When Australia's workers fought back against the Accord

Can you tell us about the context in which the Accord emerged?

In 1972 the Whitlam Labor government was elected on the back of rising workers’ struggle and the black, anti-war, women’s and gay movements. Whitlam introduced a range of reforms in the areas of health, welfare and women’s rights, and oversaw the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Workers saw the potential for more gains, and by 1974 there was a massive strike wave, the most significant since the revolutionary post-WWI years. But the world economy, including Australia’s, soon began trending down. The ruling class turned to what we now call neoliberalism as a way to rescue their system and to reverse working class gains.

Malcolm Fraser, his Liberal/National Coalition and their ruling class backers started the offensive by engineering a coup and throwing Whitlam out of office in 1975. Workers struck in their millions, but the ACTU, as they have done time and again, turned a potential strike wave into an electoral campaign to restore the government, which of course failed. Fraser, who promised much to the ruling class, including an end to strikes, more anti-union legislation and higher profits, did not deliver in government.

The big industrial and political battles during those years ended in a stalemate. By 1980, workers had begun to gain more confidence and industrial action began to pick up. But then came a sudden recession and talk of deals between government and unions, even with employers, became louder. The promise of more jobs, security and stable wages to pull the economy out of recession seemed more plausible than tearing down the system. The most common of these agreements were the social contracts – known as the Accord in Australia – in countries such as Sweden, the UK and Austria.

They promised unions a seat at the planning table, but at the cost of concessions on wages and conditions and limitation on industrial action. With the election of the Hawke-Keating government in March 1983, the Accord became a reality. Bill Kelty, then ACTU president, explained: “The philosophic framework [of the Labor government]... [was to] open up the economy to the rest of the world, increase productivity, promote competition ...”. Of course there were still the fig leaf promises of “powerful safety nets in national health care, superannuation and wages”, but for Kelty these measures were useful only if they promoted “adaptation and change, thus increasing productivity”.

As the Accord years rolled on, workers’ welfare and living standards fell at the same time as productivity and profits for the bosses rose. Meanwhile, workers’ defensive organisations, the unions, collaborated with government and employers to destroy solidarity and rank and file industrial power. For the working class, it was sacrifice after sacrifice to ensure the survival of capitalism. The Financial Review summed up the result: “Under the Accord, the ACTU has deliberately facilitated the biggest redistribution of national income from wages to profits”.

Laurie Carmichael, Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) leader, claimed the Accord was a “pathway to socialism”. What was the role of the CPA and others on the left?

Far from being a pathway to socialism, the Accord was a major defeat for the working class, and the Communist Party and Labor Left played a critical role in this defeat. Using their union and Labor government positions, they “educated” the working class in a retreat from class struggle and into class collaboration. The leading left wing union, the AMWU, began the process. Starting in 1976, the AMWU brought out The People’s Budget and then, along with the ACTU, went on to publish a series of pamphlets – Australia Uprooted, Australia Ripped Off, Australia on the rack, Australia on the brink. All argued for a left nationalist, class-collaborationist solution to capitalism’s woes. The CPA and its Labor Left allies continued to play that role from the lead-up to and formulation of the Accord through every step in its development, supporting and enforcing every attack on workers’ wages and conditions.

You describe a pretty grim scenario, but your book argues that workers didn’t just go along with these attacks – some were prepared to fight back.

I cover around 15 major disputes in the book, from 1983, right through to the end of the Accord in 1996. The smallest – Dollar Sweets, where Peter Costello made his name as a lawyer for the company – involved just 15 workers. Others, like the APPM paper mill in Tasmania, Robe River iron and Cockatoo Island in Sydney, involved hundreds of workers.

Then there were the really big ones – the Victorian nurses, the builders’ labourers and the pilots. Certainly the majority lost, but the resistance was important and remains a legacy of the Accord years. Whether you win or lose, how you fight – or even if you fight – matters. It makes the difference between being crushed or living to fight another day.

Some of the most inspiring of these battles involved women workers – those belonging to the small Food Preservers Union and the thousands-strong Victorian nurses, for example. Their determination, backed by solidarity actions from other unions, delivered them wins in the face of intransigent opposition from the government and ACTU. At the Heinz, Plumrose and Rosella-Lipton factories, the workforce went on strike, imposed bans and took other industrial action for higher pay and better conditions.

Union members at Rosella had the book thrown at them. Industrial relations minister Ralph Willis berated the union for being “selfish”, urging members to defy their officials and go back to work. Hawke instructed the Social Security department (now Centrelink) not to pay the workers or their dependants unemployment payments and tried to get them excluded from the September national wage case. More dangerously, the federal government, backed by Kelty, threatened to rush through legislation to cancel the union’s award, which would have left union members around the country with no protection at all.

In the face of their determined action – and the industrial support they got from other workers and their unions such as the Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) and Transport Workers Union – the employers caved in, and the Arbitration Commission was forced to grant them the national wage rise. Food Preservers’ organiser Denis Evans insists that, after listening to the rank and file, the union backed its members. They refused to become, in his words, “industrial policemen”. If members said they couldn’t live on what they were getting, “what right does a union official have to say, ‘you can’t improve your wages and conditions because the Accord says you can’t’? ... Members fuelled the anti-Accord position”.

In Victoria, the nurses’ union held out for 50 days, escalating the dispute until the entire workforce was on strike. They eventually claimed victory, having stared down a hostile Labor government, an obstructive ACTU and Trades Hall Council . These forces accused the nurses of being naive and not knowing the system. Nurses state secretary Irene Bolger was quick to rebuff these charges. “Of course we knew the system”, she said, “but we ignored it because it was their rules and their system – and we’d decided that it was time to chuck their rules out the door ... [our members] were fed up”.

These are inspiring wins, but the Accord left a terrible legacy for workers. What were the defeats that left the unions and their members weakened both industrially and politically?

The losses were significant and overall had a massive effect on workers and their unions. Two of the strongest unions, the builders’ labourers and pilots, were smashed with the help of the police, draconian state and federal laws, other unions and the ACTU.

The BLF did manage to hold on, but in its strongest state, Victoria, the state and federal governments pursued the union to the end, raiding its offices, taking over its finances and passing laws that made it impossible for the union to re-establish itself. It avoided total annihilation by amalgamating with the construction union, but has remained under attack from the ruling class ever since.

In the case of the pilots, the government, with the full backing of employers and the ACTU and other transport unions, brought in the air force to break their strike in 1989. The pilots were taken to court and fined millions, scabs took their jobs, and many of the strikers never returned to the industry. The union has rebuilt, though to nothing like its previous power.

One of the most destructive moves was the introduction of enterprise bargaining – former prime minister Paul Keating’s parting “gift” to workers at the end of the Accord years. Enterprise bargaining left workers more casualised, isolated, on lower wages and conditions, de-unionised and weaker overall. Resistance to it was shut down by the officials.

The Accord and its supporters are responsible for the weak state of the union movement today, and its orientation to class collaboration rather than class struggle. Nonetheless, the fact that the government – backed by the bosses and ACTU – was forced to destroy two unions, impose massive fines and bring in more and more anti-worker laws, is an indication of the level of resistance amongst the rank and file, often in defiance of union leaders. For our side, it means that, though battered and bruised, enough class antagonism remains that every time there has been a call to the fight, workers have responded enthusiastically.

Hundreds of thousands hit the streets during the waterfront dispute in 1998 and against WorkChoices towards the end of the Howard years. Class collaboration is on the agenda of the left union leadership and Labor once again, as the federal government plans massive cuts to wages and conditions in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. We desperately need to reignite a spirit of resistance inside the union movement if we are to fend off the coming attacks.

The resistance by workers during the Accord years was, for me, the education of a lifetime. As well as highlighting the pitfalls of class collaboration, it provided confirmation of the potential for solidarity and struggle and the vital role of the working class in building for a better, socialist future.

Stuff the Accord! is published by Interventions. You can buy it online at Red Flag Books

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