- Interview by
- Chris Dite
A recent 5.2 percent raise in the minimum wage set off a big debate in Australia. The governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has insisted the wage raise was too high, and the newly elected Labor Party (ALP) government readily agreed. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), however, praised the move and claimed the RBA was out of touch.
The ACTU’s public support for the pay raise obscured some of the deeper dynamics of Australia’s labor movement and economy. Minimum wages and standards were already ludicrously low due to a series of dodgy nationwide agreements struck by a powerful yellow union. These agreements transferred billions of dollars from workers to bosses over years, and undermined wages all across Australia. The culprit behind them, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), remains deeply intertwined with both the ALP and the ACTU.
The Retail and Fast-Food Workers’ Union (RAFFWU) emerged in 2016 to confront the SDA and the bosses. It has since won billions of dollars back for workers, challenged the dominance of the ALP in the labor movement, and organized countless workplaces that the ACTU had abandoned. Last year, its members undertook the first industrial action by retail workers in the country in fifty years, and in May, one of its rank-and-file members was even elected to parliament. Jacobin sat down with RAFFWU secretary Josh Cullinan to discuss the new ALP government, the minimum wage increase, worker representation in parliament, and the state of the union movement.
The new ALP minister for workplace relations, Tony Burke, has a background working for the SDA. What does that mean for workers?
Some within the ALP and ACTU certainly want to restore the power that the SDA once had to undercut the minimum wage. But there’s not the political capacity to do that. Tony Burke has already said that this time he won’t give the SDA what it wants by allowing employers to create agreements that are worse for workers than the minimum standards. Australia just won’t put up with that now — there are too many people watching.
In general, nothing of substance changes with an ALP industrial-relations minister. Casual work was already a huge problem in 2009. Instead of addressing it, Labor increased the limits on how workers could take industrial action in their workplaces under the legislation. What we need in Australia is radical change to have a living wage, to de-casualize the country, to return workers’ rights. We’re not going to see any of that under an ALP government.
That said we’ve probably got the most progressive crossbench in recent memory. There is an opportunity for the Greens — if they take it — to push Labor to make more substantial changes. But really for there to be any impetus for societal change, young and casual workers need to be organized. Right now they have no real voice. Various people purport to speak on behalf of them — though this claim is obscene when it comes from the ACTU and others.
The 5.2 percent minimum wage increase has been hailed by the ACTU as a breakthrough, while employers are warning of chaos. What’s your take on this?
In a practical sense these are wage cuts. They’re below poverty wages for a whole host of workers. In fast food something like 90 percent of workers are paid a junior rate; this can be as low as 45 percent of the full adult rate! Even those that are paid the full adult rate are on less than a living wage by all the metrics that various people use. These increases are important, but in order to deliver a living wage we actually needed a 16 percent wage increase, and the abolition of disabled, junior, and other discriminatory rates.
The reality is that there was a significant amount of pressure building. It was almost perfect timing — just as recently there have also been imperfect timings. For example, during the pandemic, workers copped a 1.75 percent increase, delayed for seven months — all while Coles and Woolies and others were making massive profits.
One of the more interesting elements of this decision is the rod that they’ve created for the back of future assessment panels. The biggest issue for the elite is that this pay raise starts with a five. The RBA governor, Philip Lowe, has been saying any minimum wage raise should “start with a three.” Those that have the wealth and comfort to play the long game know that you don’t allow workers to see a five. If they see it, they know they can get it. There’ll be a real fear from the elites come next year that if inflation is at 7 percent then workers will expect a seven in front. That’s common sense now. But of course the elite will be proposing something very different.
These amounts won’t end wage poverty or exploitation. But they help to establish some aspiration. We’re already seeing some of the much better paid organized professions seeking these same numbers. It’s all overblown in the press about the risk this poses. There are many multibillion dollar windfalls being delivered — offshore and onshore. So we’ve got every means to lift people out of poverty. We just don’t have the political will.
There’s been some discussion of inflation as class war. What does this mean?
Retail and fast-food workers aren’t the ones driving the cost of these sorts of things up; it’s the games of the profiteering mega-rich. Rents had already been skyrocketing for some time, and our members mostly don’t own their homes, so the rising costs associated with mortgages don’t hit them as hard. The most direct impact is on the cost of petrol, household goods, and utilities. The impact of that is substantial. If the idea is that this has to be worn by workers without having a living wage to offset it, then that is a form of class war.
Unemployment is low, so at the moment these things are being offset by our members increasing their working hours and getting second jobs. A number of workers are also staying casual to maintain their wage loading. But this is a vicious cycle: without job security they can’t organize to get higher wages. To run a workplace campaign for three to six months, workers have to grin and bear being permanent part-time to avoid getting fired. But because of the lower hourly rate that’s difficult for people to take in this situation.
What does RAFFWU propose should be done?
There’s a whole range of things the government could be doing immediately. First, every worker should have access to the basic staples of life: water, shelter, food, energy, education, communications, etc. All of those should be provided to all workers freely, and the market should bear the cost. Those that want caviar should pay for workers to have bread. Second, abolishing junior rates would transfer AUD$3.5 billion to young workers. Third, a living wage could be legislated, including for everyone that’s not working.
These are three basic things that any modern democracy should be implementing. But we understand how far off we are from these. We don’t have anything other than what’s in front of us: to help our members organize and secure better outcomes with employers that they can negotiate with. But a lot of this is out of their hands, particularly due to the radical speed at which things are changing.
Part of the reason it’s out of workers’ hands is that the ALP totally dominates union leadership positions and bureaucracies. Why is this such a problem?
Outsiders don’t have a depth of understanding of the way ALP affiliation infects unions.
It impacts everything the organization does. Rather than being focused on achieving policy outcomes for workers, unions become a political pathway for officials. It is that crude.
The allocation of staff, resources, time, priorities, and promotions . . . everything is connected to how much you’re willing to do to achieve the political party stuff. There’s a lot of hobnobbing that comes from that connection with power, and a big disconnect of union staff from members. National offices are so far away from member experiences. They meet with bosses, HR managers, and lawyers more than any workers. They just don’t have faith in the members. This whole game doesn’t go on in unions that aren’t affiliated. The further they get away from the grassroots, the more unions are in a fight for their lives.
Is the problem the same at the peak body level?
ALP capture infiltrates the peak bodies in the same way. The SDA model of unionism is now the modus operandi of the ACTU. They go to worksites, get workers to sign a petition about a minimum wage increase. They get about 1.75 percent, spend six months celebrating, then six months collecting the next petition. They don’t do any bargaining anymore because everyone just gets paid the minimum.
COVID-19 was an obvious opportunity for (ACTU president) Sally McManus to take on the SDA and its rotten agreements. Instead she chose to defend the ALP. We got to the point where she was literally meeting with the bosses to talk about how they can fuck workers over. For me, this is a further symbol of the decline of unionism in Australia.
I don’t know how we can have an effective union leadership at peak body level that’s not willing to deal with the hard questions. It says to me that those structures’ days are numbered. That’s unfortunate for them. They’ll decline into less and less relevance rather than go anywhere. It’s sad that the ACTU will be used by the Murdoch press as a spokesperson, rather than being a spokesperson for working people.
What are the biggest challenges facing independent challengers for union leadership positions? People can get a bit fixated on the “challenge the leadership” or “start a new union” dichotomy. What would you say to them?
For RAFFWU there wasn’t an alternative to starting a new union. The idea that you’re able to take on a behemoth like the SDA, one of the most powerful organizations in Australia . . . many have tried. The SDA has old anti-communist rules to prevent challenges. If you try to challenge the leadership there’ll be federal court cases run to find out about your organization. Not to mention that they’re in the bosses’ pockets, which are deep.
A lot of people even on the Left are naïve about how much money is in union slush funds. The people in power know it, though. The money’s used in elections but it’s also used to stave off opposition in the unions. But at RAFFWU we don’t want friends in parliament and we’re not looking for beers with ALP union secretaries on a Friday night. We want friends working at your local Macca’s or Woolies. That is quite freeing.
It’s a common claim from the current crop of ALP union bureaucrats that union members are not militant so unions can’t aim too high. This leads to them aiming low, which further lowers the expectations of the existing and potential membership. How are you challenging these claims?
If you work together as a group in the old socialist way, you can win. You won’t win every time, but you can win some of the fights. You might try a hundred things and only twenty of them pay off. As long as you’re with the members for the other eighty things and you’re saying, “Well, that was fucked and we did our best — how could we do things differently?”
That has a transformative effect on workers — experiential learning through collective action. Too few unions and leaders are prepared to do that. You hear a lot of union leaders say, “We don’t bargain for things that we can’t win.” It comes back to that preparedness to do the hard slog in the trenches with the workers and learning through the power of collective action. It’s not taught or properly understood and there are not enough wins for the broader story to gain traction. It happens: workers get together, join up, rock into a meeting, scare the boss, and he caves. But that story is just not heard near enough.
A RAFFWU member — Stephen Bates — was recently elected to federal parliament for the Greens. It’s the first time in recent memory that a retail worker has been elected. What does this mean for young workers?
It’s fantastic that an ordinary retail worker could get politically engaged and get elected. And what better than to defeat a Labor person from one of the big consulting companies, and a Liberal person from the National Retail Association, both who’ve no doubt made a fortune from exploiting workers.
There’s a lot of joy among our Queensland members and RAFFWU more generally. We’re made up of all sorts from all political backgrounds, and we’ve had a good working relationship with the Greens. Only a few weeks after we launched RAFFWU, [leader of the Greens] Adam Bandt proposed legislation that would have moved all retail and fast-food workers under SDA agreements to the award wage with penalty rates. It would have immediately paid those workers AUD$1 billion per year. For us that was a perfect proposal. The ALP and the ACTU both advocated against it, which will be a slight on their name forever.
It’s particularly fantastic that Stephen got elected to a parliament, which has got a crossbench like this one does. A lone voice saying something positive every now and then is good, but with this crossbench there’s more potential. When Labor proposes something weak, the Greens should turn around and say, “Well no, let’s abolish junior rates” or “Let’s give the right to strike back to workers.”
In your view what lies ahead for the Australian labor movement?
At the moment we’ve got a hell of a lot of workers in RAFFWU that have been able to identify how little their employer cares about them. That’s a big change from a few years ago. A lot of workers didn’t really understand that until COVID hit. People were scared.
Exploring that and encouraging workers to get engaged in health and safety campaigns was a big part of this change in mentality. Activism is also part of the makeup of the generation coming through. It’s not going to fly with them to do phone calls to swing voters in marginal seats. The ACTU can keep pushing that, but most young people are going to look at that and go, “Wait a second, what about street protests?” That’s a good thing. We’ve got to help give them those opportunities. As long as we keep the politics right and develop our capacity to educate and activate, then the workers’ hall can be owned by the workers again.