Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd are rushing to claim the high ground in the “fight against inflation” after delivering their first budget.
Swan says that his first budget “delivered everything (the Rudd government) promised the Australian people” but in reality the budget was more about entrenching the priorities of the Howard years than it was about throwing them out (see page 6).
This neoliberal budget comes after Workplace Relations minister Julia Gillard spent April arguing that the fight against inflation is a “shared challenge” – meaning that unions need to exercise “wage restraint”. “Wage restraint” means workers keeping down wage claims in order to stall inflationary tendencies in the economy.
It is not wages that are driving up inflation – but we are expected to grin and bear the rising cost of food, petrol and housing.
We got rid of the Howard government after eleven long years of enforced “wage restraint” that culminated in the Workchoices legislation, which gutted our wages and conditions. The Rudd government is in office precisely because people wanted to see some real rises in our standard of living after years of a booming economy.
The official inflation rate hit 4.2 per cent a year at the beginning of May (up to 4.8 per cent in Queensland). “Wage restraint” translates to nothing more than real income loss for the majority of people. If you take out mining jobs (where wages have increased at 5.8 per cent – hardly extravagant given the resources boom) the average wage increase is just above 3 per cent – well below inflation. Accommodation and cafe workers only received 2.4 per cent – barely over half the inflation rate.
Gillard has been pleading with the unions to help the “fight against inflation”. But it is clear that the real fight lies in securing the wages and conditions that will alleviate the effects of their inflation on our standard of living.
The Victorian teachers won significant pay increases (see page 10) on the back of a campaign that included several days of strike action. There are several other disputes on the cards, with the fire fighters and teachers in NSW poised to enter their bargaining periods. The teachers will have a state-wide strike on May 22.
Seven hundred Boeing workers took three weeks of strike action, breaking anti-strike laws in the process, in defence of a sacked worker (see page 11). CFMEU official Noel Washington has refused to cooperate with the Australian Building and Construction Commission (see page 9), an act of defiance directed at the Rudd government’s slow plan for abolishing the commission.
The strongest evidence of the potential to fight and win is the taxi drivers’ dispute in Victoria (see page 5). On April 30 up to 1000 taxi drivers held a 22-hour blockade of one of the busiest intersections in Melbourne, illegally parking their cabs all over the city, in reaction to the stabbing of 23-year-old taxi driver Javinder Singh.
The strike forced concessions from the Victorian government and showed the power of a workforce prepared to take action – illegal action at that – to secure safety on the job.
The taxi drivers, one of the most unorganised and marginalised workforces, give us a real sense of the possibilities that exist if we organise and fight. The taxi drivers took up the fight against the economic hardship that they face – some of the harshest reminders of the Howard years with drivers earning as little as $8 an hour – and the potentially deadly question of workplace safety.
Crucially, they also challenged the political obstacles they face every day at work – the racism of the Howard years.
As the state Labor governments echo Ruddís call for “wage restraint” and unity in the face of the “fight against inflation”, we need to look to these examples of how to make the gains we need. Rudd is keeping the worst elements of Workchoices – poor union rights and inquisitorial bodies like the ABCC – and they stand between us and real wage increases.
We need to be prepared to ask for wage increases well above the rate of inflation to win back what we lost under Howardóand we need to be prepared to take the kind of action that will secure them.