Liberals kick weakest first

A spokesperson for Tony Abbott has confirmed that a $1.2 billion scheme to improve wages in the aged care industry, promised by Labor, will now be junked. The scheme has yet to deliver workers their first slated pay rise.

A key feature of the now defunct deal, negotiated by the Nurses’ Federation (ANMF), was that extra government funding would be made available only to aged care providers that signed an enterprise agreement with their workers. This was designed to ensure that any extra money put into the sector actually flowed through to wage increases.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the Australian aged care sector has been targeted by hedge funds and other investment consortiums. They’ve been able to rip out steady profits from the stream of government subsidies directed to the industry. These operators will welcome the new government’s change, which will make it simple to divert any extra money straight to their bottom line.

Though Abbott’s scrapping of the scheme has drawn criticism from unions, there is no sign of the sort of response that could make the government and aged care sector bosses back off.

Establishing decent wages and conditions in state-owned hospitals took a long period of organising and some serious strikes. Most famously, Victorian nurses went on strike for 50 days in 1986. Their action caused a political crisis and forced a breakthrough in wages and nurse to patient ratios.

The biggest problem with this scheme, like so many other union “gains” of the last few years, was that it was won without the fight. It came on the back of lobbying, not the strength of workers organised in their workplaces. That strength has to be rebuilt by patient organising and a strategy of industrial struggle.

Otherwise higher wages in aged care will be just the first of the “gains” of the Labor era to be rubbed off the board before workers see any benefit.