On Wednesday, the LNP announced their IR policy to Improve your employer’s ability to exploit you. Well that wasn’t exactly the name but it is the strategy, and that’s what I’ll expand on in this post. If you want to feel the cold hand of Voldemort on your soul then you can read the original policy document here and make up your own mind.
The policy document, at 38 pages, is pretty light on for detail, which probably assists it to achieve two contradictory aims. First, to signal to business bosses how the Coalition will assist them with wringing more profit out of the employment relationship. Second, to signal to workers that most of their main conditions will be protected – they can safely turf the federal Labor government. It does this through displacing the exploitative elements of the employment relationship onto the union-member/worker relationship, this allows the document to paint a picture where workers overall will be better off because the Coalition will safeguard their statutory rights, and allow them to smoke in peace without having to worry about a “dodgy union boss” turning up. Have a look at the number of times the words “union” and “worker/s” are mentioned in specific context (disclaimer: I’ve done this after one count – my numbers will be substantially correct but a couple of the numbers might be a bit off):
Mentions of of the word “union”:
- (In the context of) Union right of entry: 40 (there is some weird repressed shit going on here with the sheer number of times “entry” is mentioned alone – 27 by the way)
- Union bosses: 5
- Interfering in the relationship between workers and bosses: 4
- Union officials bullying workers and employers: 6
- Holding up, setting back new projects and more generally endangering the economy: 13
- Demanding exorbitant conditions: 4
- In the context of corruption and fraud: 10
Mentions of the words “worker/s”:
- The right to flexibility: 16
- Being protected from unions and/or conduct of union officials: 21
- Giving workers a better deal/being better off overall: 23
- Coalition government/laws protecting/looking after workers generally: 14
- Business creating opportunities for workers: 7
Overall, the document paints workers as victims, who can sometimes be conned into misguided action by unions, but in the main need a Coalition government to look after them and protect them from fraudulent unions. On the one hand, the Coalition will do this by making sure they are protected from fraudulent union conduct, “union bosses” coming to talk to them in the workplace and bullying from union officials. On the other, the Coalition will increase parental leave and give some underpaid workers the interest on underpayments.
On a side note, there are exactly zero mentions of the taking away of fundamental civil liberties such as the right to silence through the reinstatement of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Individual rights are apparently fundamental but only in so far as they don’t impinge on the right of Daniel Grollo to make as much profit as possible from the business he was born into.
This policy document is entirely consistent with the Coalition strategy I’ve outlined in a previous post. This document can be viewed as part of the opening gambit where the managerial wingnuts express solidarity with workers (even the preponderance of the term workers as opposed to employees is itself evidence of a shift) and their right to have well-run and transparent unions. This is all prep work for an inquiry or Royal Commission into union governance, which will then lay the groundwork for a full-frontal assault on worker rights in a second or third term Coalition government using the findings of the Productivity Commission (you know once the pesky union movement is politically and industrially hamstrung into irrelevance).
This strategy is pure genius in the circumstances. But the circumstances it is born into is one of ideological weakness. The IR nut-jobs lost the debate – the whole neoliberal idea that ‘deregulating’ (read regulating in favour of the State/capital) the labour market will lead to some sort of equilibrium where everyone is better off has been thoroughly discredited. The vast mass of Australians know that if you remove their working rights you’re simply lowering their entire quality of life, and their ability to support their families. The timing of the policy’s release itself reveals this weakness. The Coalition wanted to get this out early to try and neutralise the charge it would lower wages and conditions for most Australians, and give it enough time to shape the debate to one about the conduct of a few union officials. As such, this is a document that is born in the twilight between the hegemonic ascendancy of neoliberal thought and the dawn light of the social justice fightback.
The only response to the Coalition policy is to go on the counter attack, we don’t stay on the defensive but run into the struggle. It is only when we appreciate the weak starting point from the Coalition’s gambit to attack workers’ rights that the broader union movement can begin to piece together a coherent response. You respond to weakness with strength and courage.
As far as this goes, it is worth noting that the only part of the document where the worker/employer v outside union dichotomy breaks down is the part that deals with bargaining and strike action. There the language becomes one of protecting employers from the “exorbitant claims” of workers and ensuring that bargaining considers matters around “productivity”. That the Coalition wouldn’t approve of strike action is so obvious that it’s significance is easily missed. In order for the Coalition to achieve two aims that are in tension with one another (that is facilitating greater profit from the employment relationship and telling workers they will be looked after) in needs to portray Australian workers as a passive component of the marketplace. Any hint of Australian workers as active agents of change and the two aims would tear the policy document asunder.
Thus, two elements of any coherent and comprehensive response to the Coalition IR policy have to be:
(1) Responding to any Royal Commission into unions not by running but demanding a full-blown inquiry into corruption into the corporate sector, politicians and other agents of power. We can see a hint of this when Ged Kearney, ACTU President, responsed to the Coalition policy on Friday when she wrote, “Mr Abbott’s desperation in clutching onto the handful of undesirables instead of acknowledging the masses of good is hypocritical and misleading. There are hundreds of corporate fraud cases…”
(2) Doing everything we can to assist workers develop into active agents of change.