Enough blah blah blah: it’s class war
Enough blah blah blah: it’s class war

If Australian union leaders know anything, it’s how to make themselves feel relevant within establishment circles. The public relations victory that was the Jobs and Skills Summit no doubt has the Australian Council of Trade Unions media department patting itself on the back over national press headlines such as “Bosses wedged”, “Big victory for unions”, “Bosses’ horror” and “Unions win”.

But the histrionics of newspaper headlines are no guide to what’s happening. The share of national income going to workers’ wages is the lowest since records began; the profit share is the highest. And living standards are going backwards at the fastest rate in generations.

To turn any bad situation around, the first thing is to identify the main problem. In Australia, the government, big business and the unions cannot stop talking about productivity, which is just a measure of the amount of goods or services produced by a worker (or a group of workers) in a given amount of time. To increase productivity is to do nothing more than increase economic output per hour worked, something that has been happening decade after decade since capitalism began.

But the problems that workers face every day have nothing to do with the relative growth of the country’s economic output. Low productivity growth, for example, does not explain the soaring profits and stagnant wages that have become the norm in Australia. It is not the reason that the housing market has become a casino for speculators. It is not driving interest rates, rents and energy prices higher. It is certainly not the reason that people are being turned away every day at hospital emergency departments. 

Pretty much all of these problems, and many more, are related to the distribution of society’s wealth, not the productiveness of the economy. 

So despite all the hue and cry about productivity, this year’s company reporting season brings the promise of $102 billion in dividends for shareholders, described as a “windfall” in the financial press. That’s $102 billion in profits that ASX-listed companies don’t feel the need to reinvest in their own operations or use to pay down corporate debt. 

It’s $102 billion generated by workers, which should have gone to their wages. Enough—from just some of the profits, in one year, from a selection of companies—to build 40 to 50 new hospitals or 300,000 new homes or several new metro train lines in a capital city. 

This is the rub: there are enough resources, and more than enough economic output, for everyone to live a comfortable life. But the value created by workers increasingly has been concentrated and hoarded by a minority of parasites at the top. There are more multi-millionaires and billionaires than ever before, and the wealthiest 1 percent now own as much as the bottom 60 percent.

The union leaders do talk about these things, of course. But identifying a problem is only the first step. The second is formulating a plan to address it. For the ACTU, the strategy is “cooperative” discussions and working together with business owners whose own positions depend on the exploitation of workers. In the parlance of international conflict, citizens who cooperate with invading armies are referred to as collaborators. This is pretty much all the ACTU has to offer: collaborating with the people waging a class war of epic proportions.

It’s never been a winning strategy.

Similar to the recent press coverage of the federal government’s Jobs Summit, the Financial Review’s front-page headline of the Hawke Labor government’s 1983 national economic summit noted that big business was a “rabble” and had been caught “wrong-footed” by the unions and the government at the conference. Yet the next decade of “cooperation” between the ACTU, the ALP and the newly formed Business Council resulted in one of the largest transfers of wealth from the working class to the ruling class in modern Australian history. 

Today, the situation is far worse than in the 1980s. The proportion of workers in trade unions has never been lower. The bargaining position of union leaders at the national level is almost non-existent. Yet the allure of being seen as relevant to a “national conversation” taking place primarily within the circles of the political establishment is enough to have the ACTU run down the same path that led to the ruin of the workers’ movement. (That should be a clear indication of the gulf that exists between the interests of union leaders and those of the workers they purport to represent.)

As the analogy to wartime should make clear, collaboration is not simply muddle-headed; it is criminal. The only way to address the central problem of Australia’s economy—the unequal wealth distribution—is to fight in the same way the bosses do: unceasingly. Every day spent talking “cooperatively” with the class enemy is another day in which workers are ripped off without a challenge to their exploitation, another day in which hundreds of millions of dollars flow to the already wealthy.

While union officials from across the country were safely ensconced in Canberra trying to look important, rail workers in New South Wales continued their eighteen-month-long battle against the state government, enduring slanders and a hostile media while striking for a better deal. Anyone serious about developing a plan or a strategy to deal with the cost-of-living crisis and to lift the living standards of workers would have been there, side by side with rail staff, not shoulder to shoulder with the bosses in the national capital.

The capitalists have made it clear that the thing they fear most is a return to a situation resembling the 1970s, when workers were confident to take militant strike action, driving up wages and creating a sense of pride in revolt, rather than subservience to the bosses. Hence the rail workers have been viewed by the establishment with more hostility than have the ACTU leaders, who put the fear of god into precisely no-one.

It’s that spirit of militancy that needs to be built and fostered again if our side is to have any chance of victories in this class war.

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