Still stuck in the 1980s? The unions and the Accord

On 16 May 2012 there was a reunion at the Australian Council of Trade Unions congress gala dinner. The crucial players involved in the development of the ACTU and ALP Prices and Incomes Accord of the 1980s – Bill Kelty, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Laurie Carmichael – were all there. The keynote addresses were from Kelty and Keating, with the latter asked to commemorate the former’s work in the labour movement. While Hawke was the only one to literally lend his voice to the crowd, leading a rendition of ‘Solidarity Forever’, all were singing the praises of the 1983–96 federal Labor government and urging renewed collaboration between the Gillard government and the ACTU. A new collaboration was necessary, it was argued, in an effort to deal with the present ‘testing times for the labour movement and unions’.

Kelty is revered in the labour movement, no question. That night high-profile union leaders in the crowd took to Twitter expressing their deep admiration for him. ACTU Assistant Secretary Tim Lyons noted: ‘without question [Kelty is the] public figure I most admire. Proud I occupy a job he (& Carmichael) once had.’ Linda White, Assistant National Secretary for the Australian Services Union, said she ‘could hardly breathe’ at their first meeting, as she was ‘so much in awe of him’. Not one for muted praise, Paul Howes of the Australian Worker’s Union tweeted: ‘Just quietly – I love Bill Kelty – the greatest Australian unionist that ever lived’, and then, ‘If it wasn’t inappropriate I’d dry hump Kelty right now.’ The praise for Kelty was particularly focussed on his role in developing and implementing the Accord.

But for some in the room, and for other unionists following the conference hashtag #ac12 on Twitter, this public show of support seemed like staged theatre and far from the reality of the Accord’s legacy. Given the dramatic collapse of union membership in the late stages of the Accord period and after, and the declining share of wages compared to profits in that time, the idea of the Accord as the golden age to which we should return seemed bizarre. Moreover, the fact that the wide policy agenda detailed in the original agreed Accord failed to materialise was ignored. For unionists and left activists outside the ALP, the intervening years had led to critical reflection on the Accord and the consequences of labour-movement involvement in the corporative exercise. For those who thought there might be some public acknowledgement of the contradictions of the period by the officials of the labour movement, they were sorely disappointed.

Not only were the Accord and the economic rationalist reforms of the Hawke-Keating governments necessary, they argued, the outcomes were in the interests of all Australians. Kelty did not ignore that times were tough for working people in the 1980s, but this was celebrated as part of the responsible approach of the unions to the necessary restructuring of the Australian economy:  ‘we took the cuts, and we took the pains and we argued that this country would be better off in the future.’ Kelty overviewed the restructuring of the Australian economy in the 1980s, urging the labour movement to play a constructive role again. Yet there was little said as to why the Accord and restructuring were considered necessary in the first place, beyond the deployment of words like ‘flexibility’ and ‘high-value workplaces’, and whether working people were in fact better off 30 years later.

It was Kelty, Keating also argued, who ensured the national superannuation scheme and implemented the enterprise bargaining system – the latter of which Age journalist Clay Lucas says ‘allowed the economy the flexibility and resilience to see the country through turbulent financial times’. Yet neither of these policies were part of the original Accord. They celebrated themselves – the parliamentary and civil society wings of the labour movement – as the true defenders of efficiency and tight economic management, and those most committed to addressing inflation first. As Keating argued, ‘few would realise that at the heart of the anti-inflation constituency was Bill Kelty – not some corporate wiz or a business council supremo … they wouldn’t have a clue how to break the back of inflation’. Keating continued that a lesser ACTU secretary ‘would have gone for the smother and hung on to the old system [of industrial relations] like a familiar old blanket’.

As an example of history creation, it was impressive. With union membership at historic lows, and growing inequality in Australia, watching the ACTU congress you could be moved to think these problems were unconnected to the economic and industrial policies of the ALP government of the 80s and early 90s. It would be wrong to suggest that union membership and growing inequality were solely, or perhaps even mainly, caused by the Accord, as similar outcomes occurred in countries like New Zealand and the United Kingdom in the same period without the utilisation of a corporative model. Yet one of the main ‘defences’ of the Accord as necessary is that things would have been worse had it not been agreed to – which of course cannot be proven. Yet the notion that the current state of the union movement is unconnected to what the union movement did in the closing decades of last century is equally a fiction.

The Accord was developed by the ACTU and ALP in order to try to solve the capitalist economic crisis of the 70s and early 80s, something the Fraser government was unable to do. In a period of renewed economic crisis today, it appears working people are again being asked by union officials and the ALP to sacrifice in order to save capitalism from itself. There is something that the labour officials do not understand, however: the Accord was able to be successfully implemented because of the high union penetration into workplaces. That the ACTU presided over a drop in union density from around 50 per cent of workers in 1983 to 18 per cent today means the unions’ ability to persuade working people that a ‘collaboration’ with the ALP is in their interests is far more limited, especially when the experience of declining real wages under the auspices of the Accord is within living memory (see graph below). Moreover, this crisis is different, and occurs on the back of not a long boom to which people thought we might quickly return, but at the end of decades of economic insecurity and restructuring and attacks on working on people.

Of course this critique says nothing about how we need to collectively act in order to protect wages and conditions. Or how we can rebuild a labour movement confident to fight both on the nuts and bolts of individual industries, and on the wider economic and political questions that refuse to go away. The 99% is moving, seemingly everywhere but here, but to think that Australia is so very different from Quebec’s student demonstrations or New York and Oakland’s Occupy movements or Spain’s Asturian miners is naive. Those places have different histories, yes, but they are also places where not that long ago the Left bemoaned the fact there was so little struggle. Each of them is a place where politics has changed quickly – and change in Australia is a certainty. The question is not one of whether things will transform, but what kind of independent Left voice there will be for working people and those that have suffered under decades of neoliberal restructuring when that change comes. Given the Accord’s role in undermining and attacking working people, and its continued endorsement by most of this country’s union leadership, we cannot rely on the ACTU to provide that kind of voice.

Elizabeth Humphrys

Dr Elizabeth Humphrys is a political economist in Social and Political Sciences at UTS, and the UTS Student Ombud. Her research examines work and workers in the context of economic crisis and change, including neoliberalism, climate change and workplace disasters. Elizabeth is an Associate of the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute. Her first book is How Labour Built Neoliberalism (Haymarket 2019).

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  1. A great post, Liz.

    I’m going to say something controversial here, but in my view Hawke and Keating (with the union bureaucracy’s help) were far more successful in demoralising and breaking the Left and sending the workers’ movement into retreat than Howard ever was subsequently. Yet all but a minority on the radical Left largely accept the line that, while 1983-96 had its problems, it was a time of the Left in power doing some good things. The rewriting of history at the ACTU congress is only an extreme variant on this.

    It’s important to understand the wage data you’ve reproduced in political terms. The key function the union leadership played in the Accord era was winning real sacrifice from workers to revive the health of capital. Yet unions, for all their deformations and bureaucratisation, are defence organisations borne of the working class organising itself, and not simple instruments of capitalist rule. In the Accord era they didn’t just make compromises with the bosses but served their members up in a project to restabilise Australian capitalism as a whole in the framework of an explicitly nationalist project that gave them access to (but minimal real independent power over) the upper echelons of the state machine.

    Since the Accord fell apart in the Keating years, while unions have recognised in the abstract that they need to adapt to the changed circumstances, there has been no obvious systematic reappraisal of that state-centric project. Even now when an ALP government offers them very little in return, the leadership of the ACTU does very little to even imagine the possibility of a political alternative to its connections with the ALP (whether formal or effective).

    This is not to say that unions don’t still provide serious organised defence of workers’ conditions in some sectors of the economy (especially the public sector, which is part of why both state Labor and Liberal governments have made so much noise about union “dinosaurs” there), but this is not tied to a wider class project of any coherence.

    The other issue is that, as the graph shows, workers on average did much better under Howard than under Hawke and Keating, and this had little to do with the organising capacities of unions (whose density decline accelerated a little after 1996) or their political influence within governments (minimal under Howard, not much more now).

    All the arguments people raise about the difficulties of organising in new industries, a worsened legislative framework, etc, leading to union decline have an element of truth to them, but they dodge the central point that the unions actively entered into a project to bolster the other side in the class conflict, and have still not come to terms with the consequences of that.

  2. That’s quite a bleak assessment, though, cos I would have thought that in the short term the likelihood of the union leadership changing its mind on the Accord and its legacy could be put at precisely zero.

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