There’s a group in Australia that’s been badly ripped off over the past 20 years. It’s this country’s 11 million workers, employed and unemployed—the majority of the population.
The wages share of the country’s wealth has fallen from 61% to 53.5% since 1983. If Australia’s workers had been able to maintain that 1983 share in 2004, we would have had $56 billion more in our pockets for 2003 alone.
That would have been $56 billion more to meet our basic needs for health, education for our children and leisure, and $56 billion less for luxury yachts, racehorses and waterfront real estate that drives inner-city housing way out of the reach of the working-class people who once lived there.
True, the total pie has expanded. And some of us have been able to maintain and even increase our standard of living. But more often than not the price has been more stressful, unsafe and unrewarding jobs, enforced overtime and double shifts—less hours for family and leisure.
We’re working harder. According to the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training, 60% of Australians feel that their lives are a lot less secure than ten years ago. 30% of male workers are working more than 50 hours a week and more than half of them wish they could work less. 1.2 million workers in Australia feel they have to do unpaid overtime.
Women workers have been losing out most — 70% of part-time jobs are done by women and 45% of women’s jobs are part-time, up from 36.5% in 1986. The gap between men’s and women’s wages is widening: in the two years to May 2002 women’s wages increased by $33 as against $58 for men. Twenty years ago full-time pay for women was 86% of the male wage; now it’s 81%.
But despite this picture some workers — a minority — haven’t done too badly in recent years. Some examples:
These groups of workers have one thing in common. They belong to strong unions, which have put the defence of their members’ wages and conditions first and foremost, refusing to accept what the boss, the government and courts thought was their due.
They have refused to knuckle under to state and federal governments — ALP and Liberal — and as a result have been called every name under the sun and even had to face royal commissions into their alleged crimes.
These unions have also proven to workers in the industries they cover that there is a point to belonging to a union. They are among the few unions where membership has increased.
For example, under the new militant leadership of the Western Australian Maritime Union of Australia, union coverage at Patrick, Fremantle, has risen from 53% to 99%.
This confirms that the old saying "If you don't fight you lose" is as true as it ever was. The majority of union leaderships that have stopped fighting — because their ALP mates have been in government or because they never knew how — have carried on losing both conditions and members.
As a result the percentage of workers who belong to a union has more than halved over the past 20 years, from 48% in 1984 to 23% today. Things are particularly bad among young workers —l ess than 15% of workers under 25 belong to a union.
Workers in this country urgently need to rebuild fighting, democratic unionism that abides by the principle: "Touch One, Touch All". Nothing else stands between us and low pay, speed-ups and stress at work, and victimisation and exploitation by the employer.
Socialist Alliance members are in the forefront of the struggle to rebuild Australia’s unions, active in their own unions and in building solidarity with all union struggles. As an organisation the Alliance acts in solidarity with those unions that are in the front line of the fight for wages and conditions, and is committed to increasing the membership, morale, organisation and fighting strength of the union movement.
Socialist Alliance unionists look to work with all unionists — ALP, Green or non-party — who share this goal. Our Charter of Worker and Trade Union Rights sums up our stance on the critical issues face.
When union members elect militant, democratic leaders they can make enormous steps forward. By throwing out the careerists and dead wood they can begin the job of turning the union into an organisation that’s strong enough to defend the interests of all its members against those of the employer.
But that’s still not enough because the strongest union in the world can only do so much. And in periods of recession it can do even less.
This means that working people and our unions can’t do without politics — our own, working-class, politics. We can’t defend our own interests if we just stick to "union issues", no matter how strongly we fight for them.
There’s a working-class point of view on every issue: we need to uncover it, debate it and organise to fight for it. And as we do this it pays remember these words of Peter Reith, John Howard’s former minister for industrial relations, in an address to a gathering of employers: "Never forget which side we’re on. We are on the side of making profits. We’re on the side of the people owning private capital."
Socialist Alliance has the same starting point, but from the other side of the fence. We never forget which side we’re on. We’re on the side of the working people — the vast majority — and our policies are aimed at defending their rights and interests. We’re against the system that is driven by private profit.
But there’s a problem. The party that working people have traditionally expected to advance their interests, the ALP, has let down its supporters time and time again. In fact it has been the ALP that has carried out most of the dirty work of imposing "economic rationalism" (permanent free kicks to big business).
It was Hawke, Keating and Co who deregulated the finance sector, cut wages through the Accord, flogged off public assets, gave huge gifts to big business and tried to crush militant unionism by deregistering unions. State Labor governments have been in the forefront of the attack on workers compensation.
Socialist Alliance was formed to build the working-class political alternative to the ALP. As steps along that road we argue for unions to take a stand on all political issues — from refugees to Aboriginal rights to Iraq, from alternative economic policy to women’s rights — and to organise publicly for pro-worker policies. In this we strive to revive the best traditions of Australian unionism, from the wharfies’ 1940s action in support of the Indonesian independence struggle to the NSW Builders Labourers Federation’s green bans of the 1970s.
The Alliance is taking every possible opportunity to initiate and host debate about how to rebuild an authentic political voice for working people within individual unions and across the movement as a whole. If you agree with the Socialist Alliance policies and approach, vote for us!
But most of all — get active! Join us in the exciting struggle to create that new party that working people in Australia need!