Fine Dining and Class Warfare … Australian Style


Sticking up for Big Hungry Profiteering

Over the past few days various media reports have highlighted the delicious connections between fine dining, wage theft and class warfare.

Starting in reverse order, we had the Financial Review reporting former BHP Chairman Don Argus railing against the ‘silly’ class war being waged by the ALP.

Putting aside for the moment just how much the Shorten ALP’s programme will NOT disturb class power, and how quickly Angus will push his non-retired corporate representatives into the cuddling up process with a possible new ALP government, we are left wondering what sort of ‘class warfare” would not be “silly” and therefore would meet our corporate warrior’s approval.  

Argus, reacting to a stump speech in regional Queensland (in which among other things Shorten chastised BHP for sacrificing 80 seafarers on good wages) is quoted thus:

“If that is the way they are going to go we will finish up with a divided nation,” … “If they take that path we will end up back where we had the recession we had to have,” ….

Merivale butter (see below) would not melt in his mouth!

In the same article, Argus is supported by the current head of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, and his predecessor, Heather Ridout. Willox is busy cultivating a cuddled-up relationship with the parliamentary ALP in case they win the elections. From her lofty “retirement” perch Ms. Ridout derides the Shorten agenda as “populist”. She seeks to demean the positive elements of the Shorten reform agenda that include mild tax reforms that may well affect her personal investment strategy and, some overdue improvements to Labor’s own Fair Work Act 2009 … from the point of view of workers.  

She is now on the board of the Australian Super and Sims Metal. And, back in 2007-9 she was a major player on behalf of employers in Labor’s Julia Gillard-guided tripartite process that created the “broken rules of the Fair Work Act 2009.

Just one look at Mr. Argus and you just know that he is a 1 percenter who really does “know” the daily long lunch and the fine dining that goes with it.  

So, the sort of ‘class warfare’ that is not silly?

Wage theft in the capital cities

Let’s start with “zombie” enterprise agreements.

Of course, Mr Argus would heartily approve, from his favourite table, of the “not silly” class warfare that he and his mates, including BHP, have engaged in using the “broken rules” of the Fair Work Act 2009. One of these “broken rules” enabled the continuation of “zombie” enterprise agreements negotiated under the notorious Workchoices laws of John Howard. These Agreements made possible terms and conditions that were worse than the minimum standards established in Awards.

You just know that the Merivale empire of up market restaurants, run by one Justin Hemmes, a well-known about Sydney “rich lister”, would be well known to Argus and his mates.

This week, after intervention by the union United Voice on behalf of two courageous employees, the Merivale empire was forced to agree to transfer its hundreds of workers from its “zombie” 2007 enterprise agreement to the Award.

The Financial Review reported this week:

Merivale is reviewing the viability of its business practices due to the axing of a WorkChoices-era enterprise agreement that gave it a significant commercial advantage in the industry.

The Fair Work Commission on Monday terminated Merivale’s long-expired 2007 EA that allowed the hospitality giant to pay some 3000 workers below the award – more than 20 per cent below in some cases – by not applying overtime or full penalty rates for almost a decade.

The Merivale workers’ union, United Voice, whose members made the big step forward possible, explained it better:

Nightclub empire Merivale owned by rich-lister Justin Hemmes will boost young workers’ pay rates – in some cases almost doubling them – after the company was forced to drop its outdated “zombie” WorkChoices agreement.

Under a 2007 agreement workers were trapped on a flat rate below award wages for most working hours, meaning they did not get extra pay for working weekends or night shifts.

Two brave young workers, represented by their union, took Merivale to the Fair Work Commission and the company agreed it would adopt award wages from March 4.

The commission was told that compared to Merivale’s existing pay structure, workers should have been receiving much higher rates under the award.

In the move to the current award, a casual worker will be entitled to an hourly rate of $27.48 for Monday to Friday evenings (up 14 per cent on the $24.40 flat rate), $30.33 on Saturdays (up 25 per cent), $35.39 on Sundays (up 46 per cent) and $50.55 on public holidays (up 98 per cent on a slightly higher rate of $25.50).

One of the applicants was out of pocket $3000 in a year – or missed out on getting an extra 20 per cent of his total salary – because the zombie agreement was so far below Award levels.

Wage theft outback

Given their silence on the matter, Angus, Ridout and Willox no doubt approve of the wage theft going on in First Nations communities, made possible this time in the “broken rules” of the Federal Government’s Community Development Programme.

As the ACTU points out

In the Milingimbi/Ramingining region of the Northern Territory, where the population is 99.8% Indigenous, the program distributed 15 penalties for each participant in 2017.

In the Western Tablelands of Queensland, where the population is 29.3% Indigenous, the program averaged 1.9 penalties per participant.

The CDP forces unemployed people in remote areas to work for free, sometimes for for-profit companies for 25 hours per week, without any basic workplace entitlements, the protection of OHS legislation, or federal worker’s compensation.

That’s not far away from the creation of a penal colony that most Australians will celebrate tomorrow as “our” national day, not the moment of invasion it became for the First Nations inhabitants who have been treated with such disrespect by most, especially corporate Australia, ever since.

Solving tax problems over lunch (and maybe other ‘entertainments’)

Almost finally, you just know that Argus will be watching closely as BHP’s senior executives grapple with how to protect their (and his greed) greed if Labor wins with its  “franking credits” policy. How to unravel all of that is another post entirely.

But to finish off, you have to wonder whether Argus ever crossed paths with these characters in his long lunches and, whether Merivale restaurants were in the mix for their corporate problem solving or “challenge meeting”, as it is called these days.

Yes, here we have confirmed, because we sort of knew anyway, just how big business goes about helping corporate regulators do their job well. And they “refuse to publicly disclose the largesse or potential conflicts of interest… “

What you might call “invisible capitalism” at work, to use the Treasurer’s new and artful defence of capitalism. Wining and dining can be hard work, why not make it more profitable?

Davos Forum 2019 – working out how to keep the 90% under control despite everything

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.