After years of stagnant or falling wages, and with big business making record profits, now is the time for workers to make a concerted push to raise wages and improve living standards.
With growing labour shortages in a number of industries, the balance of forces has turned sharply in workers’ favour. There is an opening to claw back the massive gains made by bosses at our expense over recent years, if it is taken advantage of.
Company profits have surged during the pandemic, increasing 4 percent in the third quarter of 2021 on top of a 7.1 percent rise in the previous quarter.
For all the whingeing about lockdowns, a recent Oxfam study revealed that during the first two years of the pandemic, the wealth of Australia’s 47 billionaires doubled to $255 billion. There is now more wealth in the hands of 47 super-rich parasites than there is in the hands of about 7.7 million Australian workers.
The share of national income going to workers rather than to company profits has plunged over the last seven years, falling below 50 percent in 2020 for the first time in decades. This is part of an international pattern of workers losing out to money-grubbing bosses. Australia has gone down the road of the US, where workers’ share of national income has been in decline for 40 years.
On top of all that, workers have been slugged with an increasing share of the tax burden while companies and the super-rich have had their taxes further slashed—if they pay tax at all. This means it is workers who are being forced to pay for all the vital infrastructure that the bosses need to keep their profits rolling in.
Wage growth hit a record low of 1.4 per cent in 2020, which, when inflation is taken into account, is a miserable real wage growth of just 0.5 percent. Inflation is on the rise, with headline inflation reaching 3.5 percent in the last quarter of 2021. This hits working-class budgets particularly hard, with the cost of food, clothing, recreation, insurance and fuel going up.
For years the bosses have taken advantage of high levels of underemployment and job insecurity to intimidate workers into accepting longer working hours, unpaid overtime, greater “flexibility” and stagnant wages. As a consequence, labour productivity has risen at a faster pace over the last decade, with all the gains going to the big end of town.
The bosses have been able to get away so easily with screwing us over only because of the lack of any fighting stance from our union leaders. The ACTU have preferred to appease the bosses and hope for the election of a federal Labor government to save them rather than focus on the vital task of rebuilding grassroots rank-and-file fighting unionism.
But now the bosses really need us. They are screaming out for more workers. There are labour shortages in key areas everywhere from fruit picking to aged care, mining, manufacturing, schools, hospitals, child care, supermarkets and even funeral parlours. This puts workers in a much better bargaining position.
The moral case for a marked improvement in workers’ pay could not be stronger. The pandemic has shown that it is workers are who vital for keeping everything that is necessary running. We could not have survived without the tremendous efforts and sacrifices of healthcare workers, supermarket workers, truck drivers, logistic workers, aged care workers and cleaners.
Not, of course, that the bosses and their governments are rushing to reward workers for their sacrifices. They will use every trick in the book to try to hold wages down. The agricultural industry bosses are crying out for more backpackers and super-exploited Pacific Islanders to be brought in rather than doing anything to improve the terrible working and living conditions on farms, let alone raise the absolutely crap wages for fruit pickers.
Meanwhile, Qantas boss Alan Joyce has moved to cancel the enterprise bargaining agreement of his international flight attendants, with the aim of undermining their pay and conditions. Other bosses are following his example in anticipation of a Labor victory in the upcoming federal election. Other workers are trapped in long-term shoddy wage agreements that are set to deliver minuscule pay rises well below the likely rate of inflation over the next couple of years.
The do-nothing union officials won’t lead the charge that is needed. They have shown no interest in initiating the sort of militant, defiant and sometimes illegal industrial action that will be needed to win serious gains.
The push is going to have to come from workers themselves. We have to get organised and rebuild workplace union organisation. This will mean overcoming difficulties—the great bulk of workers have not flexed their industrial muscles for a long time, and most younger workers have never been on strike at all. But given the serious labour shortages, many workers are objectively in a much better position to launch a fight.
If the pandemic has proved anything, it is that capitalism is much more vulnerable than it seems, and wholly dependent on workers to maintain its day-to-day functioning. It’s more obvious than ever that workers have real power—the ability to shut down the flow of profits. And it’s fellow workers who ensure we can all eat, move around, receive medical care and everything else that is necessary to live, not the bosses who claim credit for it.
What is needed is for groups of better organised workers in key industries to lead the way in building a fight back. A few significant victories for our side can inspire confidence and raise the expectations of other workers. We need to give it a go.