Unions are shaping up for the biggest fight in a generation

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This piece originally appeared on SBS News on March 4 2015 

Tony Abbott might not realise it, but the war on penalty rates being waged by employers – and signed up to by his Government – is shaping up to be one of the defining battles of our time.

Today’s National Day of Action is the largest nationwide IR protest to take place since WorkChoices.  And the issue motivating most the hundreds of thousands to march today is penalty rates.

Belatedly, Abbott government ministers have realised they might be playing with fire, and last week tried to calm fears about their agenda. But nobody is buying it.  

Why? Because the war on penalty rates has already begun. Abbott’s Fair Work Amendment Bill allows penalty rates to be traded away. His friends in business are attacking penalty rates through the Fair Work Commission’s Award review process. And his Productivity Commission inquiry is laying the ground for an even more sweeping attack.

There are up to 4.5 million Australians and their families who depend on penalty rates to make ends meet. And they have good reason to be worried.

This number includes many members of my union, United Voice. In Victoria, 80 per cent of our members work in industries where penalty rates apply.

These people work around the clock providing services the community often doesn’t think about, but can’t do without – like cleaning, security, ambulance and hospitality.

Losing penalty rates would mean pay cuts by up to a third of their income.

Could your household budget sustain a blow like that?

We recently surveyed members about penalty rates. A powerful theme was the great personal sacrifices they make for their jobs – missing out on Christmases, wedding anniversaries, children’s birthdays and sporting events. Members told us of marriages that had fallen apart because of the pressure of shift work.

For them penalty rates don’t really compensate for these sacrifices. But they do depend on the money that those shifts bring.

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One member, a cleaner, told us penalty rates make up $100 - $200 of her weekly wage of about $500. Without this she says she would have no hope of surviving. She would have to cut back on groceries, doctor and dental visits and get a second job.

Another member, a paramedic, says she would leave her job because it wouldn’t be worth the sacrifice she makes. She has missed her husband's birthday celebrations, her fourth wedding anniversary, and Christmases with her family.  

The nightmare scenario for Australian society is a US style class of working poor, with people working two jobs just to survive, not thrive. It’s a scenario that is all too likely with the abolition of penalty rates.

Unions don’t need to persuade Australians about the fairness of penalty rates. They totally get it. An Essential poll conducted last month found there was 81 per cent support for penalty rates – a level that has remained unchanged for two years, despite the hysterical media campaign by employers over this same period.

Last week, our Facebook post about celebrity chef Luke Mangan complaining at paying penalty rates to staff at his $80 million restaurant empire was shared over 4,000 times and reached almost half a million Australians. His own Facebook page was carpeted with hundreds of angry comments. The reaction was visceral. It was the single most popular post we’ve ever had.

In 2007, I campaigned and talked with voters in the WorkChoices election. And the feeling leading up to today’s rally is the very similar.

Very soon we may well have another Prime Minister. Whoever leads the Liberal Party, they would be wise to listen to what some of the 4.5 million Australians have to say today, and cut the employers loose. This is one battle this government does not need and cannot win.

Jess Walsh is the Victorian Secretary of United Voice


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