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Can we ever make Fair Work fair?

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Danny O.

Under a class system like capitalism, a system run by and for the benefit of one class over another, can society’s laws, rules, and legal institutions ever be truly “fair” and “independent”? This is an important question that workers should ask themselves when thinking about the ongoing Change the Rules campaign.

There is much to applaud about the ACTU’s ‘Change the Rules’ campaign. It successfully brings together and voices many of the concerns and difficulties being faced by millions of working people across Australia; insecure work, lack of bargaining power, wage stagnation, cuts to penalty rates, wage theft, tax dodging corporations, massive profits for businesses, ridiculously high executive bonuses, growing social inequality – the list goes on. It points the target squarely at a “broken system” in which “big business has too much power” and a need to “change the rules” to strengthen the hand of workers. It’s a message that has clearly resonated, with over 250,000 people taking to the streets in mobilisations across the country in early May. 

And you won’t find any complaint about the message here. The problem, rather, is in the solution.

The ACTU has put the Fair Work Commission right at the centre of how they plan to fix the “broken system”. In her address to the National Press Club in March, ACTU secretary Sally McManus said “…we need an umpire who can enforce the rules. The Fair Work Commission’s independence must be restored and it must be given the power to stop employers who rip off or treat their workers unfairly. Now, more than ever, we need an effective and fair independent umpire to hold the power of big business in check.” 

Elsewhere, she has called for the Fair Work Commission to have the powers of a “tough cop”, and pushed for it to have greater powers of arbitration to end protracted industrial disputes.

Illusions and Solutions
All of this creates dangerous illusions amongst workers, and misses where the real solution to the problem lies. 

It spreads the mistaken idea that under capitalism, a class system in which the capitalist class has power, that apparatuses of the State such as the laws and courts, Fair Work, Work Safe, the police and so on can be made fair and independent for working people. State institutions of this kind only exist to serve the interests of the ruling capitalist class. That’s why they are so overwhelmingly rigged and useless to help working people. The very few exceptional occasions when they do seem to benefit workers only helps to further sow the illusion and deception that they are able to be “fair” and “independent”. 

In the unlikely event that the unions ever got its people into the Fair Work Commission and could use it to greatly benefit workers, it would only be a matter of time before it was blocked, corrupted, stripped of its power, or shut down by the ruling class.

Just as importantly, the ACTU’s solution misses the fundamental point of how workers gains are made. Victories don’t come from so-called “independent umpires”, the courts, the politicians or the parliaments. They have always come from waves of defiant, militant and at times “illegal” struggle on the job, in the streets and in our communities. It’s through that militant struggle that workers and unions build the strength to force a change in the rules. We will never get it from begging and pleading with the bosses or the politicians. 

We need to be aiming to build the collective strength of workers. That’s where the real solution lies. We need to fight for our unions to have the power to inspect the bosses’ books to police rampant wage theft, as well as have greater rights of entry to workplaces and access to workers. We need to fight to remove the restrictions on workers to take industrial action, and the threat and intimidation of massive fines for unions and individuals who are brave enough to do so. 

In short, we need to be aiming to build the conditions for the working class to win and defend its own gains and “hold the power of big business in check” itself. We shouldn’t be seeking to rely on the benevolence of the State and it bodies like the Fair Work Commission to be a “fair independent umpire”, something it can never be as long as the capitalist class rules the system.

That’s why we raise the slogan Change the Rules, Change the System – change the rules to give workers greater ability to struggle, and change the system to one in which the working class has power in its own hands. That system is socialism, and it is the only system under which fundamental and long-term improvement to workers lives become a possibility.


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