Women Workers Key to Building a Working Class Fightback

Smash the Cutback to Sunday Penalty Rates through Class Struggle Action

Above: Health Services Union members protest against the NSW government’s attempt to privatise healthcare by stealth by outsourcing hospital services to private businesses. Women workers – suffering both exploitation as workers and male chauvinism – are key to the working class struggle for liberation.

International Women’s Day 2017 comes at a time of heightened attacks on women – especially working class women. That is not only because a hard-core misogynist and racist, Donald Trump, has become the president of the most powerful country in the world. Working class women in Australia have to cop lower wages than men. Unaffordable childcare restricts women’s full participation in economic and social life. Meanwhile, many low income single mothers continue to be ground down by the former Gillard ALP government’s cruel cut to the single parenting payment four years ago. As always, the fate of women’s rights goes hand in hand with workers’ rights and the rights of all the oppressed including Aboriginal people, LGBTI people, coloured “ethnic” people and the unemployed. Alongside attacks on women’s social position, we are seeing the right-wing Turnbull government attack our trade unions – targeting especially the CFMEU construction workers union – and undercut weekend penalty rates for hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers. Meanwhile, all the current parliamentary parties – Pauline Hanson’s fascistic One Nation, the Liberal/National coalition, the Nick Xenophon Team, the ALP and The Greens – are all in various way inciting poisonous nationalism that inevitably targets coloured migrant-derived communities by variously blaming refugees, guest workers or overseas producers for the unemployment and insecurity caused by the capitalist system itself. 

Russia, International Women’s Day, 1917: Mainly female textile workers go on strike for bread sparking a general strike and the toppling of the Tsar. The resulting revolutionary period that was opened up culminated half a year later in the October Socialist Revolution. The banner reads “Glory to the Women Fighters for Freedom!”
Russia, International Women’s Day, 1917: Mainly female textile workers go on strike for bread sparking a general strike and the toppling of the Tsar. The resulting revolutionary period that was opened up culminated half a year later in the October Socialist Revolution. The banner reads “Glory to the Women Fighters for Freedom!”

Women’s rights are so closely bound to the overall state of the class struggle between capitalist business owners and the working class because women’s oppression is actually built on the foundations of class-divided societies. Under capitalism’s social structure a large proportion of women are denied economic independence. With women denied the opportunity to participate equally in economic and political life, male chauvinist attitudes are spawned that “justify” and perpetuate this reality. That is why we must fight for women’s full economic independence through demanding jobs for all and for equal pay between men and women workers. We must also call for free abortion on demand and freely available access to all forms of contraception. To allow women the greatest chance to participate in economic life, we must fight for free 24-hour childcare, for free school lunches at all public schools and for after-school sports, music and cultural activities provided for free by the state alongside free transport from school to these activities. All these demands, however, clash head on with the current system because the capitalists who control the economy are not going to want to sacrifice their profits to make these social programs and full employment possible. Thus, while we can make headway in women’s emancipation through winning concessions through struggle under capitalism, we will only fully open the door to women’s complete liberation when the capitalist system is replaced by a socialist one.

However, women are not just victims of capitalism and will not simply be a major beneficiary of socialism. Working class women, who have the most to gain by ripping up this current system, will also be the key drivers of the struggle to overthrow capitalism. The most powerful example of this occurred on International Women’s Day in 1917 in Russia. It was then that in the Russian capital of Petrograd tens of thousands of mainly women textile workers walked off the job to demand bread. Their struggle sparked off a general strike and a revolt against the tsarist monarchy. The resulting revolutionary period that was opened up culminated half a year later in the October Socialist Revolution. Exactly one hundred years later and this struggle remains the shining path for the fight for women’s emancipation and for the liberation of the masses more generally.

Today, women workers alongside coloured “ethnic” and youth workers are not only amongst the workers most targeted by the slashing of Sunday penalty rates but are crucial to any fightback against this vicious attack.

In February, the “Fair Work” Commission announced its despicable decision to slash Sunday penalty rates between 25% and 50% for hospitality, restaurant, fast food, retail and pharmacy workers. The decision also cuts these workers’ public holiday pay by up to 25%. This will mean a loss of up to $6,000 per year for some workers. The Fair Work Commission’s decision, done with the backing of the Turnbull government, will hurt some of the lowest paid workers in the country. Many of these workers are already on perilous incomes, not only because their pay rates are low but because many are in insecure, casual jobs where they are forced to work less hours than they want to due to the bosses and the bosses’ capitalist system making inadequate work available. The loss of penalty rates will thus mean a huge proportion of their income will be lost. For many of these workers, the loss of penalty rates could be the difference between scraping enough to pay their rent and simply not being able to make ends meet.

Thus far, the pro-ALP leaders of our trade unions have been relying on petitions and parliament to oppose this cruel attack. However, we should not rely on a future ALP government to reverse the cuts. Although the ALP Opposition is now calling for the government to legislate against the Fair Work Commission decision, before the election ALP leader Bill Shorten announced that a future ALP government would not try to reverse a cut to penalty rates if the Fair Work commission ruled in favour of it. So, what exactly would the ALP do if it ended up being the current gang of politicians in government running the rich bosses’ state? What we can expect from the openly anti-working class, Liberal-National government, of course, goes without saying!

What we need is the mobilisation of the power of the working class in mass action – especially including industrial action – to smash the attack on the weekend and holiday pay of hospitality, restaurant, fast food, retail and pharmacy workers. This should not just be the task of the workers directly affected. This slashing of penalty rates is an attack on the entire working class. If the bosses get away with it they will be targeting penalty and shift rates of other workers. Many of those targeted by the recent attack toil in small workplaces where ruthless “small business owners” are able to get away with bullying them. That is why we need workers in larger, more heavily unionised workplaces to also flex their industrial muscle to help crush this attack on penalty rates. Such a mobilisation will also help cement ties between different components of the working class. For example if militant construction workers and maritime workers unleashed their power behind the hospitality, restaurant, fast food, retail and pharmacy workers targeted by this recent attack, they will likely see more of these lower paid workers joining their picket lines when they face impending full frontal attacks from the capitalist rulers.

CFMEU national secretary Michael O’Connor has stated the union’s opposition to the slashing of penalty rates and insisted that the CFMEU would “not stand by and watch” as the Government introduced cuts to pensions, family supplements and attempted to regain welfare overpayments. O’Connor continued that:

“The CFMEU stands ready to fight.

“This war on battlers must end.

“The war on the fair go must stop.

“Where the fightback takes place — wherever there is a ­picket, a rally, a campaign, whatever it is — you will see us there standing shoulder to shoulder with those under attack.”

These statements now need to be followed by actual industrial action by the CFMEU and other unions to smash the attacks on penalty rates, pensions and welfare payments.

If we can defeat this attack on penalty rates through industrial and other mass action, the union movement will win thousands of new workers – especially younger workers – to joining our ranks. We will also become more united and confident to challenge other attacks that we face including the Liberals ABCC – as well as the anti-strike provisions of Labor’s 2009 Fair Work Act – cuts to public housing and draconian cuts to social welfare for the poor.

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) decision proves once again that the industrial courts in Australia – like all the courts here – are not “independent umpires.” Rather, they form part of a capitalist state – which includes also the police, the military, prisons and the bureaucracy – that was created and is maintained for enforcing the interests of the capitalist exploiting class over the working class. Even when the FWC, on a rare occasion, makes a decision less harmful to workers’ interests then that is not because of any inherent sense of justice in the system but merely reflects those cases where workers have won the struggle on the ground in the industrial and political battlefield and the FWC is forced to accept this reality in order to maintain its credibility. That is why we should not bow to the authority of these courts even if the rules under which it operates are changed. The only law that the workers movement should be bound to respect are our decisions on what is in the interests of the working class and oppressed.

The excuse of the greedy business owners and their FWC for slashing Sunday and holiday penalty rates is that this helps bosses hire more workers. To this we must say: No – we are not going to let you gouge the incomes of already exploited workers even more as the price we must pay to let you supposedly hire more workers. Instead, we are going to force you to hire more at the expense of your already bloated profits. We demand that profitable businesses be banned from cutting the size of their workforce and that profitable firms be forced to increase hiring in proportion to their profits. If the greedy business owners complain that this will make their operations impractical then we say that this only proves that the economy should not be in the hands of these capitalists but should be brought into the socialist, collective hands of working class people.

A Soviet poster advising the woman worker to take up her rifle!
A Soviet poster advising the woman worker to take up her rifle!

Unleash the Full Power of Lower Paid, Youth, Women & Coloured “Ethnic” Workers

The FWC’s penalty rate cut will especially hurt people from the most oppressed sections of the working class – including lower paid workers, women workers, youth workers and workers from coloured “ethnic” backgrounds. These workers are crucial to the overall cause of the working class. All the obstacles that stand in the way of these workers being able to unleash their full fighting strength – like male chauvinism, skilled worker arrogance towards unskilled workers and racism – must be knocked down. Indeed, one thing that this widely hated attack on penalty rates has done is that, in the face of bi-partisan attacks on refugees and Aboriginal people, the growth in support for the extreme racist One Nation party and everyone from the Coalition to the ALP to the Greens trying to emulate the economic nationalism of hard-right, U.S. president Donald Trump, it has highlighted the truth that the cause of Australian workers’ hardships is not in the least refugees, guest workers or overseas producers but the Aussie capitalist exploiters – and the governments and state institutions that enforce their interests. We need to build a leadership of the workers movement that is committed to explaining this basic truth to the masses. One that will face down the lies of the bosses media and pro-capitalist political parties that try to divide the exploited masses with nationalism and racism. This is part of the struggle to reorient our unions away from trust in the “Australia-First”, ALP and the institutions of Australia’s capitalist state and onto a program of militant class struggle against the greedy Aussie capitalists.

Let’s smash the Australian ruling class’ attacks on hospitality, restaurant, fast food, retail and pharmacy workers! Let’s unite all workers in this country – and win crucial international solidarity action by uniting as one with our working class sisters and brothers abroad – to fight for this goal! Let’s unleash the industrial muscle of the united working class! Let’s win this battle so that we can begin to roll back the over three decades of setbacks that the workers movement has suffered!