IN a traditional jobs market, unions and the Labor party call for higher wages, while employer groups, backed by the Coalition, push to keep wages down.
But the low level of earnings growth – except for those at the top of the tree – has become such a concern that we are now seeing major figures and organisations on both sides of politics acknowledging record low wages growth as an economic, social and electoral negative.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group are both on the record as recognising a need for greater wages growth, with both viewing industrial relations reform as a means of raising productivity to get there.
In the lead-up to the May federal budget, the governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, put the issue squarely on the political agenda when he said in a speech that “sustained low wages growth diminishes the sense of shared prosperity that we have in Australia”.
As welcome as these sentiments are, talk alone does not seem to have kick-started any noticeable improvement in wages outcomes, which is why the unionised employees of national crane company Boom Logistics have voted to take unlimited industrial action in pursuit of what they say is a long overdue pay rise.
A generation ago, such a strike would have been unexceptional. Today, protracted industrial action of any sort is highly unusual, such has been the transformation of Australian industrial relations since Labor icons Bob Hawke and Paul Keating began to deregulate the labour market, a process accelerated under John Howard.
It is true that the strike is a blunt instrument, but history has shown that the threat to withdraw labour is often the only weapon that workers have when it comes to bringing an employer to the bargaining table.
Although Boom Logistics is a company that has lost money in recent years, its executives – like the executives of virtually every company on the stock exchange – have enjoyed annual pay rises well into the double digits: the evidence is there to read in any number of annual reports.
For the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, the picture is clear. Its members believe they are underpaid, and have voted to do something about it. Parties on both sides of the fence will be watching to see how they fare.