Peter Ewer, Ian Hampson, Chris Lloyd, John Rainford, Stephen Rix and Meg Smith, Politics and the Accord

Pluto Press, Leichhardt, 1992

Drew Cottle

The six authors of Politics and the Accord are or were, union research officers. Politically, they assume a Left mantle. Each of them were former enthusiasts of the Accord The deepening recession and the crisis of Laborism accelerated by the Accord has caused these researchers to re-assess their former enthusiasm. George Campbell, National Secretary for the Metal and Engineering Workers’ Union and ACTU National Executive member who provides the foreword to Politics and the Accord shares their lack of enthusiasm. Campbell is silent about the attacks on mi1itant unionism the Accord has either condoned or endorsed. Campbell like the authors of Politics and the Accord would prefer to look forward to an industrial strategy which creates better wages, improves skills and work methods and which revitalises trade unionism. The Accord was supposed to have created these conditions. What went wrong?

Curiously, the authors do not analyse the class politics of the Accord.'” Instead, its consequences are described. The first five chapters;9ffer details on the decline of wages since 1983 as a share of the Gross Domestic Product, declining living standards, employment in manufacturing, private and public investment and the worsening balance of trade. In contrast massive increases have occurred in the profit share of the GDP, foreign borrowings, part-time jobs and the privatisation of public assets. The period of the Accord has also witnessed an intensification of intervention by the government and the courts into the affairs of trade unions.

Such intervention has not resulted in ‘wage equity’ as promised by the Accord. The authors state, “those at the bottom of the labour market, those dependent on award rate movements suffered a massive cut (15.6% in real terms), whilst those with access to such things as award payments were relatively insulated from the effects of the Accord.” Coupled with the ACTU calculation that “living standards have been lowered (since 1983) by $975.14 (per annum) or 5.4%”. The wage cuts under the Accord have been a huge burden on the low-waged majority of the working class. The Accord has caused ‘a crisis for wage earner security’. It has also created a crisis for ‘Left’ union bureaucrats as they were and have been (until the Accord Mark VI) among its principal supporters. Accord Mark VI’s ‘achievements’ were a 2.5% wage increase and the ACTU endorsement of enterprise-bargaining sanctified by the Industrial Commission.

The authors argue that enterprise-bargaining subverts the collective power of the proletariat. The role the ACTU and the ALP have played in fostering this form of class collaboration is ignored. To advance such a criticism would require the authors to analyse the part their allies, the Left union bureaucrats, have taken in enforcing ‘the acceptance’ of the Accord by rank and me workers. One ‘success’ of the early Accord period was the ‘steel plan’ for which the authors congratulate the left-wing PIA leadership of the Port Kembla branch. It is true that the PIA at Port Kembla have been effective in gaining wage increases under the ‘steel plan’s’ restructuring, if compared to the right-wing leadership of the PIA in Sydney and Newcastle whose objective has been maximum union coverage, a strategy borne of the fear of union mergers. Wage gains for PIA members at Port Kembla have had a heavy price. The numbers of workers employed at Port Kembla has dropped from 22,000 to 8,300 and production has not been affected. It is a strange ‘success’ for the working class if it results in massive unemployment and greater exploitation of those still working. Is the PIA ‘success’ at Port Kembla like another success of the Accord – the decline in trade union membership from 55% of the workforce in 1982 to 43% in 1990?

If the ‘massive increase in unemployment 1990-91 demonstrates that the Accord’s employment record is largely illusory’ with what do these former Accordians seek to replace the Accord? Admitting that the ‘shape of union politics in the 19905 gives little confidence that the policy crisis confronting the labour movement will be resolved’ they proffer seven methods to improve workplace skills. They bemoan ‘the dissolution of the left outside the ALP’ and note that ‘the New Left Party has yet to establish an ideological identity likely to mobilise what is otherwise a politically significant constituency’. The longevity of the Hawke Labor government has placed ‘a burden of restraint on the union movement to pursue a responsible” wages strategy’. This restraint, the authors conclude, was ‘rewarded most recently by double digit unemployment’. The upper echelons of union officialdom, the ACTU and the Hawke government were responsible for not only the ‘burden of restraint’ but the innumerable attacks on workers’ rights and living standards. The Accord represented a pact of class collaboration between big capital, the Hawke government, the ACTU and leading union officials of the Left and Right to contain and destroy the confidence, the militancy and the organisational ability of Australian unionists.

One the job struggles were replaced with conferences, myths about the ‘Scandinavian workers’ paradise and career paths. Well-paid jobs in the Industrial Commission, the Labor Party or the corporate world were offered to those trade union ‘leaders’ who could deliver capital, unions which accepted mass sackings, mass unemployment, the deregistration of ‘rebel’ unions Which opposed the Accord, a terminal decline in living standards, the privatisation of public enterprises and the bleakest of futures for young working-class Australians. The authors’ suggestions to improve workplace skills will only be meaningful if the energy and power of the working class is harnessed to struggle for victories over capitalism. Before this may take place a clear account of the class collaboration between the ALP, the ACTU many leading union officials and corporate capital must be undertaken. This was the real politic of the Accord Which the authors failed to examine.