Providing opportunity is not a radical idea

November 12, 2022

Nelson Mandela, reflecting on the fall of apartheid in South Africa, observed: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

The greatest obstacle to getting the seemingly impossible done is not so much the lack of hope or aspiration on the part of those who want it done, but the dogged resistance of those who want to see them fail.

Take the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill, which has just passed the lower house and is soon to go before the Senate.

There’s no lack of commitment and passion coming from the working people who are currently suffering from chronically low wages. Those who are trying to ensure that it becomes impossible to pass this modest but potentially life-changing legislation don’t want to see workers being able to effectively bargain for appropriate pay and conditions.

Let’s sit with that for a moment. The so-called sticking point from some sections of the business world is that it provides the opportunity, in some circumstances, for workers, and businesses, in the same industry, to join together in collective bargaining.

That’s all. But this is framed as being impossible by the Obstacle Brigade. So what, in the final analysis, is it that they want to preserve? An obscenely lopsided balance of power. The IR bill is not radical. It does not create equality in the power relations between employers and workers, not by a long shot. As part of a suite of achievable measures, including a number that specifically address gender inequality in the workplace, it simply creates a space, with clear conditions, that does not currently exist for workers and employers to bargain across multiple enterprises.

And what, in the longer term, can the bill achieve if, instead of being relegated to the fictitious realm of the impossible, it is passed by the Senate? It can achieve something that none of its opponents dare acknowledge: the prevention and reduction of poverty.

For those who think that if you’re in paid work you can’t be living in poverty, think again. Better still, take a quick look at the growing number of reports on workers living in tents or cars.

And we are not just talking about obscure pockets of the labour market. We are seeing the trend across multiple sectors of the workforce.

The suppression of income support payments, especially for students and unemployed workers, continues to leave them to wage a daily battle for survival from below the poverty line. This is one of the legacies of the degrading neoliberal agenda and cries out for urgent change.

Similarly, the anti-worker agenda that produced the immiserating fruit of wage suppression as a means of profit maximisation was cooked up by four men in Toorak in 1986, following an article by soon-to-be Howard staffer Gerard Henderson, attacking the system of cooperation between employers and unions. It is no accident that since 2016 profits have

risen 157 per cent while wages rose by 25 per cent. It took a lot of carefully thought-out legislation to build this monument to entrenched inequality in the labour market.

It’s time to build something that aspires to a measure of fairness instead, which is precisely what those whohave gorged themselves on this rapid accumulation of wealth are opposed to.

What they will never admit is that insofar as they scramble to defend this deeply dehumanising status quo (spending millions in doing so), they are also defending the entrenchment and expansion of working class poverty.

We cannot isolate what happens in our parliament from what happens in society.

The same power relations are at work. Some people go into politics with the explicit objective of increasing wealth for the wealthy. Some of these legislators have conveniently convinced themselves that in doing so they are helping to create the conditions in which the wealth will eventually trickle down and poverty will be alleviated. We all know how well that’s gone!

Just as there are those legislators who wittingly or unwittingly exacerbate poverty and inequality, there are those legislators driven by a strong sense of social justice who go into politics precisely because they care about poverty and want to prevent and reduce it.

There will often be differences of opinion about how this is best achieved. But there are certain elements in any structural approach to poverty that are non-negotiable. One of these is income adequacy, and right across the workforce this depends wholly on bargaining capacity. It certainly doesn’t depend on largesse. The Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill is designed to create the possibility of modest wage increases for workers, some of whom are on desperately low incomes, often in highly precarious, frighteningly uncertain work, as well as those who can just as easily fall behind if they remain industrially disempowered.

“We must talk about poverty,” wrote social activist Dorothy Day, “because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.”

Poverty is not a state that people “fall into” as if it were a hole in the road. Neither is it a personal choice, as offensively claimed by the neoliberal creed that has boosted and buttressed the inequality we now see in workplaces and in the community at large. Poverty is deliberate disempowerment and deprivation.

Which is why it is essential that the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill be supported and passed in its entirety. At its heart is the crucial principle of solidarity, the principle that when we fight, we fight for each other and not just for ourselves, the principle that no one should be left behind. Just as poverty is predicated on deliberate disempowerment, solidarity is lived through organised and collective self-empowerment.

To focus only on some sections of the bill whilst deferring others would mean a serious setback on the gradual re-building of workers’ collective self-confidence and dignity. It is in the broad economy, after all, that the damage has been structurally embedded and inflicted on workers’ rights to bargain and to build the kinds of conditions that become normalised across the labour market.

If we leave the broad context out we end up making it harder, in the long term, for the workers in extremely low-paid and feminised industries. That’s how the labour market works.

It is interconnected. And that’s how solidarity works too. As poet Audre Lorde put it so powerfully: “Our battles are inseparable”.

Everyone deserves a fair crack at happiness. Everyone needs a place to live, a place to learn, a place to heal and a place to work, with decent wages and respectful conditions, or income adequacy for those who cannot work.

The legislators who care about poverty will clearly also care about secure jobs and they will not join the Obstacle Brigade in blocking the possibility of better pay. This is how they can make a real difference in people’s lives. Sitting at a bargaining table is not, as claimed by some of the more shameless opponents of the bill, the first step to bankruptcy. It can, however, be a good, strong step in preventing poverty and building hope for people in paid work.

John Falzon

The Canberra Times 12/11/22