During her National Press Club speech on March 21, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus painted a bleak picture of the state of worker’s rights under the Turnbull government.
Ms McManus described an industrial system where “wages are flat lining,” workers are exploited, wage theft is rampant, jobs are increasingly casualised, and bargaining power is stymied.
The ACTU boss declared that it’s time to change the rules, as unions have done in the past. “We fought unjust laws. We built our unions and built campaigns,” she stressed. And “now it’s up to this generation of working people” to do the same.
A movement for change
The Change the Rules campaign was launched in September last year. It aims to bring about pro-worker reforms to the nation’s industrial relations laws and redress the imbalance in the system that’s left all the power in the hands of employers.
The campaign has a focus on establishing benefits for gig economy and labour hire workers, reintroducing industry level bargaining and providing casual employees with the right to convert to permanent employment.
The ACTU is also calling on the Fair Work Commission to increase minimum and award wages by 7.2 percent. This move comes on the back of four years of record low wage growth and recent penalty rate cuts.
Blocking industrial action
A recent Australia Institute report linked current wage stagnation to a drop in industrial actions in this country. The report revealed that since the 1970s, the frequency of work stoppages has decreased by 97 percent.
Back in the 70s, when workers were taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers, annual wage increases peaked at 13 percent. However, over the present decade, industrial disputes have dropped to record laws, while average weekly earnings have risen by only around 2.5 percent annually.
And the decline in strike activity has been caused by Australian industrial laws, which are some of the most restrictive in the developed world.
Current laws prohibit multi-employer and sympathy strikes, actions that are carried out during a current enterprise agreement, as well as those affecting public services. And these laws also require full disclosure of the nature and timing of actions.
Taking to the streets
On April 17, the ACTU is launching 12 days of community actions, which will see workers holding mass rallies and meetings across the country. Part of the campaign to change the nation’s industrial rules, the coordinated actions will coincide with May Day.
Referring to the actions, Ms McManus said, “When working people join together we are mighty and unbreakable.” Indeed, the ACTU boss has caused quite a stir since becoming secretary. Last year, she caused controversy, when remarking that she had no problem with workers breaking “unjust laws.”
Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with ACTU secretary Sally McManus about the causes behind record low wage growth, the importance of workers having the right to strike, and why the time is ripe for the rules to be changed.
At present, we have record low wage growth, and industrial actions are at their lowest in the post war era. Forty percent of people are in insecure work, with 20 percent in casual employment.
Ms McManus, are we looking at a pivotal moment in the movement for workers’ rights in this country?
Yes, we are. The role of labour laws has always been to accept that there is an imbalance of power between employers and employees. And the law’s role is to intervene on behalf of employees to mitigate that imbalance.
What’s happened is there has been a shift in power, especially since the Global Economic Crisis. More wealth and power has gone to the top. So, we’re now dealing with multinationals and a concentration of power. We’re dealing with inequality which is at a 70 year high.
So that means that it’s necessary to change our workplace laws, because they’re not doing the job they’re meant to do, which is to balance out that power imbalance. And they’re not doing that job because there’s been a shift in that balance, especially over the last ten years.
You’ve blamed current wage stagnation on the system of enterprise bargaining that was introduced in 1993.
What’s it about this system that’s leading to unprecedented low levels of wage growth?
Well, it’s not just enterprise bargaining. That’s just one element of it. It’s also the fact that our minimum wage system is no longer a living wage.
The law changed to basically give a precedent to other issues, rather than what families need to live on. And because of that our minimum wage has been falling, compared to the average wage.
Another part of it is the amount of wage theft that is happening. Employers are getting away with stealing wages. So, what that means, of course, is that other employers have got to compete against companies that aren’t even paying what those minimums are.
And on top of that, there’s insecure work. If you’ve got a large percentage of workers who are in insecure work, they’ve got less bargaining power to negotiate pay increases.
So, all of those things, along with a system of enterprise bargaining, which is over-regulated and very restrictive, have been the reasons why we’ve got unprecedented low levels of wage growth.
In January, the Fair Work Commission ordered NSW rail unions to call off a planned strike. This is not the first time the commission has put an end to industrial actions.
What does the halting of the Rail, Tram and Buses Union’s (RBTU) strike tell us about the ability of workers to take meaningful industrial action in Australia?
The right to withdraw labour is a fundamental, internationally recognised human right. The ILO has repeatedly stated that the current Australian laws, which make it almost impossible for any workers to take impactful industrial action, are in breach of international standards.
Withdrawing labour is one of the very few means available to workers to address the inherent power imbalance in employment relationships. However, in Australia, the right to take industrial action can only be exercised in very limited circumstances.
Even though, the RTBU followed all of the complex legal process required to gain access to this limited right, they were ultimately denied that right by the operation of our current laws.
We need to change the rules so that workers have the power to fight for the pay rises and improvements in conditions which they need. This must include the right to withdraw labour as a last resort.
In March last year, you said you don’t think there’s a problem with workers breaking “unjust laws.” This comment ruffled some feathers.
Wouldn’t you say that historically workers have gained much-needed rights and benefits from transgressing the expected norms of systems, and indeed laws, that helped them improve their position?
Many of the rights which we might take for granted today were won through hard-fought and technically illegal industrial action or other forms of protest action.
Improvements in working conditions and workplace health and safety standards together with community causes, such as green bans to preserve historically significant sites, have all been the subject of forms of action that may have infringed legal restrictions at the time, but which have ultimately proved of benefit, not just to workers, but to the community more generally.
The purpose of our Change the Rules campaign is to highlight the injustices in our current industrial system and win overwhelming public support for fundamental change.
And lastly, Ms McManus, on April 17, the ACTU is launching 12 days of community actions, as part of the Change the Rules campaign.
What will take place during this period of nationwide actions? And what do you hope is achieved by them?
Our campaign, like everything the union movement does, is led by our members. The launch of our campaign from the 17th will include marches and demonstrations in both big cities and small towns, led by locals who know that the rules are broken and want to be part of the campaign to change them.
We want to show the people who deny that there are any issues in Australian workplaces that the overwhelming majority of people disagree and want to see action taken to change the rules
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.