Mass union campaign can stop the cut to penalty rates

Turnbull’s support for the penalty rate cuts shows his commitment to anti-worker policies that benefit business and the rich. This is the issue that can put a finish to his government.

The Fair Work Commission ruling will hit some of the lowest paid workers in the country.

An immediate union response can stop the cuts before they begin to come into force from 1 July. The construction unions have already held successful stopwork rallies on 9 March against the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

Weekday combined unions delegates’ meetings and stop-work rallies, like we saw at the beginning of the Your Rights at Work campaign, can kick off the fight. The largest national day of action in that campaign brought up to 500,000 to the streets across the country. New ACTU Secretary Sally McManus’ defence of unlawful industrial action and breaking unjust laws has given unionists everywhere confidence to resist.

Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition have been avid supporters of cutting penalty rates. When Tony Abbott was Prime Minister they set up a Productivity Commission report to prepare the way for it. Turnbull has backed the Fair Work decision and its unfounded claim that cutting penalty rates will create jobs.

The decision will leave people up to $6000 a year worse off and will affect close to 700,000 workers, according to union estimates. Sunday penalty rates and penalties for public holidays will be cut across the hospitality, fast food, retail and pharmacy sectors. It comes at a time when wages growth is the lowest on record, yet corporate profits surged by 20 per cent between October and December

But this is only the thin edge of the wedge. If this attack succeeds the bosses will come after penalty rates for nurses, emergency workers and everyone else.

Labor leader Bill Shorten has called for legislation, “changing the rules that the Fair Work Commission will operate under”, instructing it never to reduce the take home pay of any worker, as it has done through removing penalty rates. The Greens have advocated legislation to include penalty rates as one of the statutory minimum National Employment Standards.

Legislation overturning this disgraceful Fair Work decision would be welcome. But that won’t be possible until after the next federal election, at least two years away. There is a risk that penalty rates will just become an issue for the next election campaign. But the only way to guarantee penalty rates in every workplace is to build workers’ ability to fight industrially.


It was the award review process created under Labor’s Fair Work Act which allowed the Commission to reduce rates. Labor’s Fair Work legislation instructed the Commission to promote “flexible modern work practices” and promote business “productivity”. This led it to accept business’ claims that reducing penalty rates would boost employment and allow them to open longer hours.

Dodgy agreements struck by the boss-friendly Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Union (SDA) created a precedent for penalty rates to be cut, making it much easier for Fair Work to make a general cut to the award. Even while penalty rates were still in the award they were traded away and workers on agreements with major employers, like Coles, were actually left worse off than if they had been on the award. The law itself was not enough to protect workers. Only direct confrontation with the retail bosses through strikes can protect current rates and win even higher ones.

That’s why a militant industrial campaign against the cuts is absolutely crucial. Bosses will only get away with cutting penalty rates if we let them. The ACTU has been running a “Save Our Weekend” campaign, but this has mostly been an electoral operation in marginal seats to get Labor elected.

The decision on penalty rates comes hot on the heels of the reintroduction of the union-bashing Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). This is another attack on workers’ conditions which is designed to boost business profits. Such a vicious attack on huge numbers of workers cannot go unanswered. We can’t afford to wait for a Labor government to change the law, nor rely on Labor to keep its promises if it wins power.

A campaign involving stopwork rallies could help build union strength and workers’ confidence to fight. It will also need to feed into campaigns based on strikes and industrial action in enterprise bargaining, to defend penalty rates at a workplace level, industry by industry. It’s time to start the fightback.

By Miro Sandev


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