You know we’re in trouble when the Reserve Bank sounds Bolshie on wages

After decades of alarms by bosses, central bankers and conservative politicians that even the smallest increase in wages is about to develop into a full-scale “wages breakout” driving the economy to ruin, the very same people are now lining up to lament the fact that wages are now growing at the slowest rate on record.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe told delegates attending a recent “Leadership Forum” hosted by the Australian National University and the Australian Financial Review that there is a “crisis in real wage growth”. Workers should front up to their bosses and ask for a wage rise, Lowe said.

The chief economist at the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Stephen Walters, agreed. With the profit share of GDP at “multi-decade highs”, Walters said, “it makes sense that the governor would want the power balance [between bosses and workers] to shift a touch”. Ken Henry, chairman of the National Australia Bank, said that falling real wages were “unwelcome”: “I don’t hear anyone arguing that it’s a good outcome”. Even treasurer Scott Morrison has declared falling wages “the biggest challenge” facing the Australian economy.

All of this, of course, is nothing but appalling hypocrisy. None of these fat cats has opposed the cuts to penalty rates. None has offered to curb their profits to allow more leeway for wage rises. Quite the opposite. And none attacked the Fair Work Commission when it recently lifted the minimum wage by a measly 59 cents an hour.

The only thing that has stirred them to try to get wages moving is that cash-strapped workers aren’t going out spending. This is hurting the profits of retailers and, with business investment in a funk, is slowing down the national economy.

But the fact that even the bosses are now complaining about falling wages tells us that something is very wrong with our trade unions. Why is it that, after 26 years without a recession, a period which includes Australia’s biggest resources boom since the 1850s Gold Rush and the biggest property boom for many decades, the wages share of national income has fallen to its lowest level since 1964?

Unemployment has barely breached 6 percent since 2004, and it’s been many years since the front pages of the newspapers were filled with stories of mass sackings, as they were in the early 1980s and again 10 years later. And yet workers are going backwards!

There’s actually a very simple reason for this. The trade union leaders have sat on their hands and refused to fight. The strike rate has never been so low. The average worker was on strike just four minutes last year. At the time of the last two wages breakouts, in 1974 and 1981, when real wages and the wage share of national income both jumped, workers were on strike on average for 10 hours and 6 hours respectively. With the bosses under no pressure to grant wage rises today, why would they? Just give workers some crumbs, and grab the rest. And that’s what’s been happening.

There’s a golden rule in the class struggle: you only get what you fight for. If our side wants to halt the ever growing enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, we’ve got to fight.