Real action on penalty rates still lacking

On 1 July, 700,000 workers in hospitality and other low-paid industries copped the first of a number of scheduled cuts to their Sunday penalty rates. That same day, federal politicians were given a pay rise of around $4,000 a year. Once the Sunday penalty rates cut has been phased in, the ACTU has calculated that workers affected will lose up to $77 a week – or around $4,000 a year. The politicians may as well drop any pretence of decency and light their cigars with these workers’ flaming rent money.

While the penalty rates cuts remain deeply unpopular, the Fair Work Commission’s decision opens the door for other employers to follow. Better organised sections of the union movement are making clear that they’ll fight for their entitlements. On 20 June, the CFMEU pulled thousands of construction workers off site to oppose the reintroduction of the ABCC. Also on the union’s list of grievances with the Turnbull government is its attacks on penalty rates.

However, United Voice – the union covering hospitality workers – unfortunately did not appear to use these rallies as a chance to mobilise its members in their own defence. There was no call for members to join other unionists in the thousands-strong rallies against the government’s attacks on workers.

Instead, United Voice is hoping to overturn the penalty rates decision in the courts and is posting excited reports about Bill Shorten’s promise to reverse the cuts if elected. Well, Labor has already given us WorkChoices-lite (the Fair Work Act), and it was the courts that handed us the wage cuts in the first place.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus’ recent call for unionists to be “disrupters” to the neoliberal status quo is a breath of fresh air from the country’s peak union body. But what does this mean? On 23 June, she emailed unionists and supporters asking them to take action on penalty rates by “walking into [your] local pub, club, bar or café and convincing the owners or managers not to slash the pay of hardworking staff”.

“National Weekend Warrior Day”, held on 2 July, was the latest effort by the ACTU to strike fear into the hearts of the big employer associations. It was ostensibly a campaign for workers and customers to beg individual bosses and businesses not to implement the penalty rates cuts.

In the lead-up to the big day, hospo workers received chirpy stickers or beer coasters proclaiming that their boss will maintain their weekend penalty rates. Assuming they don’t get fired for asking in the first place, workers whose employers pledge not to cut their wages can share with the world how great their boss is.

“If we can get a buzz happening across the country it’ll show everyone – workers and employers – that we’re not going to accept a pay cut people can’t afford and don’t deserve”, said the organising email. In the absence of any real strategy to fight for our penalty rates, the buzz that I’m picking up is the opposite.