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Power and the people

It is universally accepted that workers are much less powerful than employers. The struggle for power between capitalists and workers is the basis of the left versus right political divide. Labor represents the interests of workers, and Liberals the interest of business owners. Every time workers try to take back a little power from the employers, such as by forming unions, or electing the Labor Party to government, the employers fight back, using the most powerful weapon at their disposal to put workers back in their place: money.

The ongoing war between labour and capital is played out in parliament, where Liberal governments, and their big-business lobbyists (employer unions by another name), make incremental gains for employers, such as campaigning for tax decreases, cutting government spending, smashing consumer and worker protections and this week, managing to decrease wages by cutting penalty rates.

When Labor are in power, workers have their wages protected through the undoing of Liberal industrial relations changes, such as overturning WorkChoices, and legislating for worker protections such as the minimum wage. Labor, and their allies in the union movement, turn the individually powerless workers into a much more powerful collective, and it has always been thus.

But something struck me this morning as I read ex-business-lobbyist and now government-employed-business lobbyist Kate Carnell’s reasoning for why small businesses aren’t publicly supporting cuts to penalty rates. Of course the majority of small businesses want penalty rates cut: they’ve been campaigning for this outcome for as long as I can remember. And in fact, silence from small business owners is not, as Carnell says, because ‘the last time small businesses tried to stand up and have their voices heard on penalty rates, they got absolutely poleaxed by the unions who stopped at nothing to attack and intimidate hard working mum-and-dad small business owners’. No. This has nothing to do with a union campaign, nor Carnell’s attempt to frame unions as bikies, a worn out propaganda tactic which shows not only Carnell’s lack of imagination, but also a lack of understanding of the fact that small business owners, on the most part, have nothing to do with unions as their workers, by and large, are not union members. But she knew that, didn’t she. No. What Carnell is alluding to is not small business ‘mums and dads’ scared of a union backlash against their penalty rate assault. Small business owners only have one fear motivating them to keep their mouths shut about how much they desperately want to cut their workers’ pay: fear of losing customers.

This thought reminded me why I stopped going to my local pub, when I saw a huge gold-framed notice from the owner on the wall (ironic much?) whinging about having to pay, along with taxes, and just about anything else, penalty rates. I was then reminded of the divestment movement, which encourages people to put their climate-change-concern where their mouths are, by taking their superannuation out of fossil fuel polluters. Then there’s the boycott of advertisers on the Breitbart white supremacist website. And we all remember when Alan Jones finally decided it was a good idea to apologise to Julie Gillard for saying her father died of shame, coincidentally after advertisers on his show started pulling out because of a public backlash.

So, even though it can seem for workers like they have little power, particularly when big business is in charge of the Liberal government, when you change the frame from worker to consumer, workers do have power. Just as employers often forget that the workers they are mistreating and underpaying are the very same people who are the consumers they rely on for business revenue, workers often forget their power is not just in their collective activities as workers, but as a collective of consumers. Particularly with the advent of social media, where stories of employers abusing their power over workers can be shared widely; it’s no wonder business owners have cause to fear the consequences of bad behaviour.

We all know money talks when it comes to business owners. Each of our money talks when it disappears from their cash registers. Consumer power gives all of us, worker or not, a say in how businesses treat their employees. We have no excuse not to use this power, when possible, to defend workers’ rights, to stick up for our community and to force business owners to do the right thing if they’re not willing to do it for any other reason. Let’s set a standard of how business should behave in our community by voting with our wallets.


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  1. Freethinker

    With all respects I do not agree with your views that Labor represents the interests of workers,.
    I will put that Labor USED to represent the interest of the workers but after Gough and specially with adapting neoliberalism by the Hawk-Keating governments the workers have lost power under the Labor.
    As long as the union movement will be part of a political party (in our case the ALP) the workers will be treated bit better than under the Coalition but not in a way that look after the union members or the work force in general.
    There is a contradiction or conflict in policies within the party as long as they following neoliberal economy policies and this problem will be aggravate if Bowen still there among other members with the same ideas.
    Neoliberal policies which are based on market-oriented reforms, are generating more inequality in labour market.
    The ALP politicians can say what ever they like to cover a reality.
    It cannot work in both ways.

  2. Gman

    I agree with a lot that you say. However, the assertion that the ALP does not represent the interest of workers needs to be taken in the context of “who looks after workers the most”. We know the Coalition does not. The ALP could do a lot better, but give me them any day over the business and wealthy centric Coalition! The ALP could do better, but they still crap all over the Coalition in this area.

  3. Susan

    Great article, thank you.
    Totally in agreement with Gman.

  4. Kate Ahearne

    Thanks, Victoria. Yes, there’s a lot we can do. We an vote with our wallets – both by avoiding certain businesses, especially on Sundays, and by remembering to put something in the tip jar. Retail workers, though, are much more vulnerable to the cuts to Sunday wages. A lot of retail outlets that open on Sundays are outlets for the big chains. I don’t know the figures, but where I live, it’s the supermarket chains and others like KMart and Bunnings that open on Sundays, Mostly, the locally-based/owned businesses don’t do business on Sundays.

  5. Adrianne Haddow

    Thanks Victoria.
    Your article expresses my thoughts on the penalty rate cuts.

    I even questioned the waitpersons at my favourite Saturday cafe on whether the penalty rate cut would effect their wages, with the intention of withdrawing my weekend patronage, if this was the case.
    By the way, I drink espresso, not latte.

    Like Kate, I am concerned regarding the retail sector. I have a son who works in the retail sector and know that this act of bastardry will affect his wage.
    Considering weekend sales in his workplace are greater and produce higher profits than the daily sales during the week because there are more consumers, it should be incumbent on the businesses to pay their workers according to the amount of profit they generate.

    Either that or increase the basic wage to something that is liveable for all workers.

  6. Freethinker

    Gman, just because the ALP look after the workers better than the Colaition it does not mean that the party is 100% behind them
    In my comment I said: As long as the union movement will be part of a political party (in our case the ALP) the workers will be treated bit better than under the Coalition but not in a way that look after the union members or the work force in general.
    IMHO it is not what the Coalition does is it what the ALP and the Union for be part of the ALP does.

  7. Zathras

    While I disagreed with several policies over the years and despite the constantly shifting political landscape, workers and the disadvantaged will always get a better deal from the ALP – never the best possible but certainly better than the alternative.

    Only the conservatives somehow fail to see the irony that allows them to cut up to $6,000 per annum from a worker while granting themselves a tax cut of the same amount and still expect to be cheered from the sidelines.

    As for that penalty rates decision (where the Government didn’t even bother to make a submission), consider this –

    The price you pay for goods includes the cost of raw materials, any processing costs, overheads and wages.

    Therefore the cost of wages is factored into the price you pay as a consumer and for a business that is open 7 days per week, the wage cost must already include the penalty rates expected to be paid on weekends.

    In other words, the price you pay for a cup of coffee on Monday actually includes the penalty rates to be paid on a Sunday.

    As for the notion that this cut will magically lead to more employment, if a business claims it can’t afford to pay three people at 200% now, why would they suddenly employ four people at 150% ?

    For those still protected under an EBA, next time around the “Community Standard for penalty rates” will have changed.

  8. Keitha Granville

    I read a comment somewhere that suggested if a business can’t afford to open on Sunday because of penalty rates then they shouldn’t be in business, for all the reasons as stated above by others. It is grossly disingenuous of cafe owners to suggest that penalties are the reason they can’t grow.
    I also read that some places may now choose to shut on a week day when business is usually slow and open on Sunday instead – so those who work on that day will now lose hours.
    The only winners here are the major chains who always open weekends and will now make even greater profits. They might learn something when less people are shopping because they haven’t the income any longer.

  9. helvityni

    I read John Updike’s book A Month of Sundays a long time ago, and have forgotten what it was about…

    Anyhow according to hubby who came here as a fifteen year old from Holland, Oz Sundays were boooring; Sunday felt like thirty days long…like a month.

    If we are not willing to pay our Sunday workers enough to make it worthwhile for them, we will be going back to those days that hubby so vividly remembers.

    You can always go to Bunnings…or to church 🙂

  10. Harquebus

    If we stopped Sunday trading completely, it would reduce pollution by a substantial amount.

  11. Freethinker

    I agree Harquebus, it will slow down consumerism which it is one of the causes of global warming and also will help to reduce the household debt when people stop buying things in impulse.

  12. Prof_Alistair

    ‘It is universally accepted that workers are much less powerful than employers.’ I think there is an important corrective needed here. It should read:

    ‘It is universally accepted that individual workers are much less powerful than individual employers. Working collectively, workers can redress that power imbalance.’

  13. Freethinker

    I agree with you Prof_Alistar and I base my opinion on my experience as an OS union member when we stopped the country workers, students and public servers together.
    The power of the people can bring the governments and business people to their knees if they do like to pay attention to the people demands.
    People here and in many countries have lost their rights, freedom and in many cases proud by borrowing money to satisfying their materialistic greed.
    Pain and suffer is needed to turn the wheel around.

  14. stephengb2014

    We need a facebook group to name and shame busineses, IS THERE ONE ALREADY?

  15. Möbius Ecko

    But Pro_Alistair it normally isn’t an individual employer against an individual employee, especially in the case of medium to large enterprises and certainly not in the case of global big business. This was born out during Howard’s foray into WorkChoices, where he touted the agitprop that an individual worker could one-on-one bargain with his employer.

    What really happened was that the employer outsourced the hiring. The hiring company set up a standard template (screw the worker) contract that was given to all job seekers and employees renegotiating a contract on a take it or leave it basis. Only potential employees or employees with much in demand high level skills could really individually bargain to any degree directly with an employer, everyone else was treated as monotypic to be kept at arms length from the employer during the hiring process.

    There was no worker individuality in WorkChoices at all as much as the Howard government hyperbole stated that was the case.

  16. Kyran

    There is a rally scheduled by the Trades Hall Council with the theme of ‘Stop the war on workers’ for the 9th March. As I understand it, it was planned before the ‘penalty rates’ decision. Subsequent to the decision, the CFMEU indicated its participation would be in solidarity with the workers harmed by the decision.
    It will be interesting to see how many people turn up and whether it’s reported.
    As a matter of preference, I find Ged Kearney a far more reasoned thinker.
    Thank you, Ms Rollison and commenters. Take care

  17. Prof_Alistair

    Completely agree Möbius Ecko. However, I think the same principles apply and the need for collective action (and thereby collective identity) remains.

  18. Flogga

    Harquebus, if we all did our cooking on an open fire it would increase pollution by a substantial amount.

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