Left unionism and the Accord


Labor, Prosperity and the Nineties: Beyond the Bonsai Economy

By Michael Costa and Mark Duffy

Federation Press. 201 pp. $25

Politics and the Accord

By Peter Ewer et al

Pluto Press. 190 pp. $16.95

Reviewed by Mike Rafferty

Steve Painter's review of Politics and the Accord (Green Left, April 8) suggested that the book provided a "sound and "honest" critique of the Accord, and was the book's strongest point. Steve's claim does not stand up to close scrutiny.

A useful point of comparison with the Ewer book is Costa and Duffy's Labor, Prosperity and the Nineties. Although the two books come from nominally opposite sides of the labour movement, readers will find that they have much in common.

Costa and Duffy's critique of the Accord derives from their opposition to the way unionism in Australia has developed. They trace this back over a hundred years to show that unions have been incorporated into an isolationist and lethargic national settlement. Unions have therefore experienced a stunted and deformed development (hence the allusion to Japanese miniature tree cultivation - bonsai).

Costa and Duffy's survey of labour history is schematic and questionable at a number of levels. It is, however, the purpose of their history that is interesting here. For Costa and Duffy, the point of the historical review is to locate a continuity in their tale of decline with the period of the Accord.

The authors claim that the Accord has continued this discredited labourism, and has failed to address the key questions of the moment - namely the need for internationally competitive industry. In order to compete in the world market, Australian industry must become more responsive to it. The structure and nature of unions should be determined by the needs of industry and the market. Australia can once again achieve greatness, but only if it becomes more responsive to the changing world.

The book by Ewer and others also opens with a critique of labourism and the Accord. Two issues help illustrate the central themes of their book - wages policy and education. The authors claim that, through the Accord, the left was searching for forms of "intervention" outside of simply wage struggles.

Unfortunately, the interventions found had only limited possibilities for "mass activism". The trick for unions, they say, is to develop a wages strategy that does not destabilise the economy, while developing collective ways of accessing "excessive" profits or rapid productivity gains. In other words, wage cuts under the Accord were okay, but went too far and allowed "excessive" profits to be made.

The argument goes that the Accord could have been turned to labour's advantage if award restructuring and the skills base had been upgraded.

Politics and the Accord criticises the wages policy of the Accord, but only at its margins. Hardly a glove is laid on key aspects of Accordism - for instance its acceptance of the primacy of profits over wages. The requirements of "national economic recovery" made a redistribution to profits necessary. Profits are not a problem in and of themselves, only in "excess".

Ewer et al are reluctant to tackle seriously a critique of the Accord. This reluctance is not surprising, given their apologetic stance on the Accord for many years. It is instructive here that the authors choose not to cite any of the left critics of the Accord. These are summarily dismissed as one-dimensional wage militants.

Instead of a critique, they provide what is becoming the official large L Left view of the Accord. Far from being heretical, this critique allows left unions to remain within the Accord, by inserting training into the "bargain".

It is important to be clear on the issue of wages and living standards. The left orthodoxy has used a critique of wage militancy (the distributional struggle) to justify a move to issues of "production". However, instead of suggesting that the distribution of income is a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production, the shift to production has been used for distinctly unradical purposes.

In order to restore national economic growth, left unions accepted the need for wage cuts and helped reduce industrial conflict. In shifting to production, unions have been emphasising harmony (or at least its possibility), whereas the distributional struggle emphasised (class) conflict.

This analysis is linked to the question of training, because the problem for unions was to move beyond wage struggles to "interventions". Wage struggles are said to reinforce divisions between skilled and unskilled workers. Training, on the other hand, could unify rather than divide.

There are at least two serious weaknesses with this approach. Wage struggles are never only distributional struggles. Raising demands for better compensation for work and undertaking struggle to secure those demands challenges the causes and consequences of production relations. Even within their analysis, the question should not have been to suspend the wage struggle to secure "interventions" in production, but to pursue the question of fair distribution at the appropriate level. For the orthodox left, the earlier phase of wage militancy is seen to have prevented wider struggles. Unfortunately, the book fails even to invert the focus.

The proposals for training in Politics and the Accord are the centrepiece of the book. They are seriously flawed. Apart from the instrumental way education is posed (as skills for industry), the book provides virtually no link between education and political practice. Like the use of vague terms such as "mass activism", "humanising work" and "participation", their discussion of training blurs the clash of interests involved.

Training, we are told, is imperative for "our" future high skill, high wage economy. There is no discussion of our needs as a class, nor of actual class struggle as the school in which we educate and re-educate ourselves. Militancy and spontaneity having been written off, education is to be imported to the working class as a bunch of skills.

Radical possibilities are said to emerge from upgrading our communication skills (shades, perhaps, of pen-pal socialism). Australian society is indeed a system with workers and bosses, but skill training is necessary to make "Australian" industry more efficient and to humanise work. And so we are back to Costa and Duffy; only the tactics differ. Stripped of its radical rhetoric, this is a depoliticising and utterly reformist project.

It is of course partly this strand of unionism that led the trade union left to the Swedish model in the mid-1980s and which helps to explain its current dilemma over the Accord.

The recession has helped reopen debate about issues of economic and political policy in the labour movement. We continue, however, to be confronted with a debate that revolves around an axis of national economic recovery. During the 1980s there was a major shift in income toward profits, away from wages. Senator Peter Cook has recently suggested that national economic recovery in the 1990s will require a continuing shift to profits.

Despite nearly a decade of actually existing Accordism, left unions are showing few signs of breaking with this logic. Class politics continues to be subsumed by the needs of the (one) nation. Official debate within trade unions about the Accord and economic policy highlights this dilemma.

Neither of the books reviewed here goes very far toward identifying the problems and possibilities of working-class organisation in the 1990s. On the contrary, they are a manifestation of the crisis of confidence and general malaise currently affecting the labour movement.

Steve Painter suggested that the Ewer et al book gropes toward some answers and was worthy of consideration. He is indeed a generous critic - generous to a fault.

[Mike Rafferty was a research worker with the BWIU.]