What’s the cost of weak unions? About $17,000 a year for our pay packets

If you’re angry about being ripped off by the banks, by power or telecommunication companies, you’ll be in a rage about the gouging of workers’ wages by employers. On average workers are being robbed of $16,750 every year. According to calculations by the Australia Institute, a think tank: 

“The loss of labour’s share of GDP [from 58 percent in the mid-1970s to 47 percent in 2017] translates into the redirection of over $200 billion in income per year from workers to other groups in society (mostly corporations).” 

The bosses bask in it, with executive pay at astronomical levels. Qantas’ Alan Joyce will get around $12 million this year alone. The economy is booming, annual GDP growth at 3.4 percent, as 27 years of uninterrupted growth has come with record high profits. Over the last year, profits hit a record $335.4 billion – up 10 percent. 

Compare this to wages and salaries rising by only 2.1 percent, the same as inflation, and housing affordability worsening despite falling prices. Twenty-five percent of households have less than $1,000 in savings and one in ten households are spending more than their income each month. 

And no-one is predicting a real wage rise soon. Reserve Bank governor Phillip Lowe was low key at the end of August. “Our expectation is that wages growth will pick up from here, but the pick-up is likely to be gradual”, he said. 

Glenn Dyer and Bernard Keane, writing at Crikey, hit the nail on the head: 

“Here we’re still stuck in the neoliberal paradigm that what’s good for big corporations – like company tax cuts – is good for everyone, despite the avalanche of evidence from finance and energy that all they do is steal from customers, suppress wages and use their political power to cripple regulators.” 

Yet our side has barely fought back. Strike levels continue to plummet, as does union membership. 

More than not fighting, the ACTU has been at the forefront of selling us lies and eroding our power. The leadership sold us the fraud of the Prices and Incomes Accord and sided with the government against the Builders Labourers Federation in the 1980s. It sold us enterprise bargaining as a better deal than centralised wage fixing in the 1990s. 

And when the Howard Liberal government introduced the anti-union WorkChoices legislation in the 2000s, the ACTU had an opportunity to rebuild our movement with mass mobilisations and strike action. Workers responded in their thousands to calls for action. But the shows of strength were channelled by the ACTU into a vote Labor campaign instead of a fighting industrial campaign. That was the death of it.

ACTU leaders have been rewarded handsomely for their service, often getting plum preselections in the ALP and joining the parliamentary gravy train. 

Sally McManus, like every ACTU leader before her, argues that the solution to our problems is to elect the ALP. But the workers’ movement, and our share of national income, has been going backward for decades – under both Liberal and Labor governments. There is absolutely no reason to believe that a Shorten Labor government would be any different from past Labor governments, talking up the fair go before the election and spending time with big business once in office.

The only way to turn the situation around is to rebuild from the bottom up – organising in workplaces, fighting the bosses and the government, not sucking up to politicians. Yet there’s been little or no talk about the industrial campaign we need to take on the bosses and keep the ALP to the promises it has made so far.

It’s only by strengthening our industrial might through determined, militant action that we can serve notice on Labor and the employers and win back what we have lost.