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Murdoch University terminates agreement with 3,500 staff (Image via @RedFlag_news).

It's time to break the unjust laws that make up Australia’s industrial relations system, writes John Passant.

SENSIBLE SECTIONS of the wealthy understand that lower wages mean less demand by workers for goods and services, or increased debt for workers, a response which has the same result as cutting wages.

Governor of the Reserve Bank Philip Lowe – no "leftie" by any means – has urged workers to demand much higher wages. 

Yet capitalism appears to be built on keeping wages as low as possible both in the good times and the bad. The ten per cent shift in the share of factor income from labour to capital over the previous three decades is the best but not the only indicator of this idea in Australia. In short, the bosses are getting a bigger and bigger share of the pie and workers less and less.

While Lowe might have an understanding of one aspect of capitalism, namely that the exploitation of workers can only be successful if the surplus value in goods and services is turned into profit, he seems to be very much alone among the elite one per cent in his views.  

Neither Malcolm Turnbull nor Scott Morrison has been championing big wage increases for workers. Indeed they have been warning of the dangers of the five per cent per annum pay increase the building unions in Victoria won their members.

In the workplace, the boss "knows" in her heart that wage increases cut her profits. Certainly, the members of the "Fair" Work Commission know it.

For example, they accepted the argument that penalty rates for Sunday work were too high and in a changing societal environment when Sundays are supposedly no different to Mondays work-wise, it was necessary to cut Sunday penalty rates.  

Since 1 July this year, workers in the fast food and hospitality industry have been paid less for working on Sundays unless the employer decides to keep paying them the extra penalty rates or there is a rotten penalty rate cutting agreement in place with unions that are not like the SDA. Cuts in other industries are in the pipeline.

It is not just the Fair Work Commission attacking workers. The Turnbull Government has introduced a new bill into Parliament with the Orwellian title of Fair Work Amendment Protecting Vulnerable Workers Bill 2017. Ostensibly, it is about protecting workers in fast food outlets like 7-Eleven and other franchises from bosses who massively underpay their workforce.

In reality, it extends the draconian powers of the anti-worker Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) to other industries.

The Guardian's Van Badham calls it:

‘ ... the complete annihilation of the last remaining rights of working people and the unions that fight for those rights.’

According to ACTU Secretary Sally McManus the Government will introduce a new bill, also with an Orwellian title, "Ensuring Integrity", into the Parliament this week. 

McManus says:

If they pass, these laws will:

  • impose harsher and more onerous obligations on not-for-profit volunteer run unions than apply to the banks or big business;
  • allow the government of the day, lobbyists or employers to move to sack union leaders and shut down unions; and
  • over-ride the decisions of union members to merge their union or elect their leaders;

This bill is designed to allow the Turnbull Government to bash unions and make our job even harder while we campaign for better and stronger rights for all working people, to turn around casualisation and low wage growth.

There are other ways to drive wages down apart for criminalising union activity. One is to legalise what are, effectively, $4-an-hour salaries.

That is what the Government is doing with its "PaTH" youth internship program. Not only that but as almost every commentator pointed out, the program itself would be exploited by greedy employers. And sure enough, Espresso Lane has been suspended from the program for overworking and underpaying its PaTH workers.

PaTH is about putting downward pressure on wages. 

Last week, Fair Work gave Murdoch University the right to tear up its enterprise agreement, which it has now done. The union and university have been deadlocked for some time over negotiations about a new enterprise agreement. 

As Josh Zimmerman in the Melville Times reports:

From September 26, Murdoch University will be free to reduce wages by 25 to 39 per cent, cut redundancy entitlements, remove academic workload regulation, eliminate employer provided paid parental leave and remove the current requirement to consult staff before implementing workplace changes.

[However,] ahead of the Fair Work Commission hearing, Murdoch University committed to maintaining staff wages and other benefits for six months if the existing EA was terminated.

One of the reasons Fair Work gave for allowing Murdoch to tear up the enterprise agreement was that the university was running at an operational loss of $5 million. The enterprise agreement and the hard-won union rights contained therein have been thrown out in the name of profit.

The possibility is that other "close to the bone" universities will follow Murdoch’s example. Employers outside the sector will be tempted to do the same.

At the same time that the Fair Work Commission is undermining enterprise bargaining in universities, the Government has $2.8 billion in funding to the sector. Minister for Education Simon Birmingham has used the Fair Work decision to argue that universities should use the enterprise bargaining period – agreements in many universities have expired or are just about to expire – to seek "efficiencies".

Efficiencies mean higher fees for students, lower wages, cutting "unprofitable" courses, ramming more students – especially international and national fee paying students – into classes, cutting jobs and increasing the workloads on all staff.

According to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU):

Academic staff reported working on average more than 50 hours per week and general and professional staff reported uncompensated overtime at an average of 5.7 hours per week. This basically means that university staff are donating millions of free hours and saving universities millions.

I remember when I was a casual tutor at the Australian National University, a few years ago, arguing in a mass meeting of staff on the enterprise agreement for a 38 hour week for all staff, with overtime paid if we worked beyond that. The officials pooh-poohed the idea. The members agreed with the officials.

And that is part of the problem. Universities do not have a history of industrial struggle. The NTEU officials have been part of the cosy industrial relations club.

Now that their basic influence is under attack they might turn the switch to action. However, after decades of inaction and academic staff seeing the way forward as working long hours to write academic journal articles few people read, the chances of success of a top-down stage managed "militancy" are limited.

The Murdoch decision is but the latest example of the attacks on workers and their unions. Words from the officials will not stop the rot. A militant industrial campaign smashing the industrial laws that chain workers to the current wage cutting system is the only answer.

It is time to break the unjust laws that make up Australia’s industrial relations system. That is a task for rank and file workers, not their leaders. If we don’t fight, we lose.

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John'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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