THE NSW government pocketed more than $16 billion when it partially privatised poles and wire company Ausgrid in 2016, leasing a 50.4 per cent stake for 99 years to a consortium of superannuation and investment funds.
While the result was hailed by the government as a win for taxpayers, the unions representing Ausgrid workers say it’s their members who have paid the price in the transaction, with almost 2000 losing their jobs and the remainder going four years without a pay rise.
Having run out of patience, the workers have voted to take a range of industrial actions, with delegates to the Electrical Trades Union and other unions meeting at the end of this month to plan a final course of action.
They hope to reach agreement on a pay rise before then, but either way, the Ausgrid workers are far from alone in finding it difficult to obtain a reasonable wage rise. Any number of measures confirm that wages growth has fallen substantially below trend, so much so that even the federal Coalition has begun to talk about the need to lift workers’ incomes.
There is no real economic consensus as to why wages growth has fallen so dramatically, but the unavoidable impact can only be a noticeable widening of inequality. While this may not bother some of those who find themselves at the top of the pile, more sensible minds realise that a properly functioning society – an Australian society – is based on a sense of fairness and egalitarianism that seems sorely missing in comparison with earlier times. It is true that the overall standard of living continues to rise in Australia, but that cannot be used as an excuse to justify the suppression of wages growth for all but the top echelons of the workforce.
Last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “The answer to low wages growth is stronger economic growth.”
But as Opposition Treasury spokesman Chris Bowen observed, wages growth has been at “record lows”, despite Australia’s much-vaunted record of 26 years of uninterrupted economic growth.
While the Australian government, and other administrations internationally, may still believe in the “trickle down” effect, the Ausgrid workers have decided that they can’t wait that long. So they are playing the strongest card that workers have: a threat to withdraw their labour. It’s that simple.