The Labor government’s Jobs and Skills Summit concluded on Thursday, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese declaring he was “incredibly heartened by the spirit of cooperation” at the two-day event.
The event brought together representatives of big business, government and the trade unions to outline a renewed assault on working-class jobs, wages and conditions.
The reality is that the “spirit of cooperation” was guaranteed before the summit began. The official proceedings served as little more than a rubber-stamp for deals worked out in backroom negotiations, mainly between the unions and business groups, over recent weeks.
Taking place just over 100 days into Labor’s rule, the event was designed to demonstrate that Albanese’s government is already starting to deliver on its pre-election pitch to business to boost productivity and profits.
Central to this agenda, and to the discussion at the summit, was how Labor and the unions will impose the sweeping industrial relations restructuring that has been demanded by the corporate and financial elite for decades.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke announced that the government would take “immediate action” on changes to the Fair Work Act.
Perhaps the most significant of these, and certainly the most celebrated by the unions, was Burke’s commitment to “removing unnecessary limitations” to the negotiation of multi-employer agreements.
Some right-wing figures, such as Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton, who refused to attend the summit, claimed this would lead to a wave of strikes led by “union thugs.”
This is far from the reality contained in the government’s plan, the purpose of which is to give small business, which employs more than half of Australia’s workers, the same ever-more “flexible options” enjoyed by larger corporations, enforced by the unions for the past three decades.
The word “flexibility” is code for the ability of business, in close collaboration with the unions, to impose enterprise agreements (EAs) that remove workers’ basic and hard-won rights, including weekend, night-time and overtime penalty rates.
The fact that such multi-employer bargaining is designed to benefit business, not workers, is demonstrated by the enthusiastic backing of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA). It signed a memorandum of understanding with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) ahead of the summit, pledging their unified support for the scheme.
COSBOA chief executive Alexi Boyd emphasised at the summit that multi-employer bargaining would be “opt-in” for empl-oyers, further demonstrating that it is designed to benefit business, not workers. The idea that multi-employer bargaining will lead to a renaissance of “union militancy” is utterly false. ACTU secretary Sally McManus assured the corporate elite that the pact with the COSBOA would not result in strikes against small multiple businesses. “We want the system to work for small business,” 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 workplace relations minister to shut down industrial action on the flimsy basis that it may “cause significant economic damage to the Australian economy or an important 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 into EA negotiations, further eroding the basic right of workers to fight for their own wages and conditions.
McManus lauded this move, declaring that by “strengthening the role of the commission, we can achieve a system which is fair, efficient and simple for the vast majority of employers and unions who bargain.” It is not by accident that Australia’s chief union bureaucrat did not mention workers in this statement.
Burke also announced that the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT) for new EAs would be “simplified,” removing a stumbling block, severely limited though it is, standing in the way of the wholesale destruction of what remains of workers’ wages, rights and conditions.
Under BOOT, EAs are supposed to ensure that no individual worker is worse off. That will now be watered down by giving the FWC more “flexibility” in interpreting it, although the exact details have not been revealed.
This shift 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 organisations in 2020, before secretive union-employer-government talks broke down due to disagreement from other business groups.
The corporate media, along with Labor and the unions, have promoted the lie that the summit was about “getting wages moving.” This is based on the “trickle-down economics” fiction that higher productivity—output per worker—will lift wages.
Productivity growth has outstripped wages for at least two decades. Real wages are declining at the fastest pace on record and already are down to level of 2011, while productivity growth has increased by an average of 1.5 percent per annum.
The summit illustrated the great extent to which the ruling class still relies on the unions, despite their collapsed membership and legitimacy in the eyes of workers after years of sellouts and agreements to axe workers’ jobs and conditions.
As the government seeks to impose the “tough medicine” of its harsh wage-cutting agenda, on top of already historic falls in real wages, Albanese and Labor will depend heavily on the unions to shut down opposition to the deepening assault.
Recent developments in the New South Wales (NSW) public sector prove that the unions are anxious to fulfil this role.
Faced with mounting opposition to the state’s punitive public sector pay 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), NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association and NSW Teachers Federation—have all met this hostility with concessions. They have called sporadic and isolated stoppages, suppressed workers’ demands for unified action and promoted illusions that workers’ issues will be resolved through appeals to the state government or Labor. This has only bolstered the fragile government and fuelled its increasingly vicious assault.
The sharpest attacks have been directed at rail workers, whom the Perrottet government this week delivered an ultimatum: Stop all industrial action and immediately accept cuts to real wages and conditions or we’ll demand that the FWC tear up your existing agreement, potentially cutting wages by 40 percent.
The RTBU responded by restating its promise for “two weeks of peace,” and launched its own legal case, further tying workers’ fates to the pro-business industrial courts.
Perrottet’s stepped-up attack against rail workers, timed to coincide with the summit, was intended to set a precedent for what will be carried out against nurses, teachers and others, not just in NSW, but across the country.
The introduction of multi-employer bargaining is aimed at increasing the reach of the unions to allow them to exercise the same level of control over broader sections of the working class, imposing wage cuts and shutting down genuine opposition to the austerity agenda.
The ruling class is acutely aware that class tensions are mounting. In Australia and around the world, workers face a massive assault on their standard of living amid skyrocketing 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 growing numbers 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 the unions and Labor, and form new organs of struggle. Through the building of independent rank-and-file committees, workers can link up across the country and around the world to democratically organise the necessary counter-offensive to spiralling inflation and the destruction of jobs, pay and conditions.