The leaders of Australia’s union movement attended the federal government’s Jobs and Skills Summit with the wrong priorities, seeking to befriend the wrong people. The conference outcomes provide little in the way of real changes for workers, but much cause for concern is the Australian Council of Trade Union’s slavish desire to have “a seat at the table” above all else.
The source of the union movement’s decline is reflected in the decision of 33 unions to attend the Jobs Summit at all. At a time when Australian workers are facing a significant hit to our living standards, the unions clamoured to attend an event with the corporate elite premised, in Treasurer Jim Chalmer's words, on “trying to find some common ground about our big economic challenges”.
Among the corporate attendees were Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, who has sacked thousands of workers in the last three years; Mike Henry, CEO of BHP Group, which last year reaped $21.3 billion in profit, largely from coal; and Steven Cain and Brad Banducci, CEOs of Coles and Woolworths, who stopped underpaying their workers seven years ago only after a multi-million-dollar legal fight. How could workers’ representatives sit at a table with these people and do anything other than throw a drink in their faces?
Although the likes of Peter Dutton and Gerry Harvey decried the Jobs Summit as overly influenced by unions, there was little conflict at the conference. The overriding concern of all participants, including the unions, was to boost productivity: not to ensure workers can afford their groceries or energy bills, but to help guide capitalist growth.
The ACTU approached the Jobs Summit from the vantage point, not of a body fighting for workers’ interests, but of policymakers and wannabe economic managers. Indeed, in a pre-summit policy paper, the ACTU criticised former federal Liberal governments for poor “macroeconomic performance” over the last decade. “The Coalition recorded the worst average growth rate (just 2.3% per year) of any government in recent decades”, the paper noted. It also decried the “dramatic decline in business capital investment”.
Of the concrete measures emanating from the Jobs Summit, most relate to increasing the labour supply through greater permanent migration, loosening work restrictions for international students and allowing older people to work more without reducing their pensions. While these proposals are not objectionable, “tackling the skills shortage” is a business-focused demand that unions have uncritically adopted.
Unlike high unemployment, labour shortages are not necessarily bad for the working class. Indeed, high demand for labour should increase the bargaining power of the class, making it easier to win wage rises and other concessions from bosses through strike action, as they are less readily able to find workers willing to scab or continue work in poorer conditions.
However, the ACTU has no intention of mobilising workers to press for real wage rises or the restoration of penalty rates, or to turn casual into permanent jobs. Instead, the unions spent the Jobs Summit going out of their way to prove to business and government that they are reliable partners in managing Australian capitalism. Although the cost of living and low wages growth featured heavily in pre-summit discussions, the outcomes contain next to nothing to turn the situation around.
Insofar as the unions even discussed raising wages, they stopped well short of placing demands on the government or industry to improve things measurably by, for example, demanding no real wage cuts. Instead, the discussion focused on superficial, and vague, proposed changes to Australia’s bargaining system.
Much has been made of a suggestion to allow multi-employer bargaining. The day before the summit was set to start, the ACTU reached an in-principle agreement with the Council of Small Businesses of Australia to support an opt-in system of multi-employer bargaining. This was not a proposal to make strikes easier and more effective through industry-wide agreements, which historically have allowed stronger sections of the working class to win improved conditions for weaker or less organised ones.
To improve wages and conditions, workers need to force the bosses into a corner and weaken their ability to attack and exploit by asserting collective industrial strength. The decline of enterprise bargaining reflects the collapse of Australia’s union movement. The proposal to allow multi-employer bargaining is of course supportable in principle, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue: the union movement has consistently pursued a strategy of arbitration and electoral reform ahead of building power at a workplace level.
The strategy has yielded lower wages, lower union membership and fewer workplace agreements. An issues paper submitted by the Treasury for the Jobs Summit details where the union’s arbitration strategy has led the working class: only 3,753 applications for enterprise agreements were lodged with the Fair Work Commission in 2020-21, compared to 7,081 a decade earlier.
A change to bargaining rules would be meaningful only if it implied a change of direction: from pleasant conversations with bosses to fighting them. But McManus instead wants to “enhance and empower” the role of the Fair Work Commission, which has repeatedly ruled industrial action illegal.
The Business Council of Australia sat on a “unity ticket” with the ACTU, not on multi-employer bargaining, which it opposes, but on “simplifying” enterprise bargaining and a shadowy commitment from the unions and government to look into simplifying the Better Off Overall Test, or BOOT. There is nothing complicated about the BOOT; it merely says that a negotiated workplace agreement must not leave workers worse off than the relevant industrial award, or federally regulated minimum wages.
When bosses complain of “red tape”, what they oppose is barriers to exploiting workers and altering their conditions however they please. As it stands, the best way for bosses to undermine the BOOT is to cut a deal with unions—as occurred in a deal orchestrated between major Australian retailers and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, supported by the ACTU. That’s the one that resulted in millions of dollars in underpayments having to be repaid after a court fight. What the unions may agree to “simplify” is unclear, but given this track record, we should be very wary.
The agreements emerging from the summit involving changes to bargaining and potentially the BOOT are exceedingly vague, but enough to warrant concern that the unions are once again all too willing to put workers’ rights on the chopping block in exchange for concessions that would benefit only union bureaucrats.
Unions have often argued for workers to elect a Labor government, because it would prove more receptive than the Liberals to their needs. But Albanese’s approach in his first three months as prime minister has involved differentiating his government from that of the Liberals through a series of largely symbolic changes on progressive issues. The Jobs Summit fits into this pattern, crafted as an opportunity to be seen to tackle the cost-of-living crisis while delivering little.
It contained plentiful references to improving the economic position of Indigenous people and women, and taking ill-defined “action” on the climate. These proposals revolve around instituting reporting and regulatory frameworks and diversity quotas, particularly in managerial positions.
But absent was the central demand that would really improve the lives of all workers, and oppressed workers in particular: of massively lifting wages so that it’s possible to afford the things you need. This can’t be achieved through a task force or luncheon. It would require a real, determined approach to organising that the union leaders have signalled they are thoroughly uninterested in.
There are plenty of reasons for workers to be angry right now, and observable opportunities to fight. The union movement should be placing demands on the government to freeze rents, cap energy bills, significantly raise wages, raise the rate of Centrelink payments. The union leaders, however, have their priorities all wrong: behaving as a marketing arm of the Albanese government, rather than doing anything to build resistance.
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