The Labor Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit ended yesterday, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese saying he was ‘incredibly encouraged by the spirit of cooperation’ at the two-day event.
The event brought together representatives of big business, government and labor to outline a new assault on working class jobs, wages and working conditions.
The reality is that the “spirit of cooperation” was guaranteed before the start of the summit. Due process has served only to approve deals reached in behind-the-scenes negotiations, mostly between unions and business groups, over the past few weeks.
Taking place just over 100 days into Labor rule, the event was designed to demonstrate that the Albanese government is already beginning to deliver its pre-election speech to businesses to boost productivity and profits.
At the center of this agenda and summit discussions was how Labor and the unions will impose the radical restructuring of industrial relations demanded by the business and financial elite for decades.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke announced the government would take “immediate action” on changes to the Fair Work Act.
Perhaps the most important of these, and certainly the most celebrated by unions, was Burke’s commitment to “remove unnecessary limitations” on the negotiation of multi-employer agreements.
Some right-wing figures, such as Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton, who refused to attend the summit, claimed it would lead to a wave of strikes by “union thugs”.
That’s a far cry from the reality contained in the government’s plan, which aims to give small businesses, which employ more than half of Australia’s workers, the same ever-increasing “flexible options” enjoyed by large corporations, imposed by trade unions over the past three decades.
The word ‘flexibility’ is code for companies’ ability, working closely with unions, to impose enterprise agreements (EAs) that take away basic, hard-won worker rights, including weekend penalty rates. -end, night and overtime.
That these multi-employer negotiations are designed to benefit business, not workers, is demonstrated by the enthusiastic support of the Council of Small Business Organizations Australia (COSBOA). He signed a memorandum of understanding with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) ahead of the summit, pledging his unified support for the programme.
COSBOA chief executive Alexi Boyd stressed at the summit that multi-employer bargaining would be “voluntary participation” for employers, demonstrating that it is designed to benefit companies, not workers.
The idea that multi-employer bargaining will lead to a revival of “union activism” is totally false. ACTU Secretary Sally McManus assured the business elite that the COSBOA pact would not lead to strikes against multiple small businesses. “We want the system to work for small businesses,” she said.
There are no plans to change Australia’s draconian anti-strike laws or limit the power of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) and Minister for Industrial Relations to terminate industrial action on the grounds that it might “cause significant economic damage to the Australian economy or a significant part of it.
In fact, Burke announced that the government would take “immediate action” to grant unspecified new powers to the FWC to “proactively” intervene in EI negotiations, further eroding workers’ fundamental right to fight for their own wages and conditions.
McManus welcomed the decision, saying that by “strengthening the role of the commission, we can achieve a system that is fair, efficient and simple for the vast majority of employers and unions who negotiate”. It is no coincidence that Australia’s top union bureaucrat did not mention the workers in this statement.
Burke also announced that the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT) for new EAs would be “simplified”, removing a stumbling block, however severely limited, preventing the total destruction of what remains of salaries, rights and workers’ rights. conditions.
Under BOOT, EAs are supposed to ensure that no individual worker is worse off. This will now be watered down by giving the FWC more “flexibility” in its interpretation, although the exact details have not been revealed.
This change was supported by a united front of the ACTU and the Business Council of Australia, representing big business. They revived a similar deal struck by the two organizations in 2020, before secret talks between unions, employers and the government broke down due to disagreement from other business groups.
The corporate media, along with Labor and the unions, promoted the lie that the summit was about ‘shaking wages’. This is based on the “trickle down economy” fiction that higher productivity – output per worker – will raise wages.
Productivity growth has outpaced wages for at least two decades. Real wages are declining at the fastest pace on record and have already fallen to 2011 levels, while productivity growth has increased by an average of 1.5% per year.
The summit illustrated how the ruling class still relies on the unions, despite the collapse of their membership and legitimacy in the eyes of working people after years of betrayals and deals to undermine jobs and conditions for workers. workers.
As the government seeks to impose the ‘hard medicine’ of its harsh pay-cutting programme, on top of the already historic falls in real wages, Albanese and Labor will depend heavily on the unions to end opposition to the worsening of the assault.
Recent developments in the New South Wales (NSW) public sector show that unions are keen to fulfill this role.
Faced with growing opposition to the state’s punitive public sector salary cap, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and his Liberal-National government have engaged in an escalating series of provocations and attacks against workers since February.
The unions involved in the main disputes – the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), the Nurses and Midwives Association of NSW and the Teachers’ Federation of NSW – have all met this hostility with concessions. They have called for sporadic and isolated work stoppages, suppressed workers’ demands for unified action and promoted the illusion that workers’ problems will be solved by appeals to the state government or the Labor Party. This only strengthened the fragile government and fueled its increasingly vicious assault.
The most virulent attacks have been directed against railway workers, to whom the Perrottet government issued an ultimatum this week: stop all industrial action and immediately accept the reductions in real wages and working conditions, otherwise we will demand that the FWC tear up your agreement. existing, which could reduce salaries. by 40 percent.
The RTBU responded by reaffirming its promise of “two weeks of peace” and launched its own legal action, further linking the plight of workers to business-friendly labor courts.
Perrottet’s intensified attack on railway workers, timed to coincide with the summit, was intended to set a precedent for what will be waged against nurses, teachers and others, not just in NSW, but across the country. .
The introduction of multi-employer bargaining aims to increase the reach of unions to enable them to exercise the same level of control over wider sections of the working class, imposing pay cuts and ending a real opposition to the austerity program.
The ruling class is well aware that class tensions are rising. Workers in Australia and around the world are facing a massive assault on their standard of living amid soaring inflation that has been intensified by the US-NATO proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Opposition is mounting, with an increasing number of protests and strikes in Australia and around the world. But these struggles require leadership and a socialist political perspective.
The first step for Australian workers is to break with unions and labor and form new bodies of struggle. Through the creation of independent rank-and-file committees, workers can unite across the country and around the world to democratically organize the necessary counteroffensive to spiraling inflation and the destruction of jobs, wages and conditions.