ACTU Congress rolls over for Labor

September 18, 1991

By Peter Boyle

MELBOURNE — The flashy venue (the World Trade Centre), the grossly blown-up images of speakers on a large video screen on the stage and the immaculate attention to appearance rather than substance said much about an ACTU congress which announced with joy the trade union bureaucracy's intention to continue to assist the Hawke Labor government to deliver "wage restraint" and industry restructuring (i.e., job cuts). This might be sell-out, but at least it's a high-tech sell-out, the officials boasted.

With an eye on the television cameras and press photographers, ACTU secretary Bill Kelty and Victorian Trades Hall Council official Trish Caswell dragged their children up on the platform when they spoke, setting up convenient photo opportunities.

They didn't really have to go to such lengths to win the approval of the big-business media. The media moguls and their editors had already got the message that this was to be the congress which heralded the "end of class struggle" and a new era of "responsible" and oh-so-nice trade unionism.

The bosses' press picked on the retirement of one-time Communist Party member Laurie Carmichael from an assistant secretaryship and his replacement by former teachers' union official Jennie George as symbolic of the change of era. They celebrated the fact that the former militant had spent his last decade in the movement taming unions and making them an instrument of the Labor government.

Soul-less

The congress was a staged and hence soul-less affair, several delegates said. Most delegates hadn't come there to make any decisions, because all the key decisions — on wages and union amalgamation — had already been made in secret deals between top officials. They came to clap, see the sights and have a good time.

Despite the happy but token motions on control of the media, the environment, women's and Aboriginal rights, and even free lunches and an exhibition put on by a group of industry barons, many delegates did not bother to attend all sessions. One delegate estimated that attendance varied between a third and two-thirds of accredited delegates. It was, after all, a junket to Melbourne at the height of Festival season — at the union membership's expense.

"There were more trade union officials in blue pinstripe suits and red ties than I have ever seen before", said one amazed worker delegate. "You could tell the officials because they all

had cellular phones and kept running out to speak to their bookies".

Wages and jobs

Delegates were loaded up with weighty documents from the government and ACTU research officers, all of which casually boasted that Hawke Labor had been more successful in cutting real wages than the previous Fraser Liberal government. The union movement had learnt the importance of wage restraint, said Kelty.

The congress adopted a call for a small across-the-board pay increase early next year (based on three quarters of Consumer Price Index movements), but for all other pay claims to be settled through enterprise bargaining.

It accepted the government's "fight inflation first strategy" in a much-heralded "Charter for Jobs" while demanding more subsidies and interest rate and tax cuts for business.

However, ACTU president Martin Ferguson insisted that pump-primming the economy would not create sustainable jobs. He agreed with Prime Minister Bob Hawke that the unemployed would simply have to wait for the recession to end. A move to demand job creation by the Public Sector Union and the Western Australian Trades and Labour Council was defeated.

While going soft on the government over jobs, the ACTU officials demanded that immigration intake be looked at closely because of high unemployment, leaving the door open to scapegoating of migrants for the ills of the economy.

Anti-union laws

The congress applauded Minister for Industrial Relations Peter Cook, who conceded that the International Labour Organisation had found that current laws in Australia denied the right to strike. But while promising some reform, Cook did not promise to repeal sections 45D and E of the Trade Practices Act, which prohibit secondary boycotts. Predictably, the congress let him off the hook and reserved its condemnation for the NSW Liberal government's industrial legislation.

Anti-union laws, it appears, become part of the dreaded "New Right agenda" only when they are not being implemented by a Labor government. The essential political argument — which unfortunately took in most delegates — was that it was better to sacrifice workers' rights to a Labor government than to face the full attack of a conservative government.

Citing the New Zealand experience, ACTU officials argued that

the union movement had to pledge its support for the re-election of the Hawke Labor government — which the delegates obediently did. NZ union leader Ken Douglas told the delegates that unions in his country had made a mistake in not moving fast enough on restructuring while the NZ Labour government was still in office.

In discussion, union officials castigated NSW Premier Nick Greiner but conceded that it was unlikely that the NSW industrial relations laws could be stopped.

Amalgamations

Some debate took place in the discussion around union amalgamations, with several union leaders accusing others of poaching their members. But nothing substantial emerged. As one rail union delegate explained to Green Left, all the heavy arm-twisting had been done before. Unions unhappy with the ACTU-imposed plans for amalgamations were warned to toe the line or be amalgamated out of existence.

Retiring ACTU executive member Tom MacDonald (from the supposedly "left" Building Workers Industrial Union) said in the debate that members shouldn't be given a full choice about amalgamations. We don't give them a choice about joining a union, so why should they choose which union they belong to, he said. And you can't please people all the time.

Criticism came from some traditionally right-wing officials as well as the few left officials who still remain. Kelty wasn't worried, and laughingly dismissed the left as wanting to leap into the future and the right as wanting to leap back into the past.

It was all so neat but pathetic — the smartly dressed officials who had "got real", the hand-raisers, the grinning junketeers and the handful of dispirited, demoralised and decidedly out of place rank and file workers. This was the trade union movement at the peak of its power in Australian society, they were told. But did they believe the rhetoric or the reality of falling wages, worsening work conditions, soaring unemployment and falling union numbers?

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