Union struggles and the 'Accord'

As Green Left Weekly approaches its 1000th issue, more than 20 years after it first hit the streets, we will be looking back at some of the campaigns it has covered and its role as an alternative source of news.


Green Left Weekly began its life in a time of war in the Middle East, increasing attacks on the environment — and the Hawke government’s Prices and Incomes Accord which lasted from 1983 until 1996.

The Accord was a deal between the ALP and the ACTU with the supposed aim of promoting "industrial peace" — that is, reducing union militancy — by enforcing wage limits and promoting the growth and profitability of Australian capital.

The trade-off was to be an increase in the social wage.

But, as GLW reported in one of its first issues, apart from the provision of Medicare, most social services were actually reduced or privatised under Labor. The introduction of fees for tertiary education is just one example.

The Accord was a disaster for workers and suicidal for the union movement. It slashed wages and introduced measures to "reform" the economy, such as the removal of "restrictive work practices" that guaranteed health and safety on the job.

Workers and unions who refused to play the game, such as the Builders Labourers Federation or the Australian Federation of Air Pilots were attacked and ultimately smashed.

If the ALP’s Accord was bad for workers and unions, the Howard government’s anti-union crusade was even worse. Its first target was the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).

In April 1998, Patrick Stevedores, backed by the Howard government, the National Farmers' Federation and employer groups, locked out and ultimately sacked 2000 workers from its wharves, in an attempt to smash the MUA and put waterside workers on individual contracts.

This followed months of speculation, the "leasing" of Webb dock in Melbourne to the National Farmers Federation in late January and the abortive "Dubai affair" — where former soldiers were trained in secret in Dubai as strike-breaking scabs.

What the architects of the dispute had not expected was the response of thousands of working people who rallied to the MUA cause. The dispute stirred fierce passions and polarised society on a scale rarely seen in Australia. Who can forget the images of snarling Rottweilers, scabs wearing balaclavas, massed police lines facing thousands of picketers, helicopters buzzing overhead and the human solidarity expressed week in and out at the gates of Patricks.

In port cities across Australia, thousands joined "community assemblies" to stop the passage of scabs and trucks to the waterfront. GLW reported from the picket line, interviewing striking MUA members, unionists and members of the public forming the community picket. It published details of where and when community pickets would be held and encouraged readers to join the struggle.

GLW was one of very few media outlets to support the strikers. The establishment press, in a welter of deceitful rhetoric, distortion and blatant falsehoods, presented a distinctly anti-union coverage of the dispute.

Disputable claims about wage scales, crane-handling rates and alleged rorts, stridently parroted ad nauseam by workplace minister Peter Reith, were accepted as gospel and went virtually unchallenged early in the dispute. GLW was first to cast serious doubt on claims about wharfies' inflated earnings and productivity — and how overseas comparisons were open to misrepresentation.

Less than a month after the sackings, the MUA achieved a victory in the High Court, but the extent of the victory is a matter of contention. While the workers returned to work, Patrick forced huge "efficiency" concessions from the union, including the redundancy of hundreds of permanent workers and their replacement by casuals.

If Howard lost that round, he still had a secret weapon, Work Choices, up his sleeve. Introduced in late 2005, the Work Choices legislation significantly weakened the legal rights of unionists to call industrial action, restricted the right of entry for organisers and insisted that unions conduct secret ballots before calling strike action.

But once again Howard underestimated the power of the working class to mobilise against attempts to destroy the union movement. Thousands of workers rallied around the country, culminating in 300,000 workers attending national ACTU-organised rallies in June 2006 against Work Choices.

GLW strongly supported the rallies, but calls for a national general strike and even larger rallies against Work Choices were ignored by the ACTU. Clearly rattled by a movement that was slipping from its control, the ACTU tried to hose down worker militancy. It refused to call more rallies and instead it introduced the “Your Rights at Work” campaign, which amounted to a call to vote for the ALP in the 2007 election.

The most draconian aspect of Howard’s industrial relations laws was the creation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The ABCC was virtually a secret police force that had the power to interrogate any worker in secret session about any matter.

Workers were denied their right to silence and prohibited from talking to anyone else about the questions asked. Failing to attend made the worker liable for a six-month jail term for contempt. Workers and unions could also be fined if they engaged in unauthorised industrial action.

If workers expected that an ALP victory in the 2007 election would mean the end of the ABCC, they were mistaken. GLW mounted a campaign for the abolition of the ABCC and in support of Ark Tribe, the Adelaide construction worker who, in 2008, faced up to six months’ jail for refusing to be interrogated by the ABCC.

The ALP finally abolished the ABCC after mounting pressure in 2012. Now the Tony Abbott government is threatening to reintroduce the ABCC and a new campaign against it must begin.

In its 23 years of publication, GLW has always supported the fight by workers and unions for their rights. Big strikes have captured the headlines, but all workers’ struggles, even when it is in only one workplace, have found a champion in GLW.