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July 2005   

Interview: Battle Stations
Opposition leader Kim Beazley says he's ready to fight for workers right. But come July 1, he'll have to be fighting by different rules.

Unions: The Workers, United
It was a group of rank and filers who took centre stage when workers rallied in Sydney's Town Hall, writes Jim Marr.

Politics: The Lost Weekend
The ALP had a hot date, they had arranged to meet on the Town Hall steps, and Phil Doyle was there.

Industrial: Truth or Dare
Seventeen ivory towered academics upset those who know what is best for us last week.

History: A Class Act
After reading a new book on class in Australia, Neale Towart is left wondering if it is possible to tie the term down.

Economics: The Numbers Game
Political economist Frank Stilwell offers a beginners guide to understanding budgets

International: Blonde Ambition
Sweden can be an inspiration to labour movements the world over, as it has had community unionism for over 100 years, creating a vibrant caring society, rather than a "productive" lean economy.

Training: The Trade Off
Next time you go looking for a skilled tradesman and can�t find one, blame an economist, writes John Sutton.

Review: Bore of the Worlds
An invincible enemy has people turning against one another as they fight for survival � its not just an eerie view of John Howard�s ideal workplace, writes Nathan Brown.

Poetry: The Beaters Medley
In solidarity with the workers of Australia, Sir Paul McCartney (with inspiration from his old friend John Lennon) has joined the Workers Online resident bard David Peetz to pen some hits about the government's proposed industrial relations revolution.


The Soapbox
State of the Union
Unions NSW secretary John Robertson lifts the lid on �The Nine Myths of Modern Unionism�

The Locker Room
Wrist Action
Phil Doyle trawls the murky depths of tawdry sleaze, and discovers Rugby is behind it all.

To Hew The Coal That Lies Below
Phil Doyle reviews Australia's first coal mining novel, Black Diamonds and Dust.

The Westie Wing
Our favourite State MP, Ian West, reports from Macquarie Street that the Premier is all the way with a State Commission.


After the Action
After a National Week of Action that has had everything from mass rallies in all capital cities to IR chat rooms opening on the Vogue Magazine website it�s fair to say that the first objective of this campaign � to raise public awareness � has been achieved.


 Don't Get Angry, Get Organised

 Feds Threaten Hardie Battlers

 Beasts of Bourbon Play Dog

 Churches on Workplace Mission

 Unions Are The New Black

 Muster Has Bosses in Fluster

 Workers Flood to Protests

 Official: Libs Don�t Know Own Laws

 Schools Out For Uni Bosses

 IR Campaign Taxing Andrews

 Air Safety at Risk

 Carr Runs Over Lib Laws

 Aga Khan Workers Gaoled

 Activists Whats On!

 Workers Give In FNQ
 Power and the Passion
 Mao and Then
 The Third Way Hits A Dead End
 Unfair For All
 What Is To Be Done?
 Black Hawk Up
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The Trade Off

Next time you go looking for a skilled tradesman and can�t find one, blame an economist, writes John Sutton.


There is a dirty little secret behind Australia's current skills crisis. When it comes to our long-term economic prosperity, the market is failing us.

As labour market economists scratch their heads looking for an answer to this structural defect, they are refusing to admit the underlying problem - their own doctrine which breaks economic activity into unrelated, discrete units.

In this world there are no causes and effects, no flow-on effects, no long-term investments, just a balance sheet.

The shortage in building industry apprentices is a classic example of this type of thinking; a shortage that anyone who has tried building or renovating a home in recent years can attest to.

Building apprentices are in decline - over the past 15 years the number of building apprentices has dropped by nearly ten per cent - at a time when industry activity has more than doubled.

The reasons behind the shortages are, of course, complex but there are two culprits that stand out from the pack.

First, the value of young apprentices is measured only in the short term; and this leaves apprentice wages at such a level that very few people are attracted to the trades.

With more and more builders working on low margins in a cut-throat tender market - and many companies rising and falling on the strength of a single project - the criteria for economic success is, by definition, short term.

Now the construction industry - which in reality is a gaggle of project managers, principal and sub-contractors are actually punished by the market for any fat on their balance sheets. And that includes the young workers who are new to the tools.

And the days are gone when Governments corrected the market dysfunctions - that is the Dept of Public Works, the Railways, the MSB trained quality apprentices.

From the other end of the equation, wages for apprentices have not kept pace with developments in the industry - or with other industries - meaning they have fallen below a level that will actually attract young people.

Traditionally, apprentices had a wage based on the presumption that a first-year apprentice had left school at year 10, was living at home and had no extra commitments. These days, HSC level mathematics is a general requirement; while some 18 and 19 year olds who are entering the building industry already have family responsibilities.

To put these wages into perspective, a first year apprentice carpenter receives $5.80 per hour; more than $2.00 per hour less than apprentices in other industries such as chefs, postal workers or retail workers

In the context of the building industry, a general site hand - with no recognised skills - is a paid a minimum of $15.00 per hour - nearly three times the apprentice wage.

And in comparison with the ubiquitous burger-flipper? A Full-time 18 year old working at McDonalds can expect to earn around $9.00 per hour, while a casual would take home about $11.00 an hour.

At these wages, it is not the low apprentice numbers that are surprising; it is the fact that anyone at all chooses to commit to a trade. Of those who do, with the best intentions, an alarming number drop out in their first year, squeezed by the low wages, long hours, night study and arduous nature of the work.

These are the reasons the CFMEU is currently seeking an average increase of $2.20 per hour for apprentices in the AIRC, not as a simple wage rise, but as part of a broad solution to the skills crisis that affects every Australian homeowner.

Gimmicks from the Federal Government, including $800 tool kits, special non-union technical colleges and overseas apprentices, will do nothing unless the underlying issues are addressed.

Our argument is that if we are serious about resolving this skills crisis, we need to make the trade, if not lucrative, then at least a viable option to smart young people.

Not surprisingly, the building employers are resisting the modest increases, claiming that an industry that delivers multi-million profits can't bear a small upward movement in wages.

These are the same industry leaders moaning about the skills shortage; a short-sighted view that sees everyone responsible for their problems but themselves. Then again, maybe they should try a career as economists.


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