Category Archives: Solidarity

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

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The Annual Wage Review 2017-18: From Marriage Equality to “Economic Inequality”.

By Don Sutherland (March 16th, 2018)

The Annual Wage Review:  update

This week the Annual Wage Review (AWR18) run by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) that sets new minimum rates of pay moved to a new stage. March 13th was deadline day for submissions from “interested parties”. These include employer organizations, governments, and, for workers, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

And, the ACTU launched its 6 week advertising campaign to highlight general and some specific aspects of the “broken rules” of Australia’s Fair Work Act 2009 (FWA09). (Click here.)

Critically, this advertising campaign will lead into days of workers’ action being planned for May.

We also learned that the unregulated salaries of the Chief Executive Officers of Australia’s top 100 corporations pushed on average well above $5 million per year. (page 12.) These characters are not required to apply for a pay increase to the FWC.

Many of them supervise the attacks on the pay and conditions of their own workforce, using the “broken rules” of the FWA09, and their company’s strategy to pay little or no tax, using the “broken rules” of the tax system.

Between now and April 9th the parties can study the submissions of all of the other parties, and any new economic data, and by April 9 present counter submissions. (For more on the AWR process click here.)

Its all very polite and loved so much by those in “the IR club”. The process is designed to exclude the workers who are most affected by it from exerting any real influence. That is, unless they or a good part of them decide to defy the process.

The claims: what we now know

The submissions have now been posted to the FWC web page (click here) that provides the detail of the progress of the Review. There is a good summary of the main claims here. (Also, Caroline Pryor and I on “Workers Radio” . Radio Skid Row, discussed the claims today: click here.)

The ACTU claim is to lift the minimum rate of pay by $50 per week. This is a 7.2% increase for low paid workers. Make no mistake, there is no one else going in to bat for them like the Australian union movement.

This is a claim made for all workers, not just those who are union members. If you are not a member its time to join. If you know someone who is not a member its time to have a serious talk with them. You can help them join directly at this ACTU page: click here.

For the employers, arguably the most influential employer organization, the Australian Industry Group, wants a paltry $12 per week increase on the minimum rate and $14.60 for the lowest award rates. That’s a 1.8% increase, which is less a than the current inflation rate. In other words, a pay cut. No surprise there.

One of the retail employer organizations wants a zero increase. The other concedes a 1.9% increase, as does the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The federal government and the ALP did not propose any specific increase but their proposals were quite different.

The Federal government wants the smallest possible increase and argues that really wages should only increase naturally, that is, their genuflection to the “trickle-down effect”.

The ALP, in opposition, with its nose to the federal election breeze as you would expect, endorses a decent increase but one which is “economically responsible”. If the Commission grants $15 per week as “economically responsible” would the ALP accept that? What would their members say? (The Greens and One Nation have not made submissions or proposals. They both should be challenged on that.)

The arguments against the ACTU’s claim

The union activist army must grow in number and also lift their ability to defeat the employers’ propaganda against the ACTU claim.

So far, in the public arena, these are general “arguments”, and say that the claim is 4 times the inflation rate; will destroy jobs; and harm low paid workers.

These will be sharpened and added to in the weeks ahead. Murdoch’s media will be the prime vehicle to spin them.

They will have to be addressed by the union army of activists in their day to communications with workers, including those who are not yet unionised but who can be attracted to the struggle. The ACTU Submission does deal with each of them. And there is also this: click here.

How can low paid workers win? Business as usual or a defiant mobilization? Or leave it to Bill Shorten’s ALP as a new government?

We need a new strategy based on defiance and mobilization. This cannot be a once off, one year exercise. This year’s mobilization, if there is to be one, must pave the way for 2019.

The ACTU itself says that this year’s claim is step 1 towards the creation of a “Living Wage” as the new minimum pay rate. The aim is to establish a minimum rate about 2/3 of the national minimum wage. That would mean about an $80 per week increase this year. Clearly, this year’s strategy must be run as a platform for a more determined and bigger effort next year, no matter who is in government.

From the past 20 years of experience we know that the “obedient” strategy that abides by “the broken rules” is a failure. And, the AWR process in the FWA09 is one of the most broken parts of it. (See sections 134 and 285.) On equal pay the FWC has interpreted the “broken rules” such that important direct arguments on why and how to narrow the notorious gender gap on wages are rejected. (See the ACTU Submission here.)

This strategy is built around polite and strongly researched submissions (still important), orderly advocacy, a few “real” low paid workers as supplicant witnesses (a bit like Dickens’ Oliver Twist asking for more), on line petitions, a dose of social media outrage, and sometimes small scale symbolic protests.

In effect this past strategy concedes to poverty and inequality. On its own IT DOES NOT WORK. It is for dreamers only, those who love court processes, economic “debate”, and custom and practice. Such dreamers could listen to this: “The Basic Wage Dream”.  (It’s an old song with a 21st century meaning. There is a reference to “Nugget” Coombes. He was the governor of the Reserve Bank at the time.)

We all know that enterprise bargaining is falling apart both for workers who have such Agreements and for those who don’t. It is no longer a serious strategic option for any  workers, let alone for the 21st century working class.

The sparkling leadership and campaigning savvy of ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus will not alone win this claim for low paid workers.

McManus needs a much stronger movement along with her than we are currently seeing.

The core spirit of that movement must be the “defiance” that she started talking about just on a year ago in that first memorable interview on “The 7.30 Report”. She has often emphasized it since as the union outlook that has achieved all of the great gains for workers in the past.

It’s time to shift “defiance” from a word with emotional cache to a real mobilization.

Can the Australian union activist “army” deliver real defiance that attracts the low paid and their allies and strike a hard blow against inequality?

Last year the Australian union movement played a highly visible and leading role in the successful campaign for marriage equality. We saw the vibrant energy and campaigning skills of the cohort of union organisers and active delegates and members who have become active in recent years.

It confirmed their very strong grasp of discrimination politics, the meaning and manifold impact of discrimination, and a very clear reminder that the working class includes a significant cohort of gay, lesbian and trans workers, who have vital relationships with “straight” workers as mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, friends and so on.

This campaign strengthened gay workers, educated “straight” workers, neutralized opposition to and prejudice against gay workers, and found collective public actions that all parts of the working class could connect to.

The middle level, newly emerging union leaders – officials, organizers, communications officers, job delegates, active members – showed in that fight against a particular form of discrimination what they are capable of.

Can they reproduce that real potential in a wages campaign? Can the mid level activist “army” get as outraged by the increasing rate of exploitation?

At the moment there is no real sign that they can.

As strong as this part of our movement are on “discrimination politics” they are somewhat weak on “exploitation”, and not showing any sign yet of the same levels of movement wide clarity and energy as last year’s anti discrimination campaign.

The next 6 weeks leading to May is a chance to start changing that.

Because that’s how we build the pressure from below that is needed to win a much better result in this year’s wage claim, much closer to the ACTU’s claim that has ever before been achieved. Luke Hilikari, Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, gets close to the point here.

Such a mobilization is what is needed for the millions of workers who are dependent on the AWR for their wage increase. These include those who are paid at the minimum rate, those who are underpaid by employers who thieve their wages from them (a business model in 21st century Australian capitalism) and those who are paid a little bit (bit not too much) above the minimum rate, but not enterprise agreement rates that tend to be much higher.

If you wish to use your own initiative to learn more about the formal process, and also see the submissions as they are posted, you can start here: https://www.fwc.gov.au/awards-agreements/minimum-wages-conditions/annual-wage-reviews/annual-wage-review-2017-18 .

“Solidarity Forever”: Robots, Workers, and Profitability

Don Sutherland (March 2018)

Everyone I know with any form in the Australian union movement loves the song “Solidarity Forever”. The song includes these 2 lines:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn 

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn

What do these words mean for real working lives in our times?

This is a relevant question amid the new wave of production and other technologies, including robots and “cobots”.

The introduction of robots and other automated or semi automated machines into work processes is nearly absolutely controlled by employers. The Fair Work Act 2009 prohibits new technology like robots from being a negotiated issue in enterprise bargaining. It is wrong but it is simply unquestioned that employers should have this absolute control and that, therefore, nothing of any import can go wrong.

The second point is that the introduction of robots and other automated machines is a capital investment. There is a consequence to this that can only be fully grasped by workers and their organisations by chewing over those beloved words in “Solidarity Forever”, and understanding their 21st century economic meaning from the standpoint of workers.

Without getting too technical about it, what those words say is that all accumulated and new wealth derives from the application of human labour by workers.

Therefore, from the standpoint of workers, capital investment does not create wealth, it is a part of the total wealth that is created by workers through their labour. Specifically, it is a part of the total “profit” that is taken by the boss after paying wages and associated benefits to workers. It’s application is intended to enable employer-controlled workers produce new wealth that can be expropriated.

Commonly, workers are “taken on” to use tools and machines in factories and other work sites, to transform raw material from nature, or partially finished products, into goods for exchange and sale in the market place. Nowadays these include algorithms embedded in software or that enable the function of machines. (Most of these algorithms originate in the knowledge and thought of workers that is acquired and applied during their work process …. a separte discussion.)

Connecting the dots: robots – investment – human labour – total profit – profitability

The product (or service) must be useful but to contain money wealth it must also be “saleable”: that is, it has a use value and an exchange value intertwined within it. Out of the sale, the human labour put in leads to a total money value that is new wealth, and inside that is total profit, and also total wages. The total wages must be less than the total value that has been created by the worker. The process of work is in its essence a process of exploitation of workers by their employers.

The owners of the machines etc, and for set periods every day also of the labour potential of the workers, obsesses over whether what they have taken, the “total profit”, is enough relative to “their” investment that has been made possible in the first place by the labour of the workers they have employed.

It’s hard to think of an employer who is not obsessed with his / her profit, especially relative to the investment made, and in relationship to their competitor(s). (Unfortunately and incorrectly, the importance of profits, and profitability, is skated over or ignored even by most ”modern” labour economists.)

In dollar terms, profitability is shown by the total profit relative to the investment put into it. As an equation, profitability = total profit / capital investment.

So, what does this mean for the introduction of “robots” or “cobots “?

Robots are a capital investment by the employer, that seek to reduce labour costs and increase profits.

They are meant to make an impact on productivity: the same or more output relative to the quantity of human labour hours required to make it happen. However, in contradiction, they are also an immediate and longer term threat to profitability, the primary obsession of every employer.

With robots the labour time of fewer workers is necessary to produce the total wealth that includes the profit share and the (reduced) wages share, thus the proportion of capital investment increases relative to the input of workers, and to total profit.

For example, in one “moment”, profitability might mean total profit of 150 units divided by total capital investment of 300 units. Profitability equals 0.5. In the next “robot moment” that follows, the new capital investment increases relative to the human labour hours required (hopefully, putting aside breakdowns for the moment). So 150 units is divided by, say, 320. Profitability falls.

This is a tendency, it is not absolute. To reduce or prevent the tendency, wages and associated labour costs must be driven down no matter what the productivity.

This is why the Fair Work Act 2009 is working well for employers. It provides employers with those controls across the economic system. Thus, under 21st century capitalism, there is no logic that enables it to provide for reduced working hours in general while improving and equalizing the standard of living. To make that happen would require more universal and more powerful workers’ struggles through their unions, or in other ways.

This is a real dilemma for employers (and their champions): in 21st century capitalism (just like all capitalism before it) increasing the productivity of labour through more automated machines – robots – tends to reduce the profitability that all employers crave, and may even cause or hasten a renewed economic crisis that causes more unemployment and income security for the 90% plus.

But that’s the “logic” of a capitalist system. Production is not for social needs and values but to provide profitability and the accumulation of wealth for the minority who own and control the machines. In this system robots and “cobots” drive more insecurity.

Interim and ultimate solutions?

If you have a problem with this logic, then “it’s time” to cease the hypocrisy of singing those key words in “Solidarity Forever”.

More seriously, “solutions” like the “universal basic income” will be naïve and ultimately impractical.

Nevertheless, the real potential of automation does lie in reducing and sharing more equally productive working time.

The new leisure time that goes with that must be rooted in zero poverty and shared access to a bounty of socially and personally enriching activities. However, for that to be realised the 90 per cent, or a much bigger part of it, must take the necessary actions in support of the specific demands towards replacing with their collective selves the current owners of the machines and the systems that produce the 21st century necessities of life.

It’s worth looking at what the Corbyn and Sanders movements are coming up with in this light (and others in other parts of the world). And what the ACTU, the ALP and the Greens have to say about it. For me, that’s for another time and a good deal more reading and discussion, some of which might be found in the submissions to the current Senate Enquiry into the Future of Work.

Australia’s Penal Powers for the 21st Century

White Australia was born as a penal colony. And throughout its history since there have been plenty of laws that fine, impose financial damages and lock up both the original inhabitants of the land and the working people of all nations who came here to make a living. Those laws swing into play whenever landowners and employers needed a government instrument to protect their profit making and wealth accumulation from the collective action of aboriginal communities and their supporters, and also combinations of workers whether members of unions or not.  (For more on this read Jack Hutson’s From Penal Colony to Penal Powers.)

This story (click here) describes how Labor’s Fair Work Act of 2009 replicates that history so that it systematically prevents workers from exercising their collective power in the twenty first century.

Some of us who have been around for a long time know very well that there is NO END to the hypocrisy of employers when it comes to the exercise of their power. Employers like Bluescope Steel, in their own right and through their associations like the AIGroup, AMMA, and the Business Council of Australia, constantly whinge about the role of outside third parties in industrial relations.For them, “outside third party interference”means unions, especially those that coordinate effective worker action across industries, and a Fair Work Commission with genuine democratic powers to ensure that workers human rights to organize and take collective action are protected.

But, they made sure, when they negotiated the Fair Work Act to replace Howard’s Workchoices in 2008-9, they kept and re-energized that extra third party power that would punish workers for exercising the only power they have – collective industrial action. And, what is more, new ALP negotiators and certain (not all) union leaders let them have it.

What we see here, as we have seen in other disputes, is the PENAL PROVISIONS OF THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY.

The penal provisions of the 20th century were neutralized in big disputes through the 1960’s that culminated with the national strike when Tramway Union official Clarrie O’Shea was jailed for refusing to pay fines imposed by the courts because union members were taking industrial action in defiance of the so-called “bans clauses” of the day.

The industrial strategy that led to that great union and democratic victory was ten years in the making.

The Australian workers of the twenty first century need a strategy that defeats the penal powers of the twenty first century. It is all about a deeper meaning of democracy than the very limited form that too many of us are sort of comfortable with these days.

Electing a genuine reforming Labor government backed up by the Greens and genuine pro worker and democratic independents to get rid of these undemocratic industrial laws will make a difference.But this was never on the radar in recent Federal elections.

So, that will not happen unless it is part of a conscious strategy that creates a massive and independent movement of workers that makes it impossible for Labor and Green politicians to dodge their responsibilities.

SYRIZA’s Inspirational Practical Solidarity

This story in the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/23/greece-solidarity-movement-cooperatives-syriza describes the community solidarity side of SYRIZA’s politics as it reaches the final days pof the elction campaign.
The story describes the re-definition of politics as an interdependence between macro economic reform – that is, real reform – and practical solidarity organising that challenges the dictates of charity as a solution to poverty.
Just one of several aspects of the story I liked is the explanation of how neoliberal capitalism shows no respect for individuals, especially the individuals who make up the majority. On the other hand, practical solidarity shows full commitment to each individual it touches and, encourages the fuller flowering of each individual’s personality and personal commitment to solidarity.
In Australia, the interactive political economy of the Abbott government and the Business Council of Australia, promotes individualism as self centredness and greed driven by the freedom to exploit the majority and the environment. In doing so, these social forces of the 1% constrict, deny and destroy the unique potentials of most people.