Worker Participation in Practice: The ICI Experience

A Personal Perspective on Bill Ford, AM
Michael Johnston

Why can’t I get paid like you?” asked Tony Mealor
“Are you serious?” I said, as the Human Resources Manager.

Tony Mealor was the FEDFA shop steward at Steam and Power Plant located at ICI’s Botany Operations. Tony had had a colourful background; he’d been a marine and power engineer in the merchant marine, a successful carpet salesman and a political and trade union activist. The FEDFA had a deserved reputation for its militancy. Not for them the soft deal, or any toadying to the boss.

My boss, Site Manager Jesse Moore, had been given a remit from the ICI Board to reform the Botany site, or close it down. It had become, over many decades, an industrial relations nightmare in which industrial disputes were the order of the day. If you saw the younger workers driving onto the site for the morning shift with their surfboards on top, you knew two things: the surf was up; and there would undoubtedly be a strike that day.

Jesse went about his work in the traditional, time-honoured manner; issuing edicts and confronting what he perceived to be unreasonable behaviour. The more strident he became, the more aggressive was the reaction from site employees, reaching its nadir when the site workers actually black-banned Jesse. If he walked into the canteen, the workers walked out. He was, as the saying goes, ‘sent to Coventry’. Not a good start to the challenge of reforming the site. But that reform happened, largely informed by the framework developed over many decades by Professor Bill Ford. However, that was in the future. 

This paper reflects my personal experience of Bill Moore, “the kid from the rocks who shaped industrial relations”1 Bill’s contributions to Australia came from the many roles he occupied: a teacher, a writer, a researcher, a consultant, a networker and a person of integrity and compassion. 

As a teacher, his Industrial Relations course challenged the conventional wisdom in industrial relations in a manner that was not only systemic and holistic but also rigorous and reflective. Bill always focused on how to think, not what to think. No one who attended his classes was unaffected by the experience. Bill’s influence on subsequent developments in industrial relations takes its measure from these early lecture series as his graduands went on to teach or apply the lessons in their own careers. As a writer, Bill collaborated with many authors; having found a dearth of available texts with which to teach, other than those devoted to the ‘rule of law’. With Professor Joe Isaac, he authored a two-volume set of readings in 1967 that became the standard reference work. This development encouraged many others into the field. He found a similar deficiency on trade union studies and with Peter Matthews wrote “Australian Trade Unions” in 1968, which was also the definitive text for many years and which encouraged many trade union leaders to more systematically analyse their policy and strategies. Bill has collaborated with many authors in the field of industrial relations teaching and research. He teamed up with a former student of his, Laurie Field, to contribute to Laurie’s book: “Managing Organisational Learning – From Rhetoric to Reality.” 

The key to understanding Bill as a researcher is his contribution to skill formation on which subject, mentioned earlier, he has been a passionate advocate. He recognised its contribution to industrial harmony and improved productivity at a time when many others were advocating harsher penalties to obtain the same result. Bill was a critical progenitor of the Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA). At TUTA, he was steadfast in his support for progressive trade union thinking along what I might loosely describe as the European consensus model. His approach was manifestly humanitarian, inclusive and participative, whereas alternative approaches were adversarial, exclusive and authoritarian.

Bill has been an advocate of technological change, not to replace workers but to improve the lot of both workers and enterprise. He knew what it was like to lump coal, shift bags of wheat or occupy mind-numbing jobs. He is responsible for many enterprises recognising their responsibilities to redundant workers often in the form of industrial agreements on issues such as re-training. How things could be done better in everyone’s interest was always at the forefront of his mind. As a summary of Bill’s many academic and industrial relations achievements, his framework was characterised by: 

  • Manufacturing Reform – Bill led the research field studies for the Jackson Committee Report that influenced manufacturing policies for many years from 1976;
  • Skill Formation and Learning Organisations – Reflecting Bill’s academic and lifelong interest in learning, it was no accident that the 1987 ACTU Congress displayed a huge banner that said “Skill Formation is the Major Issue”;
  • Technological Change – Bill was very influential in gaining acceptance of new technology being adapted for better workplaces and in providing recurrent education for workers displaced by new technology;
  • Cross Cultural Studies – Bill’s academic work had a strong focus on exploring how workplace issues were handled in other cultures. His influence can be seen in the union movement’s 1986 study tour of Western European countries including Norway and Sweden. The report of that tour, Australia Reconstructed,2 embraced the union movement’s vested interest in productivity;
  • Industrial Democracy – Bill’s 1973 secondment to Clyde Cameron’s Department of Labour and Immigration saw a burgeoning interest in worker participation, the role of women and migrant workers;
  • Quality Management – Bill had absorbed the importance of systems thinking from his colleague Fred Emery3 and from his own studies. It was from Bill that I learned about the contribution W H Deming4 had made to the resurgence of the Japanese manufacturing industry after WW2.

Bill Ford was born in 1929 at the start of The Great Depression. His formative years were spent in Sydney’s Rocks precinct, then the heart of the waterfront industry. His roots were firmly based in the working class into which he was born (his father was a ‘wharfie’) and the insights he gained in this period never left him. He was imbued with a keenly felt sense of social justice and this ‘golden thread’ of social justice permeated his life. Bill was familiar with the Hungry Mile in Sussex Street (the infamous ‘bull pen’). He spent time on the waterfront as one of his first jobs, having left school at 15 to contribute to the household income. He undertook a variety of jobs in many industries before – thankfully – coming across a supervisor at Boral’s oil refinery who recognised a nascent talent in the youthful Ford. Bill was encouraged to complete his schooling, so he studied for his adult matriculation at Sydney Technical College. “That advice changed my life,” he observed. Bill obtained scholarships that took him into tertiary education, first at Sydney University for an Arts degree and teaching qualifications and then to the United States, where he was awarded his Masters.

Back in Australia, Bill obtained a post as lecturer in Industrial Relations and Economics at UNSW. He taught several generations of practitioners, established a Department of Industrial Relations, consulted to unions, companies and governments, edited several books, wrote innumerable articles and became a prolific organiser and guest presenter at conferences and seminars at the national and international level. He established an exceptional network of international scholars in his field.

With this short background in mind, let’s return to ICI’s Botany Operations, where I first  encountered Bill’s influence. 

Following weeks of trenchant negotiations an agreement was reached, put to union members at the Steam and Power Plant, overwhelmingly endorsed and made the subject of a consent application to a full bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) with Justice Terry Ludeke presiding. The AIRC itself was fairly incredulous and suspicious about the initiative.  The members of the bench asked a lot of searching questions but duly satisfied, approved the agreement.

It was implemented and paid in full, on time, even though a considerable number of rank and file members (especially amongst other unions on site) doubted that management would ever pay the agreed salaries. The effect was miraculous: morale improved; productivity went up; quality of product went up; absenteeism went down; strikes were eliminated; labour turnover disappeared.

We had not realised the extent to which the remuneration system that we had historically administered, and for which we were responsible, actually rewarded inefficiency. The more the plants broke down, the more money was generated for the workforce in overtime and allowances for repairs and maintenance.

In contrast, the new system rewarded efficiency. ICI’s Botany site became a Mecca for change management practitioners around the nation with over 103 companies attending a workshop titled “Transforming a Brownfields Site” in 1991 alone. The site’s union delegates and stewards were invited to participate and present sessions in the transformation workshop outlining their perspectives of the reforms. They did so with the enthusiasm that comes from their involvement in, and ownership of, the reforms to which they were committed and had developed. 

Those reforms included, but were not limited to:

  • Annualised income paid for all purposes that absorbed all penalties and allowances except one, the Botany Emergency Response Team allowance;
  • Unlimited sick leave;
  • Skill based career development based on competence acquisition;
  • Redesign of all process work based on teams;
  • Reduction of management levels from 7 to 4;
  • Cross trade training of electricians and instrument fitters that removed a debilitating demarcation between 240 volt and 32 volt work;
  • Establishment of a fully operational on-site electrical trade learning centre in conjunction with TAFE;
  • Creation of a new trade titled Chemical Plant tradesperson directed at the formerly titled ‘process worker’ with appropriate time off for learning;
  • Devolution of authority to team based work (access to credit cards and petty cash and responsibility for rostering, annual leave etc);
  • Innovative shift rosters including 12 hour shifts and 4 day weeks;

Bill would not claim individual authorship of these accomplishments. In fact, they were delivered by a very talented and committed team of human resource officers and progressive site managers, aided and abetted by a very demanding, militant and courageous cohort of union shop stewards. The negotiations were, at times, ferocious, but Bill’s teachings, philosophies and passion permeated the process for both sides of the table. It’s interesting and illustrative to observe that union density (membership) on the site remained at 100% during the entire transformation.

These reforms, amongst others, turned industrial relations at the site on its head, transforming the site from an industrial relations nightmare to a jewel in the ICI crown. Sir Harvey Jones, then CEO of the ICI Plc in the UK, visited the site and was surprised that the Site Manager delegated his visit to be hosted by the union shop stewards. This had never happened to him before. In a de-brief with the Site Manager, he was very complimentary about what he had seen and heard from the delegates. Some of Bill’s ‘visuals’ were used by the delegates to convey the breadth and depth of thinking behind the reforms that were outlined to Sir Harvey Jones.

Many of the companies who attended the “Transforming a Brownfields Site” workshops at Botany subsequently engaged Bill to assist in their reform processes, included Carlton United Breweries, MLC, Lend Lease, Westpac and the Sydney Opera House. Each had its own unique set of circumstances so there was no “one size fits all” approach. 

It was always a difficult consulting assignment for Bill and it did not always work. For example, at Westpac, there came a time when top-level support was required to progress to the next stage and a high level conference took place involving the CEO and some of his most senior direct reports. Bill and I explained the ‘learning enterprise’ concept and the journey required to progress further. We were given enormous latitude, listened to respectfully and quizzed comprehensively. But, asked for a reaction at the conclusion of the briefing, the CEO said: “I am with you in spirit”. It was a devastating reaction and I knew in the split second that followed that it was not good enough to merely have your CEO’s ‘in spirit’ support. Instead of challenging his reaction I thanked him for his time. A big mistake on my part.

Undeterred, Bill continued to consult to Lend Lease with a view to promoting new learning  enterprise cultures through workplace reform. This complemented the model project initiatives proposed by the Construction Industry Development  Agency (CIDA ) that had been supported by Bill and which lead to the conclusion of Enterprise Development Agreements that sought to integrate theory and practice in workplace reform.

This model was implemented by Lend Lease who subsequently became a prime contractor for the Sydney Olympics.  Lend Lease’s Darling Harbour Project, that was influenced by Bill, became a stand-out model for workplace reform which also resulted in stand-out productivity and quality results for the company. A 2001 retrospective study of the Olympics was titled the “Collaborative Games – the story behind the spectacle” by Tony Webb. The book is replete with the concepts towards a learning enterprise journey with very little direct mention of Bill’s influence but with his signature concepts stamped all over the outcomes (Webb, 2001 p7):

“This collaboration began early, even prior to the bid, and was the result of earlier collaborative experiences in industrial and human resource management that began in the mid to late 1980’s. The collaborative/innovative approach resulted in:

  • Excellent training and on job learning;
  • New work organisation;
  • New management methods;
  • Low levels of O H & S problems;
  • Unusual employee flexibility;
  • Increased employee involvement and participation in decisions;
  • high levels of trust and cooperation.”

Bill recognised the contribution of the physicality of the workplace to white-collar productivity well before construction professions in engineering and architecture. Bill pioneered its study and application in Australia. We were able to apply Bill’s thinking on this subject as we re-designed back-office processing at Westpac in the ‘90s. This resulted in workplaces being fitted out to promote communication, learning, teamwork and problem solving that lead to enhanced workplace harmony. Similar initiatives took place in Carlton United Breweries’ head office, in MLC and in Lend Lease that were directly influenced by Bill’s work.

Westpac involved Bill in extensive executive development that resulted in many initiatives to improve productivity and cooperation in the workplace. There were new models of work organisation based on teamwork that replaced highly fragmented work conducted in hierarchical settings. New industrial agreements were reached with unions that recognised the need to create a Learning Organisation which provided for greater participation of the workforce in matters that directly affected them.

I will leave the last word to the late Dr Tony Mealor, former FEDFA Shop Steward at the Steam and Power Plant during the critical stages of ICI’s site transformation (Mealor, 1992 p.82):

“For the process workers the Botany Experience has been an outstanding success. To summarise the many comments from the workforce on their perceptions of the changes, they believe they have gained the following:

  • A guaranteed income every month;
  • A better quality of working and social life;
  • Security of employment;
  • An expanded and professional career path;
  • Job satisfaction and harmony in a team environment; and
  • Self management, dignity and self esteem.” 


  1. The headline of an obituary to Bill Ford published on 3rd May 2019 in the Sydney Morning Herald  
  2. Australia Reconstructed: ACTU/TDC Mission to Western Europe, A Report by the Mission Members to the ACTU and TDC (Department of Trade, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1987), ISBN 0 644 06535
  3. Noted Australian social scientist, as summarised in his obituary 
  4. Globally recognised business statistician and management expert. For a perspective on his life and influence, see 
  5. Webb, T. (2001). The collaborative Games: The story behind the spectacle. Annandale, Pluto Press.
  6. Mealor, T. (1992). ICI Australia: the Botany experience, Kensington, N.S.W. : Industrial Relations Research Centre, University of New South Wales