Sally McManus: Australian social democracy's new hero

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(Image via @elliemail)

Is Sally McManus, the new secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the saviour of social democracy in Australia?

Certainly, the response from the ruling class and it spokespeople suggests they see her as a threat. The most recent attack was from Brad Norington in The Australian, who misunderstood the difference between a student union and a student council in his haste to smear McManus with alt-facts.

Certainly her speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday (29/3/17) pointed out a few truths to the ruling class.

McManus is right that inequality is at 70 year highs.

She is right that the industrial relations system is broken — not for bosses but for workers.

The minimum wage, $34,980 a year is dangerously low. Unlike the push by one of the retail  employer associations for a 1.2% increase in the minimum wage – an effective wage cut when inflation is running at 1.5% – the ACTU’s minimum wage claim of $45 a week will improve the lives of the lowest paid workers if it were granted.

The Turnbull Government opposes anything other than a modest increase and says that low-income earners are often found in high income households. They’ll be letting us eat cake next, if we can afford it.

The $45 a week increase will not be granted without a big industrial fight and breaking some of those unjust industrial laws McManus has spoken about. Even then, a minimum wage increase of $45 a week won’t address in any meaningful way the massive shift in wealth and income from labour to capital that has occurred since 1983.

The United Voice union argues that the minimum wage has fallen from 65% of the median wage in 1985 to 53% in 2015 and, together with the ACTU, wants a process to increase that figure to 60% over the next few years. Submissions to the Fair Work Commission will not see that happen. A massive strike campaign, illegal under Labor’s fair work regime, could win that and better wages for all workers, now.

Wage theft is a new business model for too many businesses. Not paying or feeding workers on the very scheme the Turnbull Government oversees is but the latest example. 7-Eleven, Domino’s Pizzas, and a host of other employers also come to mind. Why aren’t any of these rorters in jail for wage theft, Mr Turnbull?

Neoliberalism has run its course. In fact, it should never have been in the race. As Katharine Murphy from the Guardian Australia said in a question to McManus at the Press Club, it was Hawke and Keating (with the collaboration of the ACTU) who introduced neoliberalism into Australia. Even Paul Keating now recognises the failure of liberal economics, but says the problems began in 2008. Conveniently, Keating is excluding himself, despite being the man who drove neoliberalism in Australia in his 13 years from 1983 to 1996 as treasurer and then prime minister.

As McManus says, wealth and power do go hand in hand. Increasing concentrations of wealth mean increasing concentrations of economic and political power. Workers are disempowered and it is time to take the power back.

Sally McManus is energising people on the left and, I hope, many workers, with her fighting words.

It is early days and they are only words — so far. McManus heads a conservative trade union bureaucracy whose driving philosophy since adopting the Accord with the Hawke Labor government in 1983, and its various mutations over the years, has been class collaboration rather than class struggle.

It was Labor governments, state and federal, that de-registered the Builders’ Labourers Federation, with the help of the ACTU. It was the Hawke Labor Government that broke the Pilots’ strike of 1989 with the use of the military, cheered on by the ACTU. It was the Keating Labor Government that severely restricted the right to strike with its enterprise bargaining laws, laws to which the ACTU acquiesced.

The election of McManus as ACTU secretary might signal a change in approach by the conservative trade union bureaucracy and an understanding at last by some of the centrist union leaders that if you don’t fight you lose. We shall see. It is unlikely to reflect any change in direction of the conservative leadership of unions like the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association and the Australian Workers’ Union (Shorten’s old haunt), although a fighting union movement more generally might push their membership, already under attack in the case of SDA members over penalty rates, into the fray.

McManus might struggle to make the case to union members that they should break the bosses’ industrial laws and fight back after three decades of industrial inaction. My sense however is that there are a large number of workers so pissed off with 34 years of growing inequality and attacks on hard won pay, conditions and public services that McManus could spark a fire that destroys the bosses’ industrial relations prison, if she wanted to.

In 1969, left wing unions organised rolling general strikes across Australia that freed union leader Clarrie O’Shea from jail after five days and made the penal powers of fines and jail for industrial action a dead letter.

Let’s hope McManus is beginning to organise something similar with left wing unions today and that she plans to win over workers to this course of action through persuasion and support for on the ground strikes that are happening now. Who knows, she could even suggest to public servants that the way to beat the wage cuts their bosses are offering is to strike indefinitely until the bosses and the Turnbull government back down.

The real flashpoint is likely to arise in the building industry.  The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union is a particular target for employers and government because its members win real wage increases and because it wants to stop deaths on building sites. A safe site costs money and many builders regards their workers’ lives as expendable. Unions enforcing safety save lives but they increase costs for the bosses. So under the Turnbull government and cross benchers like Hanson, Xenophon and Hinch, the bosses win, over workers’ lives.

The main role of the recently re-established Australian Building and Construction Commission is to smash the CFMEU and other building unions that dare challenge the bloody rule of capital on building sites. A good first step from McManus would be not only expressing support for the CFMEU members and others caught up in the ABCC witch-hunt, but to openly urge unionists to break the ABCC laws and threaten to use the strength of the rest of the union movement to smash the ABCC if any worker is interviewed, arrested or otherwise dealt with under the ABCC laws.

Such urging is probably illegal so I doubt McManus would do this right now, but I also doubt any government or bosses group is going to arrest the head of the ACTU for urging workers to fight against unjust industrial laws.

McManus’s election present problems for Labor. While the Liberals take a chainsaw to the working class, the ALP uses a scalpel and for 34 years the ACTU has been nurse to the Labor doctor. That may no longer be the case. And certainly any changes to industrial laws the ALP promises will not give workers an unfettered right to strike, and will not address the inequality or concentrations of power their neoliberal policies started and continue to contribute to.

Our task must be to build on the momentum McManus has generated, and try to turn her fighting words into action by rank and file unionists.

John Passant is a former Assistant Commissioner of Taxation. Read more by John on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

Signed copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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