Beware union leaders bearing deals
Beware union leaders bearing deals

Having spent much of the pandemic in daily meetings with industrial relations minister Christian Porter, ACTU secretary Sally McManus went one step further last month, indicating she is willing to enter into a new Accord-style agreement to “reform” the industrial relations system.

At prime minister Scott Morrison’s behest, she will be sitting down with employer association representatives over the next three months to come up with mutually acceptable industrial relations changes that could be pushed through parliament by the end of the year. Areas under discussion include simplification of awards, overhauling the enterprise agreement system, changes to casual and fixed term employment arrangements, enforcement of and compliance with industrial law and the Coalition’s long-term aspiration: the expansion of greenfields agreements.

“Working people should know this”, McManus told the ABC when challenged about her decision to enter enemy territory. “We’re always going to have their backs. We’re never going to go into negotiations and see them go backwards and lose pay and conditions. It’s just not in our DNA.”

But the family tree of the ACTU doesn’t have to be traced back very far before the workers-going-backwards gene becomes embarrassingly apparent. The most obvious example is the Prices and Incomes Accords of the 1980s and early 90s, with which this latest effort at a compact is being widely compared.

The first Accord was adopted shortly before Labor won government in 1983, and was followed by six later iterations, the last one in 1991. Labor prime minister Bob Hawke offered a new strategy to contain union militancy – cooption – in contrast with the confrontation of Fraser before him.

The basis of the Accord was simple: in exchange for unions reining in pay demands and suppressing industrial action, the Labor government would agree to fixed pay rises (with any additional increases dependent on “efficiency offsets”) and the implementation of a “social wage” in the form of Medicare, improved welfare provisions, superannuation and tax cuts. Workers were assured by their union leaders, from the right and the left, that this would protect working conditions and improve living standards. In reality, it was a disaster.

The fixed pay rise system led, over time, to a significant transfer of wealth from workers to bosses. Measured as a share of national income, wages went from 61 percent to 56 percent over the period of the Accord, while the profit share increased from 18 percent to 23 percent.

Worse, the Accord systematically dismantled, from the inside, the necessary structures and networks that gave the union movement its strength and enabled workers to defend and improve their rights and conditions. The role of union leaders became one of preventing strikes and pacifying workers – to do otherwise risked jeopardising the Accord and the prospects of Labor remaining in office.

The result was a drastic decline in union membership and the level of industrial action, which continues to today. In the 1970s, more than half the workforce were union members. Today, fewer than 15 percent are. Industrial action has collapsed from an annual average of 3,146,000 days on strike in the 1970s to just 145,000 in the 2010s. The political culture and norms of the union movement were accordingly transformed, from being centred on taking action and fighting, to deferring to leaders and the ALP.

With resistance hobbled, the Labor government had a free hand to pursue its wider objective: to restructure Australian capitalism along neoliberal lines. Public services were privatised, and the market increasingly came to dominate economic life. Through the unions’ cooperation, Labor was able to achieve what conservative governments elsewhere only dreamt of.

McManus might, once upon a time, have criticised the neoliberal policies brought in by Labor prime minister and Hawke successor Paul Keating, but she has not acknowledged the unions’ role in creating the conditions whereby these policies could be implemented. Far from it: the class collaborationist politics that underpinned the Accord persist in the ACTU today.

The potential deal with the Morrison government is only the latest manifestation. On the 30th anniversary of the Accord in 2013, ACTU then president Ged Kearney (now ALP member for the federal seat of Batman) declared it a “high point” for the labour movement and argued for it to be revived. And in keeping with the spirit of the Accord, the unions have for years now acted as little more than an electoral machine for the ALP, largely accepting that what the party is willing to do in government sets the parameters of their aspirations.

Even if it wanted to, the ACTU today is in no position independently to make gains for workers, nor even maintain its relevance much of the time, largely because of the Accord’s legacy. Without strength on the ground – industrial muscle and a willingness to use it – the workers’ movement has little clout against bosses or hostile governments. And without this, it is harder to attract and hold members, and the unions become progressively weaker and more dependent on the ALP and their integration into the state and legal apparatus of capitalism, as has been the case for the last two decades in Australia.

The class-collaborationist politics that underpinned the Accord were not simply dreamt up by Hawke or the ACTU leaders. Rather, they reflected the particular social position of trade union officials, one that predisposes them to playing a moderating role in the class struggle.

The ACTU and similar union peak bodies are one step removed from the position of most union officials. Their members are unions, not workers. Most union officials play a much more direct role in influencing workers and negotiating working conditions.

Ostensibly, the role of these officials is advocate for workers in their inevitable conflicts with bosses. But to be successful over time, union officials must gain acceptance on both sides of the class divide – amongst the workers they purport to represent and the bosses with whom they ultimately seek to reach agreement. To be accepted then as part of the governing apparatus of capitalism, the union leaders must take as their goal negotiating the terms of workers’ exploitation, not ending it. They must also show their commitment to the fundamentals of capitalism: promoting the “national interest” and acting in the best interests of national industries when called upon.

As a social layer, they exist in two worlds – they must be able both to perform in the halls of power and to inspire the trust and confidence of workers in order better to sell compromise when needed.

 Union officials are duly rewarded for playing this moderating and stabilising role. They tend to earn more and enjoy a standard of living above that of the workers they represent. They have professional careers open to them – whether moving up through the ranks of the union movement and eventually plodding the well-worn track from the ACTU to parliament house, or using their skills to become HR professionals or industry consultants – that most workers don’t.

And they move in influential circles that include bosses, lawyers and politicians, a very different demographic to that in the social and working lives of most workers. This inevitably shapes their attitudes and behaviour. The recent betrayal of the university union leadership is an example: the union officials’ concern to maintain the profitability of the higher education sector and do their bit to help management in a time of crisis was in stark contrast to the instincts of rank and file university workers.

This doesn’t mean that union officials aren’t willing to lead a fight at times. When it fits with their negotiating strategy or is politically expedient, they will and do. But this doesn’t change the fact that their social position ultimately depends on being responsible to the structures of capitalist power, including accepting the legitimacy of its laws, courts, rules and means of punishing those who threaten it. Perhaps most importantly, it means making peace with the fundamentally exploitative relationship between workers and bosses and believing it can be made “fair” through the skilled negotiating tactics they bring to the table.

Given all this, the prospect of a new Accord-style deal is very bad news for workers. Terrible as the outcomes of the last one were, the unions at least went into those negotiations from a position of strength. Bosses weren’t directly involved. And workers were still confident to take action when needed.

The idea last time was to rein in union power through cooption. This time it is to take away conditions that are the legacy of past strength, but which unions no longer have the clout to defend when threatened – conditions that are maintained primarily by industrial law, not union power.

McManus is entering the negotiations this time from a position of weakness. A key motivation is to avoid the union movement being condemned to even greater irrelevance, but the trade-off is the prospect of being forced to rubber stamp the Coalition’s industrial relations wish list and pass it off as a good deal for workers. Based on the two sides’ respective industrial strength, McManus has very limited leverage at the negotiating table, not to mention an immediate track record of conciliation during the COVID-19 crisis that will be hard to back away from. And riding an unfamiliar ripple of popularity, Morrison has implied that if McManus doesn’t take her seat at the table, the government will likely run roughshod over the union movement anyway. If this happened, McManus would be hard pressed to stop them.

It remains to be seen whether this government is able to elicit a sufficient level of class collaboration from the unions to achieve the sort of pro-business environment the bosses and government desire.

But from Morrison’s perspective, dabbling in a bit of cooption has its advantages. If nothing else, it is a break from the persistently unsuccessful efforts of his predecessors to pursue their industrial relations agendas through open confrontation, and one that,if successful, will better guarantee the longevity of the measures. It is also a blow against the heart of Labor’s brand – its unique ability to control and manage the unions.

If the Liberals show themselves just as capable of gaining consent from the unions to industrial attacks, there is little left to recommend Labor as a party of government to the powers that be. For this reason, the ALP is likely to pressure the unions against reaching agreement, but success cannot be guaranteed. It would be a supreme irony if the unions chose this moment to stand up to the ALP and heroically assert their independence by making a deal with the class enemy.

What the whole sorry episode reinforces is the desperate need for a new force in the union movement that can challenge the politics of class collaboration and deal making, and reinvigorate the once strong traditions of struggle and conflict that served workers so well in the past.

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