Chasing the 'battlers'' vote

[Green Left Weekly, #210, November 7, 1995]

With a federal election looming, both the ALP and the Coalition are stepping up their propaganda aimed at the so-called "battlers", ie, the mass of low-paid workers hard-hit by the capitalist economic restructuring of the last period.

"PM says 'fair go' party will help battlers", and "Howard woos the battlers" are typical of the headlines generated by the past month's cynical politicking. Chasing the "battlers'" voteLaunching his campaign for the federal Melbourne seat of Batman, outgoing ACTU president, ALP heavyweight and parliamentary hopeful Martin Ferguson used the word "battler" 16 times in his address! "When we talk of battlers", he said, "it is a badge of honour."

A report by Kerry-Anne Walsh in the October 10 Bulletin sets out the basic problem for the ALP (and, to a lesser extent, for the Coalition). "Labor's traditional hard-core supporters — the battlers earning $30,000 a year or less — are defecting in droves. A special Bulletin Morgan poll reveals that more than a quarter of the party's blue-collar and clerical white-collar base has deserted it since 1983." The magazine's survey showed the Coalition out polling Labor on a two-party-preferred basis 52% to 48% in this crucial group. However, of the Coalition's 52% support, some 28% were motivated by disillusionment with the ALP, rather than any real attraction to the Liberal-National Party.

Policy convergence

Keating's response is a campaign focused on the Coalition's industrial relations policies to attempt to scare disenchanted workers back to the ALP fold. While he has some material to work with here, the simple truth is that, at bottom, the two parties have exactly the same economic rationalist, big business agenda.

"The antipathy [between Keating and Howard]", explains columnist Kenneth Davidson in the October 7 Age, "should not be allowed to disguise the basic policy convergence between the two men, and the policies of the political parties they lead." The main differences between the two parties boil down to different attitudes towards the role of trade unions, and the process by which Telstra should be privatised. But even on these contentious issues there is fundamental agreement on objectives. "Both leaders believe economic reform requires further labour market deregulation. The question is, can the desired objective be best achieved by cooperation or confrontation with the trade unions?"

Labor's selling point to the bosses, of course, is that its Accord with the trade union movement is still the best way to go. And, to give the ALP its due, in terms of boosting business profits at the expense of workers' wages and conditions the Accord has been a splendid success.

A recent ACTU publication gives some interesting figures. Between 1982-83 and 1992-93 the share of corporate profits in gross non-farm income increased by 4.7% while the share of wages decreased by 5.7%. Real unit labour costs have declined by 5.9% since the Accord was established. The loss in working days dues to industrial disputes has fallen by almost two-thirds over the same period. (Australian Trade Unions — Policy Information for South African Trade Unions, ACTU, 1995.)

Since Labor won office in 1983, life has become a lot harder for the working class. Unemployment has continued to rise. The real unemployment rate — the so-called labour market slack — is around 17%. That is, about 1.5 million people want full time work and can't find it. The contract system is spreading everywhere. The part-time work force has increased massively.

Wages have been held down by various means. Under the enterprise bargaining system vigorously pushed by the ALP government and the ACTU, workers are being forced to trade away conditions, hard-won in decades of struggle, for paltry wage gains. Extensive cutbacks in social spending and privatisation of state assets and functions complete this dismal picture.

Disillusioned and confused

"The government's election pitch", writes Kerry-Anne Walsh, "is to slam the Opposition for advocating work place agreements, which it claims will strip away workers' rights and conditions. Yet it is Labor that has been championing greater flexibility in negotiating individual workplace agreements. Labor MPs and union sources acknowledge that many workers are now disillusioned with unions and confused by the new system. Over the last five years union membership has fallen almost 15%, losing 400,000 of its 2.7 million membership, prompting ACTU secretary Bill Kelty to launch an aggressive recruiting campaign for new members last week."

However, it will take more than steak knife sets to entice workers back into the unions. They will continue to leave unless they feel that the unions are willing to engage in serious struggles to improve their wages and conditions. And for the union movement to turn to a policy of struggle, it would have break its disastrous alliance with the ALP, something the present ACTU is organically incapable of doing.

It's no wonder that workers are disillusioned with Labor, which, on the federal level, has presided over a such a remorseless decline in their overall quality of life. The ALP's only real selling point these days is that if you think Labor's bad, the Coalition will be a lot worse: it is this message that Keating is flogging for all he's worth.

There is no doubt that the Coalition's industrial relations policy will lead to a big attack on workers if it wins office. Howard and Liberal IR spokesperson Peter Reith are trying to create the impression that the Coalition has "softened" its policies in this area.

But as Brad Norington reports in the September 21 Sydney Morning Herald: "[Reith's] policy is really little different to the 'tough' policy the Coalition took to the last election ...

"The conundrum for Reith is that he does not want to scare voters, yet he wants to charm the business sector with the promise of wider labour market flexibility it wants but can't get under Labor."

At present, under Labor's system on the federal level, legal minimum working conditions are set down in awards enforced by the Industrial Relations Commission. If these are varied, in a workplace agreement between workers and employers the IRC is required to ensure that no worker is worse off compared with the award minimum — the so-called "no disadvantage test".

The Coalition's IR policy also talks of a no-disadvantage test. However as Norington explains: "Reith's [no disadvantage] 'test' is not to be compared to the existing award but with a much reduced set of minimum criteria, although he won't reveal exactly what yet".

Coalition's real policy

Two recent events give a clear indication of the real thrust of the Liberals' industrial relations policy.

In September the Coalition backed the management of Tweed Valley Fruit Processors in northern NSW when they negotiated an enterprise deal under which their 29 workers traded off their eight days annual paid sick leave entitlement for a pay increase. Of course, if sick leave can be cashed in why not annual leave, public holidays, maternity leave or whatever? The end result is no award conditions (such as they are) and anything goes. Industry-wide unions would be replaced by yellow "staff associations".

Ironically, although Keating refused to allow the agreement to proceed, it was the ALP government which provided funding to develop an enterprise agreement for the plant in the first place. Labor's enterprise bargaining system is only a halfway house to this type of deal which makes awards irrelevant and unions redundant. The ALP has created the conditions for the Coalition to take the attack on workers wages and conditions a big step further.

A state premier Richard Court's proposed "second wave" of anti-union legislation touched off a storm of worker protest. The October 17 strikes and blockade paralysed the state (GLW #208). This legislation would introduce compulsory secret ballots before any industrial action, force union officials to go unpaid while their members were on strike, restrict the political expenditures of unions, restrict the rights of union officials to enter workplaces, stop unions switching from state to federal awards.

The protests showed where both Keating and Howard stood. Keating argued that such draconian legislation is what the federal Coalition really stands for and that a Liberal government would lead to industrial chaos. He pointedly failed to back the blockade. (WA state ALP leader Jim McGinty publicly opposed it.)

According to the October 18 Age, Howard said that "while he had supported the so-called 'first wave' WA industrial legislation, and he agreed with the concept of some of the second round proposals that prompted the blockade, he believed other parts of the plan were impractical." Translated, "impractical" means that he felt these attacks couldn't be carried out at the present time without serious risk of provoking a massive wave of struggle by workers.

he likely outcome of the elections is still far from clear. Keating may yet manage to scare enough voters away from the Coalition, although this would seem a daunting task.

However, for ordinary working people, there can be no joy in either outcome. If Labor squeaks back in the attacks on workers' living standards will continue without any let up; if the Coalition wins there are likely to be big frontal assaults on the union movement.

But the elections must be put in perspective. While not unimportant, they are not the central issue facing working people at the moment. Turning the trade unions towards a policy of independence from the ALP and developing a mass campaign of opposition to the government-employer offensive against working people is far more important — whichever bosses' party wins the next federal elections.