Bosses seek longer hours, more exploitation, by Wayne Sonter, from Shorter Work Week News No. 26 Jan 2005
Voters in Australia and United States - two countries whose workforces already work the longest annual hours of the world’s industrial economies – recently returned the reactionary Bush & Howard governments, entrenching them more deeply in power and giving them the ability to make laws that will severely punish the working classes of both countries.
Their re-election also encourages further blatant imposition of US imperial might around the world.
In USA the Bush regime prepares to use increased majorities in Congress to re-submit previously defeated bills that will kill the 40-hour work week and abolish overtime payments.
Backed by corporate allies, Bush is set to build on the success of his 2004 Fair Labor Standards Act in stripping overtime pay from millions of workers, with extra laws that will let employers avoid paying a cash premium (penalty rates) for overtime, and let them give compensatory time off at flat rates, instead.
In conjunction with a "flex-time" provision for an 80-hour fortnight where, according to an independent authority the flex ‘all flows to the employer’, employers will be able to demand mandatory over-time and employees will have no power to determine what extra hours or days they work. The net result, predictably, is many US workers will work even longer hours, with lower (cont’d page 2) (cont’d from page 1) than-present incomes & less predictable work weeks (‘Bush, Republican allies prepare new attack on workers over-time pay’ 7.1.05 www.aflcio.org/; for more see www.epinet.org/).
This is in an environment where few US workers belong to unions, anti-labour laws make it difficult for unions to organise or enter the workplace, the minimum wage rate is way below the poverty line and protections gained by labour under the constitution are under threat (‘A Growing Campaign to Undo the New Deal’ A Cohen NYT 14.12.04). The Bush agenda exposes workers to new levels of exploitation & daily oppression.
A similar move is on in Australia, where the government of John Howard - one of Bush’s closest followers - regained office and won control of both houses of parliament in the process.
With employer groups yapping eagerly, Howard immediately declared industrial relations a top priority for his fourth term. While it was hardly an issue in an elect-ion notable for its electoral bribes, the government’s new Senate majority lets it resurrect & refine IR legislation the Senate stymied in its first three terms in office.
Employers smell blood and are preparing to push for a longer working week, using major enterprise bargaining rounds in 2005. Specifically, they want to scrap the 36-hour week that has gained a foothold in the construction and other industries since 2000.
The construction industry claims reducing work hours from 38 to 36 a week has increased costs by 15% since 2002 (evidence points to a materials & labour shortage arising from a building boom, as the main cause).
Employers suggest workers who want extra leave during the year can take it out of their annual leave! (‘Push for a longer working week’ AFR 6.1.05).
While bosses expect the new laws to ‘change the whole industrial bargaining environment, with implications for the cost base …’ current laws and court rulings are already undermining the ability of unions to bargain.
Thus, the courts recently ruled that strike action by electrical contractors for a 36-hour week was illegal, even though it was part of an enterprise agreement process, because it could ‘harm the national economy’. The company got this ruling by merely presenting declarations from customers that action would affect their operations: "Our customers are not affected but the more it goes on the more chance there is of that happening" said one. The employer can now sue the union if workers take further action! (‘BlueScope strike action ruled unlawful;’ AFR 18.1.05).
The actions of the employer class, when the ‘right’ sort of government opens a window of opportunity, show it is only as civilized as it is forced to be. Neither the Bush nor Howard governments intend to require business to be civilized.
There is a growing desperation, coupled with a determination to control events driving capitalism and its cronies. Rapid technological change & rapidly changing markets exacerbates competition between capitals and also drives their efforts to atomise & subjugate labour, to better exploit it.
Under a veneer of globalisation monopolies are consolidating and emerging trade blocs vie for dominance – notably Asia and Europe in contention with USA (China & EU became each other’s major trade partners in 2004).
The imminent decline of oil sup-plies threatens the expansion of an oil-based global economy & makes for increasingly desperate power plays, as evidenced by the US in Iraq & Afghanistan.
Underlying these dilemmas is the increasingly critical impact of human activity on the ecosphere, which, the CIA warned President Bush in 2004, poses a threat to security far greater than terrorism.
These pressures, if not checked, gradually drive the capitalist system towards barbarity & a police state: ‘The Republican Party.. perfected a message that couples pro-corporate economic policies with a populist social conservative appeal. They turned the class anger of millions of mostly unorganised workers into a revolt against a liberal "elite". It is the stuff of which fascism is made’ (After the elections: what next? M Dudzic. www.thelaborparty.org/).
The grovelling role of the main-stream parties claiming to represent working people cannot be ignored in this drift to barbarity. The miserable lack of vision & inability to put forward a clear, inspiring alternative by either the US Democrats or the Australian Labor Party sows disillusion. Why support ‘the hollow shell of a party that can’t win elections and promises, at best, to implement a kinder and gentler version of the corporate agenda that has devastated the lives of so many working people?’ (Dudzic).
It leaves workers and unions – whose leaders are often in the very same parties that are failing the labour constituency - in an extremely vulnerable situation.
Labour’s political and industrial organisations must fight to defend and extend their rights & conditions, including the core condition of work hours. The fight over the length of the working day is the fight over the extent capital can exploit and profit from labour.
If the working class can limit and shorten hours of work & protect overtime, it can organise, not just on these issues, but any issue. It holds the prospect for labour to overcome exploitation altogether.