ALP slices the breadline
Column in The Australian, 5-6 February 1994, p. 20.

“Above the Bread Line” was the name of the sandwich shop set up by Alan Griffith, until recently the federal minister for industry. The implications of that name have not received the attention they deserve. Instead, the media have dealt with an alleged diversion of party and government monies; with Griffiths’ resignation from the Keating-Liberal cabinet; and with his counter-allegations of blackmail.

The three (or four?) leaders of the nominal Liberal Party have done no more than ridicule the Government for possessing an industry minister who could not manage a sandwich shop, or huff about a non-existent prime ministerial cover-up. Next, John Hewson attacked Griffith’s replacement, Peter Cook, as an ACTU stooge who will not give industry what it most needs, namely, a deregulated labor market.

So far, no free marketeer has praised Griffiths for his adaptation of an existing method for sidestepping unionism and abolishing unemployment. The award-busting duo of John Howard and Peter Costello seem reluctant to acknowledge that at the very moment when their supposed leader had been advocating merely a minimum wage of $3 a hour for juniors, Griffiths had adapted methods for postponing payment of any labor costs until the business turned a profit.

Capitalists have to pay some wages so their workers can keep working. Of course, most workers will not be able to live without any immediate income. Griffith’s sub-contractor, Lyneete Harrison, thought she could afford to wait because her husband brought in money from his work as a truck driver.

While Hewson and Howard gabbled about the virtues of enterprise bargaining, Griffith was putting into practice an individual contract the virtues of which for capital have not been discerned by the Opposition. Costello’s 1986 victory against the union pickets at Dollar Sweets now looks like a limited legalism compared with the situation at Above the Bread Line. Nor were last year’s proposals for labor-market deregulation from the Minister for Industrial Relations, Laurie Brereton, as flexible as the Griffith-Harrison deal.

Grififths’ shop at Moonee Ponds might have been called Above the Bread Line, but the terms under which the parties established their business in mid-1992 meant that Ms Harrison began work for returns far beyond the breadline. He put up $25,000 while she agreed to work for nix until the shop turned a profit.

One objection to the interpreting their contract as a wage deal will be that Harrison was never an employee of Griffith. Rather, she was his partner in the small business. If that were the case, concern over wages and conditions under their enterprise agreement would not arise. The facts are the Griffiths provided the money capital and Harrison the physical and mental labor power. But that inequality is the everyday actuality of the wage-laborer under the rule of capital.

Employers in general are wont to talk about their employees as “partners” – or stake-holders – in the business whenever those owners want workers to perform more for less.

Moreover, bosses in the transport and building industries avid award conditions by creating independent proprietors who operate as sub-contractors. That contrivance, along with franchise-selling schemes, has been promoted as the ideal by the advocates of labor-market deregulation. Call employees “sub-contractors” and they are no longer subject to arbitration or minimum conditions. Naturally, they entered into the contract without the supervision or endorsement of the ACTU or the arbitration courts. The Griffith-Harrison case could be interpreted as an extension of that approach and as another enterprise agreement, a la Brereton’s scheme.

No only did Harrison forgo for a considerable time her weekly wage, but as a business partner she had no claim for paid holidays, sick pay or other benefits. Since she was not an employee, would Griffiths have had to make any contribution under the Superannuation schemes his government had set up?

Harrison’s situation raises issues to which commentators on enterprise agreements have alluded. Women will become even more vulnerable to increased exploitation because many are less skilled than men and so have less bargaining power. In addition, they are more likely to be in industries with very small workplaces, commonly one or two temporary part-timers.

The Griffiths-Harrison contract points towards an instant solution for unemployment. Economically Correct professors already argue that joblessness will not disappear unless the price of labour is allowed to float, mostly downwards. Now, Above the Bread Line has shown how the pool of jobless could be cleared overnight. Instead of Hewson’s minimum rate of $3 an hour, the unemployed need only to be repackaged as individual entrepreneurs. As such, they can’t expect a cash return until the business in which they are made partners shows a profit. But, hey presto, instead of one million unemployed, the economy will have one million small-business people.

Once again, Griffith has demonstrated the capacity of the Keating Liberals to keep far ahead of the policies of their parliamentary rivals. Were there any justice in politics, Griffiths would be sought after as minister for employment by both Liberal parties. Then, with the enterprise bargain of Above the Bread Line as their guide, the electorate would be left in no doubt that our advocates of labor-market deregulation really do mean business.