the “labour share” cant be fully understood without fully understanding what’s happening to “the profit share”. The continued downward pressure on wages does have a perverse logic in relationship to profits. There must be something going wrong with profits to require downward pressure on wages. Therefore, what is going wrong?

Jim treats this relationship quite shabbily and, therefore, amid all of the good stuff, he does not arrive at any satisfactory explanation about why both sides of government must help employers push the “labour share” downwards. He cannot describe the “causes” of the problem and that leaves him short on what the strategy could be to deal with it.

Let’s check this point in another way. At the start of his article Jim refers to a speech made by Philip Lowe, the Governor of Australia’s Reserve Bank, back in 2017. In that speech Lowe expressed concern about a low pay crisis. He repeated that in June 2018 in a speech to about 1000 manufacturing employers organised by the Australian Industry Group.

We can say this for sure: if you asked those 1000 odd employers what their prime obsession is, the answer would be profits. In their heads, listening to the Governor, they would be thinking through this question: “What does his message about wages mean for my profits, especially my profits relative to the capital I already own?”

This is the real world that workers must confront.

What is lost on the Reserve Bank Governor (at least in public), but not to employers, is that wages can only be understood properly in relationship to profits and the fixed capital that the labour (paid for with wages) brings to life to create new wealth, including those profits. (Among other things you might have noticed that he suggests workers ask for more, I guess just like Oliver Twist, and that employers should give them something. He does not call for industrial struggle.)

Its a worry for our movement when Jim and so many other labour (and environmental) economists make the same mistake. I look forward to reading the other articles to see if this mistake is remedied.

If we know what is happening to profitability we get a clearer sense of why there is a long term downward drive on wages. We are then truly analysing the problem and opening up the prospects of a strategy to deal with it.

Change the Rules and the Right to Strike at the ACTU Congress

soundcloud.com/radio-skid-row/don-sutherland-discusses-actu-congress-2018-6-july-2018

Last Friday Caroline Pryor and I, on “Workers Radio”, discussed the forthcoming ACTU Congress. We focussed on the “Change the Rules” Campaign and, in particular, the “right to strike”. In doing so we reviewed the success of a recent enterprise bargaining strike by Downers workers in the Hunter Valley that quadrupled union membership.

From the superficial to the real “real world”: underemployment, wages and the future for the majority

Don Sutherland, June 2018

I like The Guardian Australia’s Greg Jericho’s work and, as some of you may know, I share it around quite often. This piece maintains his high standards with clear information that we can all work with in various ways, including of course in the activities of the Change the Rules Campaign.

It includes this:

“It is not migration numbers per se that is the issue, but that temporary workers brought in are being done so by companies seeking to ensure lower levels of unionised labour and higher levels of non-permanent staffing, which combined reduces the capacity for workers to argue for higher wages.

In effect the system is changing to keep underemployment high in order to ensure that wages growth remains low.

And that is just how businesses like it.”

Nevertheless, there is still something missing in Greg’s approach. And this often crops up when you think about it. (It’s true also of the approach taken by the work of the Australia Institute and its Centre for Future Work, darlings of many in the labour movement, Per Capita, and the Evatt Foundation.)

In this case the pretty obvious missing bit is the simple question: “Why is it that ‘businesses like it’ like that?” That is, why do they like a high and not declining underemployment rate, associated migration numbers and low levels of unionised labour. We can add why do they like deliberately created labour laws that prevent workers from effective combination, effective unionism and effective bargaining for a better deal.

The answer to this question is for some reason tricky territory.

It is all about profits and profitability. Profits and profitability are clearly not where the employers want them to be. Getting them to a better level, especially profitability, requires extra exploitation of the workforce and this is made more possible by unemployment and underemployment being a “discipline” on workers alongside of the penal powers aligned against them in the Fair Work Act 2009.

So, there is a “logic”, although perverse, to the current situation.

Challenging that logic means you are challenging the logic of the society, the system that we live in, not just work in. Ignoring that logic means that the real-world working of the system of exploitation continues. It’s more important to prevent discrimination but not exploitation, rather to tolerate it.

Greg Jericho is not the only one to fall short in analysis. Along side of him last week the Reserve Bank Governor gave a speech to a mob of manufacturing employers (brought together by their ‘union’, the Australian Industry Group). He covered similar territory to this and other articles by Greg Jericho and, he also did not discuss profits, at least in his published speech and in newspaper reports. (There was a single and anodyne reference to “wages and incomes”.)

Of course, its quite possible that there was some discussion about profits that is not revealed in the media reporting or in the Governor’s published speech, but we don’t know about that.

If the Governor did not discuss the problem of profits informally then he would have been the only person in the room not thinking about them. Put 100 or 1000 employers in a room and the ones NOT thinking about profits will be the ones going down the toilet pretty soon.

The Governor did discuss new investment and noted the recent lift in investment. However, he was at pains to point out that much of it was not in equipment but in software and the like and he is aware of the limitations of that type. He urged more investment in new technologies by more firms. Some, he said were doing it quite well, but too many were not. All is couched in terms of productivity but of course the real benchmark is profitability. Productivity is not fundamentally about anything but profitability … in the current system. If there are any temporary positive side effects for a part of the workforce they also have their value.

Sounds like good advice from the Governor, yes?

But for most workers, it’s a problem that works like this: new technologies are a capital investment that for a time will reduce profitability … unless the rate of exploitation of the workforce is maintained and even increased. And that’s where the FWA09, especially it’s dispute settlement and bargaining laws at both the enterprise and award levels, works so well for the employers and the champions of the system like the Governor of the Reserve Bank.

It’s also about competition: getting the competitive advantage that beats your competitor and may even lead to a successful takeover of her. What that might mean for the workers employed by winners and the losers is irrelevant or at best of collateral concern.

That’s why the Governor’s whinge about wages suppression is crocodile tears – appearance and system management a la the World Bank – and that’s why he does not endorse the Change the Rules campaign.

It’s also why the parliamentary Labor Party and some of the laborist controlled unions want to restrict the scope and effectiveness, and the full potential of the Change the Rules campaign. Especially when it comes to the right to strike and the right to bargain collectively for improvements to industrial awards.

Some thoughts on “the right to strike” and the Change the Rules Campaign – Part 2

The “right to strike” versus employer opposition and Laborist naivete

The “right to strike” is one of two (see below) demands that would change the “balance of power” towards working people in a “fair dinkum” way.

The FWA09 restricts workers’ right to strike so severely it is almost meaningless against an array of powers provided to employers to control grievances, disputes of all kinds, industrial award changes, and enterprise bargaining. In effect, the FWA09 denies the “right to strike”.

The right to strike is the countervailing power to the employers’ unrestricted right to withdraw their capital or to transform its use from productive activity to non-productive forms of profiteering, or to re-locate it in another country.

In struggling for a genuine “right to strike” the labour movement is seeking to change a law that a Labor government established in 2009, and that its union leaders consented to. At that time, most activists in that great struggle went to sleep, believing that what Labor was delivering was adequate. Those who did try to explain the serious shortfalls of FWA09 were criticised (not “team players”) and marginalized. That minority have now been proven to be correct.

There is a lot of other detail, also quite important, that will be contested terrain in the months ahead but also perhaps more amenable to agreement. For example, in enterprise bargaining FWA09 empowers employers to use just a few workers (who may not even work under the proposed agreement) to create an enterprise agreement that will cover many other workers who do work under the Agreement. Such enterprise agreements reduce wages, conditions and rights against previously established standards. Also, agreement might be reached to restrict or prevent employers from taking on workers as “self-employed”, individualized workers to drive down wages and conditions.

Laborist discomfort with the “right to strike”: tensions to emerge

Again today, not everyone is comfortable about changing the rules to enable an unrestricted “right to strike”. Some, especially in the parliamentary wing of the ALP  will argue that this change will harm the ALP’s election prospects. They also have some supporters in the leadership of the union movement, at both peak and mid-levels.

Generally speaking, they are comfortable with a minimalist programme of change to the FWA09, one that does not upset the employers or the voting public too much. They believe that the antagonisms between workers and their unions on the one hand, and employers on the other, are not fundamental or severe and can be managed with minimal conflict.

Instead, the minimalists prioritize more power to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to arbitrate disputes, some modest rights for unions to access workplaces and create disputes for arbitration, and tougher limits on employers using their “lock out” and “termination of agreement” powers in enterprise bargaining.

It should be noted and discussed that the recent and important ACTU pamphlet, “The system is broken- Big Business has too much power”, does not mention the “right to strike” issue in “changing the rules”.[1] Restoring stronger arbitration power to the Fair Work Commission does not give more power to workers.

Usually, the advocates of minimalist and technocratic change, will invoke “pragmatism” as the logic for this approach.

But really, their “pragmatism” is the height of “naïve idealism” because it leaves fundamental employer power intact and assumes that employers will not take advantage of that, and that workers’ power is not necessary for the FWC to treat workers fairly. The minimalist approach assumes that workers themselves cannot exercise their power democratically and effectively, and therefore cannot give their unions more power.

In the real world, a more fundamental reform programme is necessary. Fundamental reform enables a more decisive shift in the balance of power towards workers and their unions at both workplace and industry levels.

The unfettered right to strike is the most important element of reform, including in Award based bargaining (see below).

Direct strike power to workers enables workers, including through their unions, to do what unions were originally formed to do: limit and prevent the employers’ use of the competition threat to freeze and drive down wages, conditions and rights. It gives effect to the democratic idea that workers themselves, in their unions or in other types of combination, should be enabled to exercise their potential power against the powers of the employers. Thus, workers themselves are more in charge of their present and future.

Also, it brings Australia into real alignment with agreed ILO minimum standards on workers’ rights to organise and bargaining collectively.[2]

Bargaining rights: enterprise bargaining, “supply chain bargaining” and Award bargaining

In some union discussions “supply chain bargaining” appears to be the multi -employer bargaining that is quite popular. As one form of “multi-employer” bargaining it is not objectionable, provided its serious limits are not ignored or glossed over.

In a “supply chain” the focus is on a group of employers who are in “cooperation” with each other to deliver a product or a service to its ultimate customer. However, first there is usually one employer who is the main controller of everything else in the chain. Also, each employer link in the chain is likely to be in competition with an employer who is not in the chain. The competitor not in the supply chain might like to be and can offer lower wage costs as the competitive edge to get into it.  Or, the competitor might be in a competitive supply chain able to deliver the same or a similar product to a similar or the same type of customer at a lower wages standard.

Therefore, there are real limits on how “supply chain bargaining” deals with the problem of the downward pressure on wages etc that is created by uncontrolled competition between employers in the same industry or type of business, nor how it deals with the 21st century reality of global supply chains.

On the other hand, the enabling of a new form of Award based bargaining (that includes a “right to strike”) is a big step toward limiting, maybe preventing in some circumstances, the employers’ competition power.  How changes to Awards are processed these days is a big part of the broken rules of the FWA09.

Every effort should be made to bring together experienced and new worker activists to discuss how to advance the fundamental and comprehensive approach. Those in the parliamentary Labor Party and unions who seek, as they have before, to dilute proposals to establish a legal “right to strike”, can be challenged and pushed back.

Other significant factors that shape this struggle for genuine and fundamental strengthening of workers’ powers

There are other factors that do influence how this struggle might evolve in the months and years ahead. One of them is the rapid change in the composition of the workforce. There is also union density currently running at about 12-14% overall. This has to be taken into account in developing programme, priorities, strategy and tactics, and shape how the “the right to strike” can be achieved. Just calling for the “right to strike” in the most militant manner possible will simply not be adequate for the situation we face. And, there is the timing of the national election.

Sally McManus (ACTU Secretary), and other union leaders who have stressed the continuation of the campaign after the next election, are correct to do so. If the Labor Party wins, including with Greens support, a continued campaign will require a clear and determined strategy very different to the collapse of the Your Rights at Work campaign over 2007-9. It will not be adequate to declare, as in 2009, that there is “unfinished business” and then do nothing about it.

The labour movement’s strategy must aim to bring 21st century workers into the experience of struggle, with a new foundation in which they discover directly in their own workplaces and across their industries and regions, the great untapped and democratic potential of their power in combination. The workers themselves, including through their union membership, reveal the power of any appeal to “join their union”.

[1] The “right to strike” issue is put forward in the more comprehensive ACTU Campaign Kit at pp 34-35: here: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/actuonline/pages/814/attachments/original/1521588484/ctr_campaignkit2018_digital.pdf?1521588484

[2] Andrew Stewart provides a summary of the issues at stake re the ILO standards here: http://communitywebs.org/labourhistory/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Right-to-strike.pdf

Some thoughts on “the right to strike” and the Change the Rules Campaign – Part 1

What is real power for workers? It’s time for a sharper focus on ”the right to strike”

The Australian union movement’s Change the Rules Campaign (CtR) aims to reform the Fair Work Act 09 (FWA09) in favour of workers and their unions. Launched just one year ago, CtR jumped to a new level over several recent May Days with public actions in cities and towns all over Australia. For me, 2 great highlights were the magnificent and inspiring march and rally in Melbourne on May 9th, and the action taken on May 1st itself by the ACT Trades and Labour Council. The ACT Unions were the only Australian labour council to take action on May 1st itself.

The campaign is growing. It features mainstream media publicity, workplace and local community organization, similar to the Rights at Work campaign that started in 2005, and the discussions at the Change the Rules Activists and other Facebook pages, as it moves to a new stage.

This new stage also moves towards the national election. In that context, the ALP, the Greens and, of course, the union movement itself will intensify the discussion about how the campaign can help defeat the Liberal-National Party government. And, the employer organizations, specific powerful employers in their own right, the mainstream media, and the Liberal-National Party (LNP) government will sharpen and escalate their opposition to new rights for workers and their unions. They believe that a popular majority can be frightened into rejecting a genuine shift in power based on a “right to strike”.

The “right to strike” and multi-employer bargaining, including Award based bargaining rights, will be 2 important indicators of tensions within the labour movement. Such tensions are inevitable, normal and healthy, and have a long history.

The forthcoming ACTU Congress and ALP Federal Conference in Adelaide a couple of weeks later will probably show more of how this tension unfolds.

How the newly emerging activists and leaders at the mid-level of the union movement will handle the issues at stake is unknown. But how they do handle the situation will shape the campaign and the years ahead. Many emerging activist leaders at the middle level will enter this struggle with no personal experience of being in a strike.

The Meaning and Impact of the Right to Strike on union repression and Union Growth

The FWA09 restricts workers’ right to strike so severely it is almost meaningless against an array of powers provided to employers to control grievances, disputes of all kinds, industrial award changes, and enterprise bargaining. In effect, the FWA09 denies the “right to strike”.

Therefore, against this, all Workers must have the right and capacity to strike  they are members of unions, or not.

The right and capacity to strike is the countervailing power of workers to the employers’ unrestricted right to withdraw their capital, or to move it from productive activity to non-productive forms of profiteering, or to re-locate it in another country.

A new government must repeal the extra laws that have been imposed to repress, penalize and restrict the democratic rights of construction and allied workers, including shutting down the Building and Construction Industry Commission.

The ideas that follow assume that Australia’s legal system continues under the Corporations power of the Constitution and not the Conciliation and Arbitration power. [1]

The “right to strike” for workers and their unions should apply to a range of real situations, like as follows:

  1. Their boss underpays them or breaches an award, statute, or enterprise agreement, or imposes redundancies, or assaults their dignity by bullying, harassing, and forcing unsafe work practices. This is the most important application of the “right to strike” for union re-growth. In such disputes, when workers have a strike power, workers themselves re-discover the logic of “being union” and re-growing union membership. The parties to a dispute can determine whether the dispute goes to the FWC in the given circumstances.
  2. Negotiating an agreement / enterprise agreement, including multi-employer agreements (e.g. in a supply chain), or a dispute that is active across a group of employers.
  3. Negotiating an award improvement or with a group of employers;
  4. Giving solidarity support to other workers; current penal powers – fines, common law damages, the threat of jail, and so on must be withdrawn, especially the “secondary boycott” prohibition (so-called, actually a solidarity action):
  5. Governments do something that damages workers’ job security or standard of living or democratic participation in the society
  6. In all contexts workers must have the right to strike for demands and negotiations that enable them more effective say in the role and purpose of their work. This extends democracy into the workplace, against dictatorial corporate / executive and Board of Directors control.

[1] The Howard government’s changes in 2005 shifted the head of power to the Corporations Power (S. 51.xx) in the Constitution instead of the Conciliation and Arbitration Power (s.51.xxxv). Under the latter, although there was no legal right to strike through most of the 20th century, there was a sort of “right” to create a dispute (available to workers and bosses) that was either real (ie industrial action or the threat of it) or “paper”. This “right” activated a mindset among workers about being able to use industrial action to get the dispute to the Commission for conciliation and  or arbitration, and thus put pressure on both the employer(s) and the Commission for a positive resolution. What does this mean for Change the Rules demands?  There has been zero talk about switching the law back to the s.51.xxxv underpinning. In other words, Howard’s law – ie Corporations Power – is left unchallenged, just as J Gillard manoeuvred for and achieved in 2007-9. The bosses love that.

Part 2 to follow

Happy Birthday 200th Birthday, Karl Marx!

Karl Marx, Helen Razer and May Day 2018: Marx’ 200th birthday Anniversary – May 5th

In Australia, in the middle of our month of actions to build the Change the Rules Campaign, we should pause for a while to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, May 5th.

That might be a big ask for many Australian labour movement activists. And probably also for those of you in the First Nations liberation, environment movements, feminist activity, anti-racism, refugee solidarity, and so on.

Therefore, “Why pay attention to Marx?” 

Back in the nineteenth century Marx gave our forebears – the workers of the world – the first coherent and worker oriented explanation of how capitalism worked in his day, and some basic principles for a true alternative, a true socialism.

21st century capitalist society is quite different from way back then, but in its essences it is so much the same. There is a connection between the way in which 21st century capitalism is different and the way it is the same. We are still living in a world of exploitation, with various levels of hyper exploitation, of both the majority of humans and of most of nature as we know it. The exploitation is driven by the dynamic of the system.

Karl and Fred, with Jenny and some others lending a helpful hand in many ways (see the recent bio, “Love and Capital”), explained that dynamic thoroughly. Even right wing commentators in the financial media can’t help but recognise it, especially to understand the 2007-9 financial crisis and why it is taking so long for a recovery to happen, and that so far there is no recovery for the lives of billions of humanity.

It’s worth paying attention to Karl for lots of reasons, including a sparkling and at times bawdy wit, and his contribution as a refugee solidarity activist with the rest of his immediate family (again, take a look at “Love and Capital”).

Earlier this week we in Australia were reminded in several ways why millennial workers, and others like me (post ww 2 generation), might find using a marxist approach to understand wtf is going on worth the effort.

They included the media coverage reports of

– what the Australian government is going to do to continue the failure of successive governments to tackle and reverse climate change at the rate that is desperately needed;

– and, the housing crisis: there was this summary of a new report from Anglicare that told us, among other horrible things, that out of 67,365 rental properties surveyed across the country, only 3 were affordable if you needed Centrelink (social security) payments;

– and this that described precarious employment plight for workers of the millennial generation … unemployment at 12.5% average, double the general average, underemployment at huge levels, the government driven destruction of vocational education and the apprenticeship system, and “wage theft”, the systemic payment of wages at less than the legal minimum rate.

Helen Razer and Marx

Helen Razer is a popular and sharpish marxist social commentator. Her most recent (2017) book is “Total Propaganda”, a plain speaking, witty and bawdy (in a way that Marx and his household would smile at) 21st century introduction to Marx and Marxism for workers of the millennial generation. I recommend it as a good (with a couple of weakness though) 21st century introduction from an Australian starting point.

Her Introduction includes this:

“You guys have it bad … There is nothing character building about not being able to afford a permanent place to live. There is nothing fun about a shrinking job market. Stagnant wages are not exhilarating.”

And this:

“You are not a pussy for feeling that the world has failed you. The world has failed you, and it’s hardly your fault that its systems have begun to break down. You guys are not choosing to flit from job to job. You are not choosing to hurt those Chinese and Congolese workers who made that iPhone with their blood. You did not throw your chance at a home after a gourmet sandwich.” (You can read the next bit yourself “Oh Millennial Sandwich Eater.”)

At the end there is a chapter about what to do about it and also a pretty good suggested reading list.  (It leaves out a couple that I would recommend. For example I would include Terry Eagleton’s equally entertaining “Why Marx Was Right”, and Malcolm Robert’s blog posts that offer good plain language explanations of how the economy we live in right now is working / not working, based on key marxian ideas, see below.)

In between there is a sparkling overview of how Marx was motivated by his passion for freedom for all people by analysing how freedom worked (works) in a capitalist system, including its cultural and political dimensions, not just its economic. She points also to what she sees as weaknesses in Marx’ thinking.

She gets into 2 key “economic” concepts essential to understanding things like exploitation and recurring and irresolvable crises. They are the labour theory of value and the tendency for profitability to fall. She doesn’t quite nail these, nor the value of dialectical thinking (eg capitalism changes by staying the same, but retains its impulse into crisis and inability to fully recover from it.)

She does nail pretty well Marx on alienation and the fundamental reality that our material existence is the foundation for all else. Its also funny and entertaining, using the “problem” of masturbation as the starting point.)

She also grabs hold of another core Marxian idea and shakes our brains with it: “The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

This is a good entry point to understand the essential difference between individualism, as lauded by the employers and their Liberal Party, and individuality. The promotion of individualism – rooted in selfishness, greed, self-centredness – is a central idea of 21st century capitalism, just as it was in Marx’ 19th century. The material economics of individualism – capitalism – kills individuality. Individuality – the precious unique potential of each human being – nourishes and amplifies the possibilities for each one of us and, in itself, is dependent on the power of workers uniting across the boundaries varies of gender and race.

Her “what is to be done” chapter is simple and powerful: get engaged including through study and thinking. Act. Bring identity politics into the common struggle against exploitation and hyper exploitation. Study exploitation using Marx because his legacy provides the best perspective for doing that. It’s time for that now and over these next few years. No more whinging.

The place for millennial workers is in the struggle to Change the Rules, in the workplace. Its rescuing our environment. Its standing in solidarity with our First Nations peoples. And so on. It’s on the streets for May Day. It’s in the public meetings, the rallies, the demonstrations and the meetings that plan them. It’s in the development and driving of strategy, from below and the mid-levels of our movement, not just leaving it to “heroic” leaders, elected or otherwise. Its breaking out of the boring cycle of rapacious LNP governments followed by marginally better (oh we should be so grateful) Labor governments, followed by … more getting nowhere at all.

Everyone has the potential for it. Find a way.

What does it mean when you are, or you become a union member?

By Don Sutherland, 23rd March 2018

How does a non-member join their union?

One convenient way to do it is to use the ACTU’s on line joining up tool: https://www.australianunions.org.au/join .

Why are these questions relevant right now? (If not directly for you but certainly for people you know.)

There are several reasons.

In no particular order of significance they include: every Australian worker is exploited during their hours at work and they experience that as low or downward pressure on their pay, and pressure to work harder, to do more in less time; the progress of the case for an annual wage increase for at least 2.3 million workers on low wage rates; the overlapping ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) publicity campaign against the broken rules of the unFair Work Act 2009 (FWA09); the revelation of dodgy and very low pay rates for Uber drivers and others in “gig jobs”, and the collapse of enterprise bargaining as a vehicle for solid wage increases (See below for a little bit more on each of these reasons.)

In a broader sense bigger and more member-driven unions will make a difference in the campaign to reverse rising inequality and poverty by winning better pay increases and establishing new rights.

So, what might your (new) union membership mean?

Well, it might mean nothing at all. You are a passive member who simply holds your union “ticket”, maybe with some idea that it is an insurance policy that you hope you won’t need in the future.

Two questions arise, “Should you stay a passive member?”  And, “What might be being an active member actually mean?” (Especially if your employer is hostile to union members.)

If your employer is hostile to union members (familiar to most workers) you can bring your membership to life to your own advantage without the employer knowing you are doing so.

Clandestine membership is sensible, even recommended, until you and your work mates judge you have the strength in your workplace to make it unnecessary.

Being informed as the basis of being an active member

The first thing that can bring your union membership to life is to become informed, including from your own initiative.

You can pay attention to union news and read the material that is available at your union’s web site or Facebook page or is sent to you through your letter box.

You are an informed member through your own action. And your boss does not know.

Being informed: the next step

You can take “being informed” to a higher level by learning about your workplace minimum entitlements (and those of your workmates). Non-members can do this also.

The legally minimum standards on pay, conditions and rights are described in the FWA09, your relevant industrial Award, and your Enterprise Agreement (if you are covered by one). There are also minimum rights in Health and Safety and Equal Opportunity laws, but these will be discussed in a separate, future post.

As a member or non-member, you can obtain a copy of the minimum pay and conditions of employment for your job that are described in the National Employment Standards and in your relevant Award, and in your enterprise agreement if you are employed under one. All of these are public documents. (Remember your boss can provide better than the minimum “voluntarily” or through an enterprise agreement. A “voluntary” better deal can be taken away whenever your boss decides to.

You can read the National Employment Standards as defined in the FWA09 here, and you can access your relevant award here.

(If you want some help to find the Award that is relevant for you then contact your union or the ACTU, or even write to me at workersradio2017@gmail.com .)

Guess what? Being well informed about your minimum rights at work will make you feel good. Given the importance of work (even when we hate it) in our lives, the amount of time we spend trying to get there, and just being there, it’s a great feeling to become more intelligent and confident than you already are.

Becoming informed together – feeling even better

You do not have to be a trained lawyer to understand the information identified above.

For decades workers have learned how to read and understand awards and another standards a) by doing it, and then b) by doing it together. (Often without the boss knowing … at least until it was agreed that it was time to “come out”.)

Once you have informed yourself about the NES, your Award, and your Agreement (if one applies to you), you can work out who among your work mates and friends you want to share your knowledge with.

You will know who it is, but, and you already know it should be someone you trust. It might be just one other work mate, or you might be in a situation where you can start with several or even more than that.

Then, you sit down with your trusted workmate(s) and show them the document (the Award, the NES or the Agreement) and, together, look closely at the bits that are relevant to your workplace.

You make your own judgement about how strong your case might be to FIRST get more support from other workers and eventually to discuss the issues with your boss, or with a paid union organiser.

You are in command of your knowledge and your case. You can also decide whether you want advice from a paid union official.

Conflict with your employer?

This is a real issue, because conflict is embedded in the employer – worker relationship. It all depends when and how it rises to the surface. Your boss employs you and your mates because your work effort delivers the total income, and within that the profit, that he or she is in business to make. The lower the price of your labour or the harder you work the better for the profit objective.

One thing is for sure, every employer has some way of discussing with their peers, even if they are in competition with each other, what the price of your labour is, and any new ideas around to push it lower, and get away with it. So, when they learn as they do from a competitor about how they can pay lower, including below the legal minimum, or dodge a health and safety requirement, they will do so. (Honourable exceptions there might be, but’s all they are.)

If your boss disappears to the golf or bowls club once a week to catch up with other employers you know what they will be talking about, and it won’t just be the state of the greens.

Getting even more informed – feeling even better but pretty sober also

Sooner or later every boss uses the “competition threat” to push back your wages, conditions and rights.

Smart workers who want to protect and improve their wages and conditions need to know who the competitor company is for the one they are employed by. There might be several.

Once you know, the next step is to work out what the pay rates and other important standards are in the competitor(s). There are lots of ways to get this information but starting with word of mouth and private conversations is a good start. (Again, we can cover this separately.)

This is where a competent and committed paid union official can be really helpful. In fact, its one of the main reasons why paid union officials were created in the first place … to share good quality information around lots of workplaces in an industry in order to deal with the problem of the “competition threat”.

There is an important discussion point here: who is the “competition threat”? Is it the workers employed by the competitor company? Or, is it the owner of the competitive company?

Almost certainly you will “be informed:” that the workers in the competitive company are having (or already have had) the same experiences that you are going through. They might already have “insights” that will help you and, almost certainly you will have insights that help them.

By being informed you are watering the seeds of solidarity and, that is an extra good feeling.

Here is a bit more on the reasons for “getting involved”.

First, Australia’s Annual Wage Review (AWR18) run by the Fair Work Commission (FWC), is well under way. The employer organisations (for all employers) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions have lodged their submissions about what the 2018 increase should be.

At least 2.3 million workers are directly affected because they are paid at or marginally above the statutory minimum rates as defined by the FWC and by the 120 odd awards that set minimum standards including the minimum rates for a range of jobs within each industry. There are also at least hundreds of thousands paid at above the minimum, but who are not covered by enterprise agreements, who are also affected by the decision one way or another.

One behalf of workers the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has proposed an increase of $50 per week, about 7%. (For more information click here and here.) The credible employer claims are to permit an increase of only about 1.9%.

The ACTU claim is unique because it is lodged on behalf of all workers affected, whether or not they are members of their union. It is the only claim that will seek to challenge the poverty that workers on the minimum rates are subjected to.

This claim might lead to pay increases that benefit union and non-union worker alike. Should low paid workers who are not members enjoy a “benefit” enabled by their union member work mates who are in much the same or exactly the same shoes as they are?

The second reason, is the escalation of the ACTU’s “Change the Rules Campaign” (CTR) with a 6-week advertising campaign, followed in May by days of workers’ action.  Click here for more information.

The purpose of the ACTU campaign is to “Change the Rules” in the current Fair Work Act so that there are new and more powerful laws for workers, especially so that workers have more power to improve their take home pay and establish more secure employment.

On Wednesday March 22 the ACTU National Secretary, Sally McManus, delivered an important speech to the National Press Club in Canberra that outlined the purpose, aims and focal points of the CTR campaign.

One focal point is the broken rules for the Annual Wage Review process, that right now make it very hard for workers and their unions to use effective power to support their claims.

She concluded her speech by urging workers to “Join Your Union”. It will make a big difference to the CTR if there is membership growth across the board, as is now happening in some unions.

The third reason is because of what we now know about earnings in the “new economy”, or in “gig economy jobs”.

The latest research from the Centre for the Future of Work in the Australia Institute focused on Uber Drivers and was summed as follows:

The Centre for Future Work recently simulated the net incomes received by drivers working for the Uber-X service – which has come to symbolise the gig economy.  And our findings ratify the public concern.  On average across 6 Australian capital cities, we estimated that Uber-X drivers take home less than $15 per hour after paying Uber’s various fees, taxes, and the full costs of running their vehicle.  That’s well below the statutory minimum wage ($18.29 per hour), and less than half the weighted-average full minimum (adjusted for casual loading, evening, and weekend work) that waged workers in this industry should be receiving.  Underpayment of its drivers is the crucial source of Uber’s price advantage, that in turn has been crucial to its growing market share.  The report called on Australian policy-makers to reform current laws (in particular by clarifying that the concept of “employee” should indeed apply to workers in this sort of undertaking) to ensure the Uber-X drivers – and other “gig” workers – are entitled to the same basic protections as other workers in Australia.

Overwhelmingly “gig workers” tend not to be members of unions. One of the reasons for this is that they have fallen for the nonsense that they are their own boss because they can work when they like. This leaves a simple question: “How do they negotiate for a raise if they are comfy with their status as a self-employed person and work according to an “app”?”

The final reason is that enterprise bargaining, as the mechanism that was meant to enable pay and conditions above the minimum standards, has collapsed. (Please click here.) What happens in AWR’s is now even more important for most Australian workers.

Member or not? Passive or Active?

There are other reasons why becoming an active member of your union can make you a more intelligent, confident and happy worker. We have discussed these previously, along with many others, and we will return to them in future posts.

Also, we have not yet discussed the problems that do exist in our current unions. We can come back to that. Our starting point in that discussion is: as a member you have rights that make unions more democratic than any workplace and any other social organisations.

Unions are not a spectator sport.

How to join: https://www.australianunions.org.au/join