Wages won’t grow so let’s build them

Photo by by Louisa Catlover: Luke Hilakari
The following has been sent to The Pen. The author is Luke Hilakari, who is the Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council. It was first published by Medium (5 March 2018). In this, Hilakari explains why trickle down economics is not going to work, how workers are treated, why they need unions and why union have to fight  to lift wages and rights at work in Australia.

The Jamie Duries at the reserve bank have predicted a good harvest for Australian workers. “Our forecasts are for wage growth to pick up from here, but not immediately and then only gradually,” Dr Luci Ellis told a conference in February. “Wage growth” will happen, says the RBA. Just wait.

The reserve bank’s language, and the confidence with which such forecasts are intoned, are designed to persuade us that wage growth will be the inevitable consequence of an established and well cultivated system: wages will “grow” because economists have kindly provided big business with the conditions for them to grow. They have watered the soil with low interest rates and dumped steaming heaps of company tax cuts on top.

But if we think of wages as a plant, then our current industrial relations system treats them as weeds, not crops to be nurtured. In the current political environment, wherever working people’s wages or conditions blossom, executives reach for the weed killer: workers are locked out, negotiations terminated, they’re replaced with a temporary workforce, or their hard won agreement torn up and replaced with the minimum.

Where workers in union finally nurture into existence better wages than the minimum allowable by law, or dare to withdraw their labour in their struggle for better conditions, scorn is poured on them from the corporate offices, conservative pollies and the national broadsheet. Workers are told they are lucky to have jobs at all.

The language we use to describe the economy matters. For years we have waited patiently for the promised green shoots of higher wages and better working conditions to spring up from the ground, convinced that just one more helping of company tax cut manure will have conditions right for the natural and promised wage growth to occur. But for five years, wages have stubbornly stagnated against inflation, even as profits soar and productivity steadily increases. Wages are not growing, and no amount of waiting or watering will help.

For wages to improve, we certainly need to address the arid political environment, but more to the point we need to stop the wilful ignorance that says wages will grow if we just provide the right economic conditions. The emancipation of the working class is not a natural process. Wages and conditions will not automatically improve given the right environment.

Our wages and rights at work are not a plant, they are a tower

Wages need to be built, brick upon brick. Not only do we need to ensure firm foundations are in place, we need to give workers the materials with which to build wages higher: the right to organise, the right to bargain fairly and the right to strike.

Industrial action in Australia is at an all-time low. We saw in Sydney last month another nail in the coffin of the right to strike. The RTBU followed every rule, they jumped through every hoop, complied with the law every step of the way. Yet because the Government of the day didn’t like it they said “no, go back to work”. Without the right to strike unions lack the ability to negotiate, we lose the one bit of leverage we had left.

The emancipation of the working class is not a natural process. Wages and conditions will not automatically improve given the right environment.

Robust bargaining efforts and the decision to withdraw our labour should not be viewed as failings of a bargaining system, but as the tools of workers engaged in the meaningful and self -sacrificing work of building better working conditions. Politicians take away our tools and wonder why building has stopped.

Politicians and economists promise that they have sown the seeds of wage growth and the conditions are right; we need only be patient. But more and more Australians are beginning to see that the promised “trickle down effect” is a lie. Your employer will pay you the absolute minimum they can get away with, regardless of the fertile economic conditions.

Get building

If we want to take home a greater portion of the proceeds of our work, if we want to enjoy more time with our family and friends or enjoy workplace conditions that better reflect our humanity, then we need to build the foundations for a new workplace rights agenda. If the tools we have at our disposal aren’t working we should reclaim the ones that have been taken from us and build new ones.

It is in the interests of conservative governments and big business to keep us believing that higher wages will sprout miraculously and passively from their well-tended garden. We know that won’t work. So instead, pick up your tools, join your union, and start building.


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