It is universally accepted that workers are much less powerful than employers. The struggle for power between capitalists and workers is the basis of the left versus right political divide. Labor represents the interests of workers, and Liberals the interest of business owners. Every time workers try to take back a little power from the employers, such as by forming unions, or electing the Labor Party to government, the employers fight back, using the most powerful weapon at their disposal to put workers back in their place: money.
The ongoing war between labour and capital is played out in parliament, where Liberal governments, and their big-business lobbyists (employer unions by another name), make incremental gains for employers, such as campaigning for tax decreases, cutting government spending, smashing consumer and worker protections and this week, managing to decrease wages by cutting penalty rates.
When Labor are in power, workers have their wages protected through the undoing of Liberal industrial relations changes, such as overturning WorkChoices, and legislating for worker protections such as the minimum wage. Labor, and their allies in the union movement, turn the individually powerless workers into a much more powerful collective, and it has always been thus.
But something struck me this morning as I read ex-business-lobbyist and now government-employed-business lobbyist Kate Carnell’s reasoning for why small businesses aren’t publicly supporting cuts to penalty rates. Of course the majority of small businesses want penalty rates cut: they’ve been campaigning for this outcome for as long as I can remember. And in fact, silence from small business owners is not, as Carnell says, because ‘the last time small businesses tried to stand up and have their voices heard on penalty rates, they got absolutely poleaxed by the unions who stopped at nothing to attack and intimidate hard working mum-and-dad small business owners’. No. This has nothing to do with a union campaign, nor Carnell’s attempt to frame unions as bikies, a worn out propaganda tactic which shows not only Carnell’s lack of imagination, but also a lack of understanding of the fact that small business owners, on the most part, have nothing to do with unions as their workers, by and large, are not union members. But she knew that, didn’t she. No. What Carnell is alluding to is not small business ‘mums and dads’ scared of a union backlash against their penalty rate assault. Small business owners only have one fear motivating them to keep their mouths shut about how much they desperately want to cut their workers’ pay: fear of losing customers.
This thought reminded me why I stopped going to my local pub, when I saw a huge gold-framed notice from the owner on the wall (ironic much?) whinging about having to pay, along with taxes, and just about anything else, penalty rates. I was then reminded of the divestment movement, which encourages people to put their climate-change-concern where their mouths are, by taking their superannuation out of fossil fuel polluters. Then there’s the boycott of advertisers on the Breitbart white supremacist website. And we all remember when Alan Jones finally decided it was a good idea to apologise to Julie Gillard for saying her father died of shame, coincidentally after advertisers on his show started pulling out because of a public backlash.
So, even though it can seem for workers like they have little power, particularly when big business is in charge of the Liberal government, when you change the frame from worker to consumer, workers do have power. Just as employers often forget that the workers they are mistreating and underpaying are the very same people who are the consumers they rely on for business revenue, workers often forget their power is not just in their collective activities as workers, but as a collective of consumers. Particularly with the advent of social media, where stories of employers abusing their power over workers can be shared widely; it’s no wonder business owners have cause to fear the consequences of bad behaviour.
We all know money talks when it comes to business owners. Each of our money talks when it disappears from their cash registers. Consumer power gives all of us, worker or not, a say in how businesses treat their employees. We have no excuse not to use this power, when possible, to defend workers’ rights, to stick up for our community and to force business owners to do the right thing if they’re not willing to do it for any other reason. Let’s set a standard of how business should behave in our community by voting with our wallets.