A great party while it lasted


Editorial: A great party while it lasted

In 1983, centralised wage fixing became holy writ, handed down by messiah Hawke and proselytised everywhere by disciples such as Laurie Carmichael (now Dr Laurie in honour of his services to big business). Previously, unions had got by with old-fashioned ideas like serving logs of claims and then bargaining with the bosses, applying a little industrial muscle where necessary and going to the Arbitration Commission for approval when things had been thrashed out. The threat of industrial action was enough to make most bosses see reason.

Then came the revelation of 1983. There had been a recession. Fraser's Liberals had imposed a wage freeze and been dumped. But now the recession was over, there was a brand new Labor government and everything was going to be fine for trade unionists and other working people, right? Wrong.

The geniuses of the Labor Party decreed that unionists shouldn't seek to get back what they had lost through the wage freeze because the economy needed time to recover. Restraint was necessary in the national interest. This was sweetened with promises — never met and long forgotten — of improvements in the "social wage" eventually. It was enforced with centralised wage fixing. Of course, this wasn't completely new, but there were important new elements. In particular, state control over the unions was strengthened and systematised.

As a result, real wages fell while profits leaped. By the mid-'80s, profits were on the rampage. Australia, along with the rest of the advanced capitalist world, was in the grip of one of the biggest speculative booms in history. As in every other boom in history, those in the thick of it (including the Labor politicians) thought it would go on forever. How could all those clever people who knew how to work the system and borrow large sums of money be wrong? But they were wrong and, as in every other boom in history, their bubble went bust.

Now, the Labor Party had done its job. Having frozen wages right through the boom, there is no longer any need for it. In fact, Labor and its Accord have become an obstacle to capital's next project, which is not just to freeze wages and skim off 20 or 30% on the sly, but to decisively break the union movement and reduce a big section of the workforce to poverty or near-poverty.

In New Zealand, the bravest and boldest were showing the way. Why stop at cutting wages? Why not abolish awards, dump unemployment benefits and slash widows' pensions as well? Just for starters.

Big business got very excited. Old friends suddenly didn't look so good any more. New pollies were polished up for the next election. The old messiah started to look particularly bad, stumbling from one disaster to the next.

Meanwhile, what of the labour movement? There are some potential new messiahs, but none of them wants the job just now, thanks: there's no future being a messiah in opposition. The ACTU decided it had better look at new strategies. This might have to include the use of a little industrial muscle or the threat of it. Hold on — what

There's none left. The ranks flooded out of the union movement during the '80s. Most of the competent shop stewards gave up trying. About the only ones who stayed with it were those with some prospect of a job in the apparatus. Too bad. It was a great party — for some — while it lasted.