May 18, 2018

Want to fix endless wage stagnation? Go on strike.

It's hard to see how any long-term return to higher wages growth will be achieved without a significant rise in strikes, which have been at historically low levels for many years.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Australia's has a record low level of industrial disputation, and record low levels of union membership. Areas of legitimate industrial dispute have been narrowed; courts have confected reasons to narrow it further. Workers have also endured several years of wage stagnation -- though that is purely coincidence, according to a number of economic commentators. 

The Reserve Bank's solution for wage stagnation -- though it forecasts only a "gradual" rise in growth -- is that, in the words of governor Phillip Low, "it would be a good thing" if "workers [were] prepared to ask for larger wage rises." That, of course, is what unions exist to do, in part -- unless it's the SDA, in which case you raison d'etre, apparently, is to undermine your own members' wages.

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7 thoughts on “Want to fix endless wage stagnation? Go on strike.

  1. Metal Guru

    Don’t you know Bernard it is illegal to strike? This has been the decisions of the FWC over many years. You have to go through a long protracted process of negotiation – all to favour the employer – and you can be effectively fobbed off for years. This is what has happened to the public sector . The EAs that have been signed have been shitty for the employees and the Home Affairs guys are waiting earnestly for a decision by the FWC after 5 years without a pay rise. This is the deliberat result of action whereby the CPSU – the union representing the workers in the public sector – have had to endure years of bad faith negotiations by both their agenceis, the DIBP and the ABF (Now Home Affairs), and the Public Service Commission. Any article for negoation had to be cleared by both the agency and the PSC. Now the matter has gone to the FWC but it took years to do so and the strikes that Bernard speaks of only occurred after several years of negotiation. They were illegal and unprotected. I can’t see a wealthy benefactor bailing them out. The CFMEU does but the CPSU won’t. I don’t know what Bernard is asking for but it is vain at best and more in hope than anything constructive.

  2. AR

    None could disagree about the legal impediments and cultural opprobrium heaped on workers & unions – thanks a heap HawKeating.
    The article mentions that today’s workforce is virtually double that of the 80s, when 1.5M days were ‘lost’ (! where did they go, could they be found again?), how come the obvious connection is not made as to the major reasons for stagnation?
    1) the abolition of manufacturing as a “good thing” leading to mass, condition averse, service work,
    2) regarding paper shuffling as valid employment – for the short period before automation obviates it which brings
    3) a dog-eat-dog society.
    Not as if this is a mysterious or an accidental occurrence.

  3. old greybearded one

    One of your better ones Bernard. A worker’s labour is the only thing he has to bargain with and if he cannot withdraw it he has no power at all. The boss of course can lock the door as he pleases. I have been the victim of strikes in my own business in the past, and some were stupid. However, safety and fair conditions are vital. My dad often aid that the reason for the rise of militant unionism was the way employers acted in the depression. I have worked where unions had t0protect the migrants workers and they did. Not now, they have no ability. Unions did not countenance wage theft and there was government backup for them in these matters.

  4. CML

    What a shocking state of affairs…we desperately need to instigate the unions ‘Change the Rules’ strategy.
    If the next Labor government does not do so, the majority of the workforce is headed for serfdom…the situation deserves urgent action!

  5. klewso

    I wonder if this “wage stagnation crisis” isn’t being overblown?
    With “all these jobs created” (as this government and it’s pimps like to spout in distraction) :- surely all we have to do is work three or four of them to make the kind of living (including buying a home) we once could on one?

  6. OliverB

    Fixing wages by striking is unfair: it benefits workers in industries where unionisation is practical. Worse, its success would split the base of support for broader reforms to address inequality. Those overpaid waterfront workers that Helen Razer admires might have helped the average wage statistic, but that didn’t mean a thing for the chumps on minimum wage.

  7. Dick Tyger

    As a business person, if I don’t like what a customer is offering me for my products, I simply don’t supply the goods or services. Labour has to have the same rights. I see the arguments of the HR Nicholls Society mouthpieces arguing that strike activity with deter investment. Well, perhaps! However, do we want investment predicated at least in part on worker exploitation? They also argue that if you don’t like what you’re being paid then “quit”. Of course, that’s not an option for most people. For an individual worker, the inequality of bargaining power is usually insurmountable.

    I shudder to think of Australia following the American dream any further: massive income inequality and guns for all. Yes, the unions have to be able to strike in the interests of their workers.
    As a final point, speaking as a believer in “smaller government”, low wages lead to an increased and undesirable reliance on taxpayer funded welfare. As greater numbers of workers increase their dependence of welfare due to low wages, we have to borrow to fund the resulting deficit. In effect, we’re borrowing overseas to fund wealth transfers to capital.

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