The Liberals are hiding Workchoices; so too is Labor
Something interesting happened over the weekend. Former Howard Government Minister and industrial relations thug Peter Reith got rolled in his campaign for the presidency of the Liberal Party.
Current leader Tony Abbot urged him to stand and then betrayed him. Abbott showed his vote to Alan Stockdale, former Victorian Treasurer and Reith rival for the top job.
In doing that he sent a signal to those voting that they too should support Stockdale. Stockdale won by one vote.
So what was this all about? Various commentators have put it down to factional manoeuvring in the Party, or to about to retire Senator Minchin’s desire for the job in a year.
I think it was about Workchoices. More precisely I think it was about whether to be quiet about industrial relations ‘reform’ or to be open about it. Stockdale and Abbott are in the ‘keep quiet’ camp, Reith and others in the ‘let’s talk about it’ group.
The electorate smashed the Liberals in 2007 over its anti-worker Workchoices laws. But with the minority Gillard Labor government on around 30 percent primary support in the polls, some sections of the Liberal Party have been emboldened to put the policy that dare not speak its name back on the agenda.
This is about productivity.
According to UBS ’… Australia had a relatively large productivity slowdown into the GFC … However, more concerning is that this trend has worsened since then… Specifically, productivity has slowed to only just over ½% since 2005, far below Australia’s long-run average of almost 2%.’
Why is productivity important to capitalism? As Tom Bramble put it in 2001 in What’s wrong with fair trade?:
The Keating and Howard governments’ free-market agenda is primarily designed to justify an ongoing employer offensive against workers, whose aim is to restore rates of profit in Australian industry to those prevailing in the mid-1960s. Higher productivity is central to this endeavour, and full-time jobs at decent rates of pay and working conditions are an obstacle.
To that list we could now add the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments.
Productivity increases can also cut the cost of necessities like food, housing, clothing and the like. That cuts the cost of regenerating and rejuvenating labour. The labour time needed to do that is cut so that if the working day remains the same length, more surplus is produced. That surplus can then, depending on what happens in the class struggle or lack of it over productivity gains, go to capital.
Howard’s Workchoices was an attempt to smash the organised sections of the working class and drive down workers’ living standards in response to the crisis of profitability.
While Labor won the election in 2007 on the back of massive working class resentment of Workchoices, its own industrial relations legislation Fair Work is Workchoices lite. It does much of what Workchoices did but in a supposedly more ‘caring sharing’ way and with the cooperation of the trade union bureaucrats.
Productivity increases for example through better machinery and technology can increase the social surplus. The question is who gets the benefits,and the story in Australia is that the rewards for productivity increases have been going overwhelmingly to capital. As the ACTU noted in October last year:
The wages share of national income fell from 54.5% in June 2009 to 52.7% in June 2010. The profit share of national income showed a corresponding increase, from 26.6% in June 2009 to 28.5% in June 2010.
The wages and profit shares of national income measure the proportion of all income that is paid to labour and capital, respectively.
The wages share of national income is now at its lowest point since December 1964.
They didn’t mention that the bosses’ share of national income is at its highest ever recorded. They did mention however that ’real unit labour costs are now at their lowest on record.’
And still the bosses want more. Not because they are greedy, which they are, but because the way production is organised and because of competition - in crude terms to have efficient machines replace ‘costly’ labour – the rate of profit across the economy tends to fall.
Why? Because labour is the source of surplus value (crudely, profits) and productivity increases over time can’t address the rate of the fall in profit rates arising as a consequence of the competition induced increases in investment in capital.
But capitalists and their politicians think it can. Hence the ongoing pressure from the bosses for industrial relations ‘reform’. The softly softly Labor approach (or more correctly the iron fist in the velvet glove approach) isn’t good enough for some bosses in improving productivity.
They favour a more aggressive assault on workers. Their political expression is the Liberal Party. But how to do that without risking 3 more years in Opposition?
The Liberals are not fools. Their defeat in 2007 saw them recognise that they needed a new approach to industrial relations. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has declared Workchoices dead. It isn’t.
The ‘don’t mention Workchoices’ group in the Liberal Party has won this battle. But significant elements of the bourgeoisie have been emboldened by Labor’s weakness and its Workchoice Lite to be upfront about the need for ‘reform’. They think they can convince workers it is in their interests to ‘reform’ industrial relations.
So bad is Gillard Labor that the Liberals’ argument might actually win support.
The real question is not which group within the Liberals has the ascendancy but whether workers are going to fight for real wage increases and better conditions and more jobs and blow the hidden Workchoices threat and its Fair Work cousin into the dustbin of history.