Australia has now experienced 26 years without a recession, a world record. But the rising tide is not lifting all boats. Corporate Australia is enjoying a profits bonanza while workers are under pressure on every front.
The national accounts published this week show that, in the first three months of this year, pre-tax company profits are up by a whopping $24 billion, or 72 percent, on the same period last year. In 17 out of 20 industries, sales are up. The champagne corks are popping in boardrooms across the country.
For workers, it’s a very different story. Wages growth is the slowest on record and beneath the rate of inflation: just 1.9 percent. Those in the private sector are doing it particularly tough, with the purchasing power of their wages falling for years.
The bosses are gobbling up more and more of the pie. Profits represented 24 percent of total national income in March 2016; 12 months later, they’re 27 percent. We’re talking billions of dollars here – the increase in profits accounted for $19 billion, or 70 percent, of the total increase in national income registered in the March quarter.
Wages and salaries by contrast, and this includes some of the fat cats on millions of dollars a year, rose by less than $3 billion. For every dollar produced by the working class of Australia, the bosses are grabbing a bigger share for themselves.
The squeeze is on
While wages are up by 1.9 percent over the past 12 months, the price of electricity, food and insurance has increased by 3.4 percent. Mortgage payments have also been pushed up in the overheated Sydney and Melbourne markets. Workers are being forced to dip into their savings to fund their daily expenses.
Savings have now been falling for five years and the household debt to income ratio is at a record 189 percent. Many workers are now one pay packet away from a knock on the door or a late night phone call from the debt collectors – 52,000 households are at risk of mortgage default over the next 12 months.
Further, in the first week of June, the Fair Work Commission handed down its minimum wage determination for 2017 – a miserable 59 cent increase to $18.29 an hour or $36,000 a year for a full timer. As the commission president acknowledged, this increase will do nothing to lift low paid workers out of poverty.
But even this miserable increase was too much for the bosses, who shed crocodile tears about the fate of young unemployed people “priced out of a job” by 59 cents an hour.
Their bid to see the minimum wage rise by a piddling $8 a week (the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) or $10 (the Australian Industry Group), was selflessly motivated only by their desire to give young workers a lift up into the job market and nothing to do with their insatiable greed, obviously.
And, starting in July, the bosses are about to deliver workers the first stage in what will be the biggest pay cut since the Great Depression, when the first round of reduced penalty rates kicks in. These cuts will transfer $1.4 billion straight from the pockets of 700,000 low paid workers to those of the bosses.
How to turn things around?
Something has to give. As the ACTU secretary Sally McManus said in response to the insulting Fair Work Commission decision: “The only way that workers can guarantee wage increases and secure employment is to join a union and change the rules”.
But for the ACTU, “change the rules” is simply code for “elect a Labor government”. Union resources are already being poured into a marginal seats campaign for the next federal election. This is a re-run of what we saw in last year’s election, with unions putting tens of millions of dollars into Labor’s bid for office.
The problems with this strategy are many. First, the cuts are happening now. By the time any Labor government potentially takes office, the penalty rates cuts will be in place – and there’s no suggestion that the ALP would reverse them anyway. The party had to be dragged kicking and screaming by the union movement into opposing the cuts in the first place.
More importantly, we can only win by fighting, not waiting on Labor to save us. We have penalty rates in the first place only because workers went on strike for them decades ago. And they were increased only off the back of industrial action.
More broadly, the only times when workers have gained substantial improvements in living standards have been when our side has mounted strong, effective strikes against the bosses. That means that McManus’ initial rhetoric about being willing to defy unjust laws has to be put into practice. Speeches are one thing; the Australian working class needs action to reverse years of austerity and attacks by bosses and governments alike.