Are Australian unions going to Change the Rules?

Submitted by Janet on 7 March, 2018 - 11:49 Author: Editorial

What a welcome surprise it was for union activists to hear defiance of the bosses, and passion for workers’ rights, from an ACTU Secretary, while she makes a point of attending picket lines and workers’ disputes. Is the movement going to be turned around after years of decline, and start to deliver surprises of substance for Australian workers?

The Change the Rules campaign launched in July 2017 by Sally McManus for the ACTU poses the big issues as inequality, tax evasion by corporations and workplace laws that cripple unions. These are positive steps to build on, which could rekindle a will to fight by some in the union movement. Is this kit going to help make unions more powerful? What does Change the Rules actually offer union members and activists?
What Rules to Change and how to change them?

The Change the Rules campaign kit is primarily aimed at framing the problem issues, and broadening popular awareness of those issues by collecting stories of “inequality and power” and “the broken rules”. It contains fact sheets on inequality, tax, industrial action, wage theft & workers’ rights, dispute resolution, enterprise bargaining, penalty rates, insecure work, minimum wage, modern workplaces (i.e. gender and balancing paid work and caring work), temporary visa workers, ABCC and asbestos. The CFMEU is the only union that gets its own issues on a fact sheet. The kit flags some changes, often with reference to how things used to be better (“taking back power” as if corporations haven’t always had the power), and mostly without being very explicit.

1. Strikes
Strikes should be legal, on both industrial and economic and social policy issues. Victimisation of strikers should be illegal.
This vital point could be amplified with the idea that withdrawing labour is the main power that workers have against employers, and we need to relearn how to use it, because past union deals have contributed to the erosion of our ability to use it.

Sally McManus speaks out in favour of workers’ rights to break unfair laws and has held her ground against employer hysteria, explaining that “ these aren’t decisions that are made lightly” in view of the fines on unions. Practically unions could right now be refusing to pay fines, and campaigning against fines, which can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

2. Industrial courts
Industrial rights, pay and conditions should be legally enforceable via specialised industrial tribunals, that also have the power to settle disputes. “The law used to allow for conciliation, and, if necessary, a decision could be reached by an independent umpire.” Unions should not be forced into expensive civil proceedings. This point should be qualified by acknowledging that reliance on arbitration weakened unions, the “independent umpire” is a euphemism for brokering a deal that is acceptable to both bosses and workers. That system broke down in the 1980s and 90s because bosses calculated that they could screw workers more without it, and unions didn’t mobilise their industrial clout to prove the bosses wrong.

3. Enterprise bargaining
The kit says “The enterprise bargaining system was intended to provide workers with fair wages and conditions in exchange for business improving productivity. While companies have enjoyed increased productivity, they’ve failed to share those benefits with workers. They’ve just lined their pockets. Profits have soared, wages have not. Big business has too much power and working people are paying the price.”

It’s very unclear whether this implies unions will be demanding a return to a system of national awards, or reforms to enterprise bargaining. Regarding enterprise bargaining, the employers had one intention – to increase their power by dividing workers up by enterprise, cutting them off from broader solidarity and isolating them from union negotiated pay and conditions. Unions imagined an opposite possibility, that they could escape the “no extra claims”, flat rate increases that the commission had been making in the 1980s at the expense of higher paid workers, and that they could win productivity gains enterprise by enterprise. Unions failed to anticipate who really had the power to get their way, when the basis for workers solidarity was so much narrower. To turn this around now, unions could be making claims outside the allowable matters, organising pattern bargaining despite it being prohibited, and preparing members to ignore the “protected action” restrictions.

4. Insecure and casual work
“For many employers, it’s now a business model. Our work laws have made it more and more difficult to protect permanent work. The rules need to change to make our jobs, and our lives, more secure.” Changes that could improve job security include unfair dismissal laws, limits on the length of casual employment, and clauses to limit proportions of casual and temporary employment in enterprise agreements. These are worth fighting for, but employment insecurity is always present when there is extensive unemployment or underemployment, as insecurity is the result of employers in a position of strength in the labour market shifting risks and costs onto workers. Insecurity has also been fuelled because it includes the possibility of flexibility, and has been the only avenue for many women workers to be able to combine paid work and unpaid caring work (See point 6 on Modern Workplaces below). Insecurity will persist if it is left up to private enterprise to provide better employment terms and full employment. A massive expansion in public sector jobs at union rates, re-nationalisations are needed to undermine that power.

5. Minimum wage
“For almost 100 years Australia’s minimum wage was about workers’ standard of living. That’s no longer the case. Today the minimum wage is decided by a panel of ‘experts’ dominated by economists. The result is that the minimum wage has fallen badly behind and no longer protects working families from poverty…The ACTU argued that …more pay to workers will give people more money to spend in their communities, and that more spending would create more jobs.”
This history of minimum wages airbrushes out distributional conflict between capital and labour evident even in the old arbitration commission, as the cost of living was being abandoned as a standard for wage setting, during the Accord years. The level of the minimum wage reflects the strength of the labour movement, especially the willingness of sections with most industrial leverage to stand up for the whole working class including the lowest paid. Even as corporations recognise that low demand is caused by low wage growth, none of them are volunteering to pay higher wages, and they generally argue that lower labour costs will create jobs. The ACTU applied for $45 per week increase in the minimum wage in 2017, and the commission awarded only $22.00. Unions could be backing up the national wage claim by organising members to take action for the claim, in defiance of industrial laws against such action, especially as more workers become subject to national awards rather than enterprise agreements.

6. Modern Workplaces (i.e. women, work and care)
“The ACTU have applied to the Fair Work Commission for a new right for workers to temporarily reduce their working hours to help them better manage their work and family commitments …We need to change the rules so workers can reconcile work and family responsibilities and align workplace norms to the reality of modern working families…The lack of access to flexible working hours plays a large role in the continuing gender pay gap, discrimination during pregnancy and on return to work with high levels of occupational downgrading. The gender pay gap has stubbornly been between 15 per cent and 19 per cent for the past two decades, and workplace laws have not been adequate enough to close it.”

This is a contradictory approach to a bigger problem, of growing inequality between households based on wide variations in both total hours of paid work performed by household members, and in rates of pay between workers. Access to unpaid time off work, whether in the form of leave or part time work, in order to meet caring responsibilities serves to increase financial stress and inequality, and push down on women’s earnings. This risks further widening the gender pay gap and increasing inequality between households. Shorter standard working hours and more paid leave would be far more effective, and arguably if demands for these had been pursued by unions in the 1970s and 1980s, the rapid growth in insecure employment since then could have been considerably retarded.

Clear demands on employers or vague hopes for a Labor government
One clue to the lack of explicit proposals could be the campaign’s perspective on timing “Once we build our movement, we will need to fight for the solutions. This won’t be won overnight, we want to change it for the next generation.” Jeff Sparrow makes a point on why this is a weak way to proceed. “unions that don’t strike can’t win pay rises – and without that, they won’t enrol members. That’s why there’s no dodging the fundamental issue. If unionism is to survive, it must reclaim industrial freedom. For better or for worse, that means a fight.”

Another clue to the vagueness of Change the Rules is who it expects to make the changes to corporate power. Will a government more favourable to workers deliver, or is it essential that workers themselves take on the corporations’ power directly through unions?

Change the Rules doesn’t critique the core of employers’ power – their control of productive resources (including labour) and the imperative to allocate those resources for the purpose of increasing the value of assets. This translates especially as capital’s right to hire and fire, and to develop production regardless of damage to humans or nature. Whilst Change the Rules refers many times over to the excessive power of corporations, it explains that power as residing essentially in advantages in the legal system and law non-enforcement, applying to taxation and industrial relations. So Change the Rules is in effect asking for a government to change the rules, and is not a proposition to the union movement to use its clout against employers. Labor is already promising to collect more tax from the wealthy and to make industrial laws less restrictive on unions.

Change the Rules could very easily become little more than another election campaign tool for Labor (like Build a Better Future, which was led by Sally McManus), if it doesn’t make clear demands on both employers, governments and specifically the ALP, and also focus on equipping workplace delegates to build support for industrial action on those demands. As it stands Change the Rules provides union delegates with talking points, but not yet a tool for mobilising members against the employer.

Changing the rules inside our unions
Given the politics and history of the ACTU and its affiliates, the inadequacies of Change the Rules are unsurprising. The fact that the campaign had to be launched at an organisers’ conference, and not a delegates conference is a measure of the weakness of the union movement. Unless delegates are cultivated as the democratic decision makers of the union, then union campaigns will lack the collective will and commitment of members that is needed to beat the employers and governments. Joining a union and paying dues is secondary to that. “Organising” without them produces cynicism that unions are about funding their own bureaucracies by selling insurance policies that they can’t pay up on. Where are the union leaders who really understand this and act on it, as opposed to paying lip service?

Sally McManus is no doubt constrained in her ability to give direct effect to her combative stance, because that is in the hands of separate union apparatuses, with their own history of organising and relating to their members. But it is not clear what she specifically advocates or that her strategy is insistent on workers organising themselves.

Union leaders who are serious about taking power from corporations cannot deliver unless they free themselves to develop and advocate a program outside the business as usual confines that infect trade unions. A political (ie policy based) organisation in the union movement could take on these issues and shift the terms of traditional “factional” politics of turf positions and personal allegiances, to democratic deliberation in order to set clear political and industrial demands and to lead a fight for them.

We need a new era of unionism in which delegates, members and leaders understand that durable strength rests on courage and willingness in the workplace, among workers, to take on the employer, and to act in solidarity with workers in other workplaces doing the same. We need to recognise that the employers, capital, are not our partners (neither actually nor potentially) in achieving a fair and decent society, and that governments and other state institutions cannot be relied on to protect us from employer power.

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