How the ACTU became the industrial police
How the ACTU became the industrial police

When the Labor Party, led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, romped into federal government in 1983, it had the solid backing of the trade union movement through the ALP-ACTU Accord. This social contract promised a bright future for workers through improved health care and welfare provisions, superannuation and a role in industry planning and job restructures. As Communist Party member and manufacturing union official Max Ogden wrote: “The trade union movement in Australia has one of its best opportunities ever to intervene in the most important areas of decision making, and to become a political movement with a large involvement of rank-and-file activists in an enormous range of activities throughout the political and economic structure”.

But no sooner had the ALP been elected than ACTU President Bill Kelty spelled out exactly what the ALP-ACTU Accord intended to deliver: “open up the economy to the rest of the world, increase productivity, promote competition”. Fairly soon, the positive messages of social wage and workplace benefits turned to restraint and a focus on profits, productivity and competition. The union movement was integral to this project. From small-scale interventions into individual workplaces, such as the Rosella food processing plant in Melbourne, to the smashing of the pilots’ union nationally, the ACTU and almost all union officials played a central role in policing rank-and-file unionists for the capitalists.

Independent action by workers in their own interests was derided by union leaders as sectional, counter-productive and even selfish. Unions were warned, as Prime Minister Hawke told the pilots, “It’s a different game this time boys. You go out [on strike] and it’s war!” And it was in this case. Backed by the ACTU, the ALP brought in the air force to destroy the pilots’ union—one of the few times in Australian history that the armed forces was used against workers and their unions.

The Accord’s promises, such as a commitment to real wage increases, soon took a battering. Two years in, employers had saved $250-400 million, while real earnings declined by 2.4 percent in 1985-86, after two years of negligible increases. Meanwhile, as well as sanctioning the delays, the ACTU forced workers belonging to the Furnishing Trades Union to hand back wage rises they’d already won.

The union leaders were just as complicit in the next phase of the Accord, when wages began to be linked to productivity increases, enterprise by enterprise. As workers gave away penalty rates, faced a rise in casual and part-time staff, restrictions on the ability to strike and more managerial control, building union leader and Socialist Party member Tom McDonald dismissed workers’ concerns. For him, penalty rates and the like were simply one of the “many undesirable work practices that had developed during the earlier boom period”.

In one voice, both Labor and union leaders praised the 1988 Accord Mark IV award restructuring process. A major overhaul of work conditions, this future “paradise” for workers would mean, according to Federated Iron Workers Association secretary Steve Harrison, that anyone could train to become whatever they liked, everyone would use computers and nobody would be stuck in dead-end jobs like data processing.

The reality was vastly different. Few employers paid for training or paid only for enterprise-based, non-transferable skills, so it became workers’ responsibility, while TAFE funding was cut and the government introduced fees for university education. For the bosses, it was a windfall as the new modular training programs delivered “multiskilled” workers who could step into any job, alleviating short-term labour shortages.

Australia Reconstructed, the report of a government-ACTU junket to Western Europe, stated quite openly that the purpose of the Accord and award restructuring was to increase “international competitiveness and productivity, rather than the maintenance of living standards”. The report also approved fines for and limits on strikes.

By the time enterprise bargaining was introduced at the end of the Accord, unionisation levels had fallen to their lowest level for decades, weakening workers’ power to win gains. This encouraged even more collaboration by the union officials. Manufacturing union leaders, on learning of one company’s cost-cutting proposals, threatened national industrial action, but they added: “We would rather sit down with Boral and show Boral how they really can improve productivity”.

As the years passed, the constraints on workers became more apparent: wages were to be maintained “over time”, equal pay was “outside the guidelines”, the social wage was subject to “economic circumstances”. At the Accord’s 30th anniversary forum, Bill Kelty explained why the Accord partners had lied about wages rising: “What do you think, everybody said, ‘That’s a nice idea—a real wage reduction would be good, can I have another one next year please’?” Regardless of whether anyone did think it was a good idea, Kelty ruthlessly enforced a decline in real wages and never backed away from taking credit for it. He said that he was “prepared to get the economy refocused and stabilised and accepted for a period of time that there had to be real wage concessions”.

The manufacturing union’s Max Ogden, along with the many other left nationalist union officials, saw great opportunities in the Accord’s promise of industry plans, superannuation and other interventions into economic policy. Unions, argued supporters of the Accord, had earlier been simply fixated on wages and conditions, refusing to widen their horizons, but now the Accord had changed all that. In Unions and the future of manufacturing, Peter Ewer and others explained, “In its involvement in the Accord and the politics of industrial regeneration, unionism has broken decisively with the older, narrower definition of its competence to claim a qualitatively wider, initiating role in policy making and industry”.

Rather than a triumph, industry intervention was a sorry story for workers. In the textiles, clothing and footwear sector, the tripartite plan was overtaken by the government’s 1987 tariff cuts, which decimated the industry. Through the steel industry plan, BHP was handed $360m in industry assistance between 1983 and 1987. Annual production rose from 175 to 260 tonnes per worker, while 21,000 workers lost their jobs. The coal industry went through a similar process: millions of dollars poured in from state and federal governments while hundreds of workers were sacked and the companies pushed through the biggest downgrading of miners’ conditions since 1949, including longer shifts and employer control of rostering.

The cuts were also savage on the waterfront. The 1989 Waterfront Industry Reform Authority, which included the union’s Charlie Fitzgibbon, exacted 1,000 job losses and removed union control over hiring and allocation of labour. With the shift to company-based employment, workers’ jobs were tied to the fortunes of individual stevedores, undercutting union solidarity and enhancing the ability of employers to hire and fire. Later, Labor MP Kim Beazley boasted in parliament that during the ALP’s time in office its “reforms” had reduced the number of waterfront workers from 10,000 to 3,000.

The Accord promised better industrial relations, encouraging settlements rather than confrontations, with little recourse to sanctions. But within two years, during a wage dispute, Labor was standing down workers in the federal public service, threatening sackings and fines and railing against unions for “crippling the economy and threatening the Accord”.

The full force of all the anti-union laws was used, and not just by the employers, who were backed by government and often the ACTU, such as the cases of the Builders Labourers Federation and the pilots. Many officials cited such laws to force their members back to work and to cover for their own inaction, not to say willingness to act in the bosses’ interests. Barely a year into the Accord, the Australian Financial Review commented: “The Hawke government has become a jailer for unions which dare to buck the Accord’s consensus and the ACTU has become an industrial police force”.

Union members at Rosella-Lipton had the book thrown at them when they went on strike for higher wages. 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 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 industrial protection at all.

Two years after Labor’s loss to John Howard’s Coalition, one of the Accord’s authors, Building Workers’ Industrial Union official Tom McDonald, was prepared to admit the failings of the Accord, though never taking responsibility for his role in it, including the smashing of the Builders Labourers Federation, which directly benefited his union. In his biography Intimate Union, he wrote that the great weakness of the Accord was that it “disempowered workers to the extent that it took away from them the right to struggle for higher wages and better conditions of employment. Everything associated with the Accord was decided at the top echelons of power”.

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