Economic bedlam and the COVID pandemic have turned working people’s lives inside out. Recent devastating flooding in eastern Australia has left many homeless and jobless. Now comes a federal election. Until the poll on 21 May, candidates will woo us with bribes and vague promises. The Liberal/National Coalition and Australian Labor Party (ALP) as well as The Greens and rightwing populists like Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation all share a capitalist program, each with their own version. They put profit’s needs before ours every time, and they’re counting on us believing that this is all there is.
The economic backdrop of this election campaign is bleak. Thirty years of neoliberalism — from both Coalition and Labor governments — have forced wages down. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) reported in 2015 that wage growth had dropped sharply to its lowest since the 1990s. In the seven years since the RBA’s report, it stayed under 2.5%. It’s now at 2.3%.
Meanwhile, prices are soaring. In this past year, inflation outstripped wage growth by 1.2% — making an average family $3,600 worse off, according to ALP Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers. And there’s no relief in sight. If the Coalition government’s May budget predictions — 4.25% inflation and 2.75% average wage increase for 2021-22 — are accurate, workers’ buying power will plummet another 1.5%.
Olde worlde capitalism again. The term “neoliberalism” harkens back to capitalism’s heyday in the early 19th century — before state regulation and unions. The caricatures of master and servant and vivid portrayals of working class poverty, made famous by English writer Charles Dickens, ring true today. Workers are effectively handcuffed by laws that criminalise strikes, in almost all circumstances, and frustrate cross-union solidarity and militancy of any kind. This and the replacement of collective bargaining (a source of union power) with individual contracts help to explain the dramatic, steady fall of workers’ wages.
Under this regime, insecure work — casual, labour hire, gig and fixed-term contract employment — has ballooned. Spread across most industries — hospitality, retail, aged care, healthcare, farm work, education from early childhood to Higher Ed, the public service, warehouses and more — this unreliable work arrangement is the reality for approximately 4.15 million workers. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) reported in April 2022 that casual workers are earning an average of $350 less per week than their permanent full and part-time counterparts. Workers lack control over the hours they work. Employers not paying correct wage entitlements is rife.
Unemployment is officially at four percent. Being unemployed is defined as not working one hour or more and actively seeking work, which explains why the statistic is so low. For this segment of the working class, surviving on a fortnightly Jobseeker allowance of $642.70 can be horrific, especially for sole parents and people who are young, older, trans, queer, female, First Nations, of colour or living with a disability.
Yet the Coalition government won’t budge on the Jobseeker payment. Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists it is “appropriate,” even though it is way below the official poverty line.
The Labor Party “alternative.” Asked if a Labor government would review the Jobseeker allowance, the ALP contender, Anthony Albanese, said No! The economy can’t afford to raise it, he claims. As for increasing the unliveable minimum wage of $20.33 an hour, Albanese says it’s up to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to decide. Workers covered by an “Award” rely on this grossly underpaid standard (as opposed to higher ones set by collective, union-negotiated workplace agreements). These award-dependent workers are about a quarter of the workforce and the lowest paid in the country. Sixty-one percent are women. Last year, the FWC raised the minimum wage by only 2.5% — a pay cut in real terms.
The Labor Party’s election platform is merely putty to patch up a profit system that is cracking everywhere. A few billion for more TAFE places here, $15 billion in capital investment for manufacturing there. It commits to “increase wages” by supporting whatever the boss-friendly Fair Work Commission might award to aged care and childcare workers. The promise of “Same Job Same Pay” is meant to plug the gap between the earnings of labour hire workers and that of their permanent counterparts. All the while, by not even pledging to legislate for a higher minimum wage, exploitation and job insecurity will continue.
For years, workers disgusted by the ALP’s neoliberal playbook have left the party in droves. Some turn to The Greens, attracted to its positions on social and climate justice, which they see as refreshingly radical. In this election its platform addresses insecure work, a treaty with First Nations, affordable housing, health, aged and childcare and the climate emergency. Like its counterparts in the U.S., Canada, Europe and South Korea, the Australian party, led by Adam Bandt, proposes a Green New Deal — an idea taken from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1935 “New Deal,” which pumped public money into works to pull the country out of the Depression. However “green capitalism,” a term embraced by Bandt, is based on economic growth, or profit. This is not how the sweeping change we so desperately need will happen.
Vote socialist. There are candidates with real solutions to vote for in the Senate and House of Representatives. Socialist Alliance and Victorian Socialists both offer explicitly anti-capitalist platforms. Calls to scrap all anti-union laws, guaranteeing the right to strike and take solidarity action; reverse casualisation; create jobs by introducing a 30-hour week with no loss of pay; legislating for national industrial manslaughter laws; full industrial, residence and citizenship rights for all immigrant workers are some.
Time for member-controlled, fighting unionism. Union officials have been gearing up for this election over many months, keeping the spotlight on Morrison as the man to vote out. This is code for “vote Labor in,” which is what the ACTU election campaign is about. ACTU media releases parrot Labor’s platform, focusing on Morrison’s failures in each and every aspect.
But this won’t fix anything. Decades of cozy collaboration between employers, union tops and the alternative ALP managers of capitalism prove this. Change will come only if members take the reins of our unions. Shove the union officials out of their comfortable seats at bosses’ tables and in parliamentary chambers. Demand real union democracy, making officials answerable to the membership. Until this happens, unions won’t be seen as relevant to a lot of workers.
Since the 1980s, when the neoliberal era began, union membership has dropped from 50% for male workers and 43% for women to 12.7% and 15.9% respectively. Workers don’t join a union for discount tickets and investment advice or to participate in online surveys. They join to collectively defend themselves and each other. Every time workers organise in their workplaces, call out for solidarity or announce a win, unions become the magnet.
Yet most workers have never experienced a strike or even a mass meeting to democratically debate and decide on action. Union democracy and militancy are casualties of neoliberalism. The rank-and-file need to bring it back.
Faced with capitalism’s brutality, a pandemic and climate destruction, workers need to organise and solidarise across workplaces and unions. This means collectively strategising to overturn the (un)Fair Work Act through mass campaigns and union-wide industrial action. Unionists must build our strength to break laws that severely punish strikes held outside a collective bargaining period and “secondary boycotts” in support of workers’ industrial action against their employer. Workers flexing our combined muscle is how we’ll win decent wages, job security and so much more. This experience of power is the best school for workers, who get to see that the state is not so invincible. From nurses and stockmen to builders labourers and tram drivers, we have a rich history to show how this is done.
No matter who wins this election, we have a game-changing fight ahead.