Labor and the Accord

November 2, 2007

There is an idea promoted by the ALP, aimed at obfuscating the party's true nature, which is often used by ALP left-wingers to justify their continued allegiance. It's what may be called the "generational myth", and it goes like this: previous generations of ALP leaders and membership have always been more progressive, have more clearly seen "the light on the hill", and it's only the party's current leadership that has sold out.

This is a way of arguing that the true nature of the ALP is progressive, that it is therefore salvageable as an instrument of progressive change, and that people should therefore stay in and defend it. But a close analysis of ALP history, and how it has always functioned, easily dispels such illusions: the history of the ALP is one of defence of privilege and the status quo at the expense of working people.

In this federal election campaign, the Liberals' scare campaign paints a picture of the ALP as run by sinister "union thugs" who are anti-business and will ruin the country and economy if entrusted with becoming the government of Australia. But rather than talk up the importance of unions, the Rudd-Gillard leadership is more concerned with reassuring big business that the ALP is just as pro-business as the Liberals.

This crawling to capital should come as no surprise, as the ALP has always been a supporter of big business. Time and again, when push comes to shove the ALP has sided with capital and the status quo.

The ideology of the ALP is Laborism, in which parliament is seen as the only legitimate arena for the democratic defence of the interests of "working families". The party not only works within the parliamentary framework of the system, it seeks to protect it — and the capitalist economic order it serves — and to foster the best conditions for the accumulation of profits which come at the expense of working people. This logic means that, when workers put up a fight to protect their interests, the ALP ultimately comes down in defence of profits.

The Prices and Incomes Accord (1983-1996), an initiative of the Hawke Labor government, was another clear demonstration that the ALP ultimately governs for the capitalist class. The Accord's aim was to promote "industrial peace" — that is, deflate union militancy — and thereby disempower the union movement, enforce wage limits and promote the growth and profitability of Australian capital. The trade-off was to be an increase in the social wage. But apart from the provision of Medicare, most social services were in fact downscaled or privatised under Labor. The overturning of free tertiary education is just one example.

By the end of the '80s the free market policies of the ALP were nakedly apparent. The Accord slashed wages and working conditions. Working people and the union movement were forced to bear the burden of measures needed to "reform" and reinvigorate the economy, such as the removal of "restrictive work practices" that guaranteed health and safety on the job. Wage restraint was enforced via the central wage-fixing of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, while there was never any real attempt to restrain prices — other side of the Prices and Incomes Accord promise. Workers were expected to tighten their belts in the national interest, while prices continued to rise.

The Accord between the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the ALP transformed the union movement into enforcers of wage restraint and industrial peace. Workers and unions who refused to play the game, who continued working for the best wages and conditions they could for their members and who continued their traditions of militancy were, at best, branded as selfish and at worst attacked and ultimately smashed. The best example is the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), who were demonised by the ALP and deregistered by the federal (ALP) government in 1986. The Australian Federation of Air Pilots likewise was characterised as being selfish and promoting their own sectional interests when their union attempted to break out of the Accord straightjacket and claim a 30% wage increase in 1989. The response from the Hawke Labor government was to break their strike with RAAF transport of passengers.

If these examples are not a clear enough demonstration of which side the ALP is on, then consider the long-term effects of these factors on the union movement in Australia. The transformation of the union movement into enforcers of industrial peace and wage restraint meant that traditions of fighting unionism were not maintained and a new generation of militants gained little experience and training in how to struggle. The militant union tradition became buried, only re-emerging under the Howard government with the 1998 Patrick's dispute on the wharves. The militant union current today, while strong enough to force a fight from the ACTU against Howard's Work Choices through 2005-06, has not been strong enough to prevent a collapse into a "re-elect Labor" campaign in 2007.

The grinding years of the Accord also had an effect on union membership numbers. The Accord — and union complicity in the attacks on workers it involved — alienated many rank and file workers from the union movement. From 1981 to 1992 ACTU statistics show that the proportion of the unionised work force dropped from 51% to 39.6%. This trend has continued in the post-Accord years: the proportion of workers who belong to a union is now only 20%.

There is still room for a militant resurgence in the union movement. Increasing numbers of workers now say that they would join a union if they had the opportunity. Part of the decline in union membership may also be accounted for by the shifting demographics of the Australian work force. Since the 1980s large numbers of workers have shifted from highly unionised industries (such as manufacturing) to industries such as retail and services that are largely unorganised. This period has also seen an increasing casualisation of the work force. The expansion of the work force by 3 million workers since 1986 also means that despite the low 20% of union membership the numbers of unionised workers remains significant at 1,786,000. So, despite the negative effects of the Accord on the union movement, there does still exist potential for the rebuilding of militant unionism.

The Accord years also changed the face of workplace politics. Firstly, there was the end of the centralised wage fixing system brought about by Accord Mark VI of 1990, which introduced the move towards enterprise bargaining. This New Right policy was openly adopted by the ALP and has been accepted by the ACTU since 1990, and works effectively to undermine union solidarity and the ability of unions to use the power of industry-wide organising. And the anti-pattern (industry-wide) bargaining policies of the current ALP leadership of course continue this trend.

The ALP government of the Accord years also failed to keep its commitments to repeal anti-union laws introduced by the Fraser Coalition government. Such laws included legislation forcing unions to amalgamate whether the rank and file wanted it or not, as well as the ban on solidarity actions (secondary boycotts), enshrined in the Trade Practices Act sections 45D and E. The '80s also saw court decisions setting precedents for employers being able to claim compensation for industrial action.

The International Labour Organisation in the early 90s considered Australian law in contravention of the labour conventions — to which Australia is a signatory — and restrictive on the right to strike. Obviously, the situation is even worse today, and while it is not the ALP which has introduced Work Choices, we know that they are not going to tear up this anti-worker legislation.

ALP during the Accord years was not a party genuinely committed to social welfare, social justice or the union movement. It was government in the name of "the country", but in the interests of the rich. Should the ALP be elected on November 24, there is no reason to think that a Rudd Labor government will be any different.

Issue