The lucky country

The third annual report of the Workplace Research Centre’s Australia at Work project came out today. It’s a longitudinal study of the reported experiences of more than 6,000 workers. This year’s was bound to be interesting because it reports the effects of the ‘crisis’ over the last year. Apparently falling interest rates and petrol prices, as well as the stimulus package, have had a broader impact than un(der)employment:

The event that arguably had the most impact on the Australian economy and labour market in 2008 was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in October. While expectations that the Australian economy would go into a technical recession were unmet, the impact was felt through a rise in unemployment and reports of further reductions in working hours. However, this report finds that only small sections of the workforce have endured negative impacts from the economic downturn. Around 8 per cent of all respondents report losing a job in the last year, and around two-fifths of these people are now in a job. While the levels of job insecurity remain very low among Australian employees, there has been an increase between 2008 and 2009, from 7 to 12 per cent. Insecurity is higher among private sector employees, at 14 per cent in 2009.

There have been some positive changes that have resulted from the economic downturn. While reports of increased living costs peaked in the first half of 2008, the GFC saw Australian interest rates plummet, petrol prices return to previous levels and the Government distribute a series of stimulatory cash hand-outs. The ease on costs of living is reflected in respondents’ reports of living standards. The proportion of people finding it ‘very difficult’ or ‘difficult’ to get by on their current household income has dropped from 20 per cent in 2008 to 16 per cent in 2009. Correspondingly, those ‘living comfortably’ or ‘doing really well’ has increased from 41 to 45 per cent in the same period. [p. i]


For the love of it

I think I’ll be back writing here very soon, especially with this surprise Easter thing. (It was a surprise to me, anyway.) In the meantime, I just wanted to post this interview with Michelle Masse.

I’ve been meaning to write something about what’s been happening here on campus with a unionisation drive among casual academic staff. We had some minor victories last semester and hope for some big ones this year. It’s pretty exciting, I think. Now is not the time I’m going to do it. But I was struck this week – I filled in teaching for a sick co-worker this week. No worries, I could use the extra money. But the thing is, it comes straight out of her pay packet. We get no sick pay! Essentially, if we’re sick, we subcontract a co-worker. A few weeks ago I heard of a department at Sydney University in which people are teaching classes on a volunteer basis! That is, they don’t get paid; they’re doing it for the experience. Jesus Christ.

Anyway, watch Masse, courtesy Marc Bousquet of the excellent How the University Works. She makes a point Nate has often made, about the effect of academics seeing their work as a calling rather than a job.

Published in: on 20 March, 2008 at 1:46 pm  Comments (5)  

All that is real is relevant, and all that is relevant is real

From the weekend’s Australian Financial Review:

The president of the Australian Hotels Association, Bill Healey, said every Australian employer was paying for the sins of an unscrupulous few and a highly effective union campaign that got in before society could have a “critical debate” about the “relevance of penalty rates in a 24/7 world”. [Tracy Ong, “Bewildered employers caught in AWA spotlight”]

What does he mean, ‘relevance’? ‘Relevance’ has a substantial entry in the Australian political lexicon, generally in the sense that said political force is ‘irrelevant’, in other words ineffectual, and therefore exertions to rebut its arguments are superfluous. In some ways it’s an admirably materialist epithet.

But applied to a convention of industrial relations? What does ‘relevance’ even mean here, besides the fact that hoteliers would prefer not to pay penalty rates? Healey seems to be making a rather Hegelian argument, that reality has already abolished penalty rates but the actual contracts have yet to catch up. Therefore ‘society’ must ratify relevance by holding a ‘critical debate’.

Published in: on 25 September, 2007 at 9:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Enterprise bargaining and wage competition

‘Pattern bargaining’ is practically a dirty word these days, as if there’s something corrupt about workers organising across workplaces within an industry. It’s now illegal to strike over it. John Buchanan, speaking at Politics in the Pub the other week, said the abandonment of the right to pattern bargain was the most disappointing aspect of Labor’s new industrial relations policy, and would make organisation very difficult.

At one level it’s easy to see why business would want to keep what’s left of collective bargaining to an enterprise level, since it severely weakens unions. But at the same time, that can create problems for firms because it exposes them to competition over wages: other firms can out-compete them because they pay lower wages for the same work, or because they poach workers with higher wages. Remember that for a long time in Australia business favoured centralised industrial relations and feared enterprise bargaining for this reason, and also because in the postwar full-employment period workers in many industries were able to win higher wages and better conditions at an enterprise level.

So it is not so much of a surprise to see complaints like Telstra’s in the Financial Review on Monday. [Mark Skulley, 18 June, 2007, “Fairness test ‘unfair’ to Telstra”]

The Telstra submission [to the Senate inquiry on ‘fairness test’ legislation] said the legislation would require the authority to undertake the fairness test by reference to an enterprise award, an industrial instrument specific to a business or company rather than to an industry or occupation.

It argued the enterprise awards had had little application to salaries at Telstra for many years and were a product of its public-sector origins.

“Indeed, subject to the Workplace Authority directors’ confirmation, Telstra enterprise awards (in many parts of the business) are in the order of 20 per cent higher than comparable hourly rates that are likely to apply to our competitors,” it said. “In Telstra’s view, this would be unfair.”

Telstra said the authority should designate an industry award to ensure its competitors were covered by the same minimum salary standards.

Published in: on 20 June, 2007 at 10:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

State versus strikers

As if to emphasise that anti-strike laws didn’t arrive with WorkChoices and won’t leave with it either, on Monday the Federal Court fined the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and a building contractor for asking for and giving strike pay.

The incident in question happened in August 2003, under the pre-WorkChoices Workplace Relations Act. A building worker died in Shepparton, and in line with union policy, workers at another site in Melbourne stopped working until a safety audit was conducted on their own site. They returned to work the next day. Their contractor employer, B&P Caelli Constructions, paid them for the day off, which was a breach of the Act.

Along comes the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), which was set up by the Federal government in 2005 as an extra police force for the the building industry. It’s not clear how the Commission heard about the two-year-old case, but since its main raison d’etre is to police labour organisation in construction, it’s pretty clear why it would prosecute both parties.

Last September the Commission lost, and judge Tony North attacked the provision in the law prohibiting pay during a safety audit stoppage. [Masanauskus, Australian Financial Review, 12 September, 2006] But on Monday the Commission won its appeal. According to the union, about $500,000 was spent on prosecuting a total of $11,000 in fines.

Like I said the other day, eventually strikes are going to run seriously up against these laws, which are tighter under WorkChoices, and the ALP doesn’t look like changing them. The right to strike is not on the agenda, and though Labor is promising to replace the nasty ABCC with a specialist branch of its proposed workplace regulator, a day after this fine was imposed Gillard was promising that a Labor government would continue to take a “zero tolerance policy” in the construction industry.

 [Rachel Nickless, “Court gets tough on strike pay”, and Mark Skulley, “ALP: we’ll tighten the reins”, Australian Financial Review, 16 May, 2007]

Published in: on 17 May, 2007 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  

A different audience, a different tune

The front lead in today’s Sydney Morning Herald is “Rudd ready to backflip on AWAs”. In the Australian Financial Review it’s “Rudd holds hard line on IR reform”. Whatever.

So I tutor a course called ‘Economics as a Social Science’. Today the topic for discussion is ‘Power in the economy’, an introduction to the institutionalists. I could not have come up with a better hypothetical case study. My question: How (the hell), when at last count 59% of people oppose WorkChoices (24% support), and when the party’s standing in the polls is largely a product of that opposition, is the Australian Labor Party having so much trouble committing to getting rid of it?

I think Rick Kuhn and Tom Bramble give a pretty good answer over at MR Zine:

The megaphoned message about fairness is directed at white and blue collar workers who make up about two thirds of the labour force.  Most are worried by the Howard Government’s industrial relations regime.  The electoral explanation of this tune is valid, but insufficient.

The tune that puts union officials in their place was played on the dog whistle because it might have alienated too many workers if broadcast at a lower pitch.  But Rudd, Gillard and their advisers hope that its shrill notes can be heard, despite the competing megaphone message, by small business owners worried about changes to unfair dismissal rules and the abolition of individual workplace agreements.  The logic here is electoral, but it reveals something deeper about the forces acting on and in the ALP.

The majestic cadences that convey the contribution of Labor’s approach to industrial relations to the national interest contain the specifics of the policy.  It cannot be understood in purely electoral terms.  Despite its inclusion of the megaphone theme, Rudd’s policies on relations between employers and employees reduced the impact of Labor’s best issue and damaged the ALP’s electoral prospects.  The Party’s popularity fell in the poll immediately following the announcement of the policy because it is WorkChoices Lite.

The other dayRudd refused to repeat on the radio statements he had made at the anti-Work Choices rally. Different tunes for different audiences. Now it seems Gillard and Rudd are playing good cop-bad cop. One message per speaker so as to avoid that embarrassment. Thus the mixed messages from this morning’s papers.

Published in: on 14 May, 2007 at 3:00 pm  Comments (10)  


Raych got through the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday before she was halfway through breakfast and announced that there was no news. Later in the day we found out why: the journalists and other workers went on strike Wednesday afternoon, over Fairfax’s plans to introduce AWAs and cut 35 production jobs.

That’s subeditors! My first job in Australia was working as a Fairfax subeditor so I felt a bigger-than-usual burst of solidarity. Unfortunately by the time I found out about it the Industrial Relations Commission had ordered them back to work. You see, it’s illegal in Australia to strike during the life of an employment agreement. The Fairfax strikers risked $6000 personal fines for walking out in the first place. Further strike action has been explicitly banned by the Commission for three months, and the penalties for contempt of court are larger.

Inside sources tell me there is much seething anger at the Herald, not least among the most senior journalists whose jobs are not at risk, but whose pride in their product has already been dented by a previous round of restructuring and the consequent declining standards. They must have known the IRC would ban the strike as soon as Fairfax took them there, and I suppose the goal was to send a short, sharp message. Even so, there was some discussion of defying the Commission, but the personal consequences would have been big.

Still, it seems inevitable that sooner or later a strike will happen somewhere that runs up against these new laws, where the anger will be sufficiently deep to provoke a defiance of the IRC. Labor’s new industrial relations plan does not roll back anti-strike law. We are stuck with it until conditions are ripe for a new Clarrie O’Shea.

Published in: on 11 May, 2007 at 11:48 am  Comments (1)