Living the Dream Under the Accord (podcast)
Last week I was interviewed on the wonderful ‘Living the Dream’ podcast. We discussed the Accord, neoliberalism and the ALP Hawke-Keating government. Our focus was on recent articles by Van Badham and Wayne Swan in The Guardian, and how the ALP and unions are attempting to understand and frame the experience of the Hawke-Keating government today. I discuss my PhD research on the Accord, and argue how the social contract was a central plank of the implementation of neoliberalism in Australia and the method of delivering an epoch defining disorganisation of labour. We finish by discussing what insights from this period of history can help us recompose a a progressive project today.
Listen to the podcast here: https://livingthedream.podbean.com/e/living-the-dream-under-the-accord/
The articles from The Guardian on Australian Laborism that we discuss are:
Australian Labor led centre-left parties into neoliberalism. Can they lead it out?
Labour has a chance if it replaces Corbyn. Look at Australia in 1983
The Hawke-Keating agenda was Laborism, not neoliberalism, and is still a guiding light
Badhams Corbyn article was a bit of a joke. Quite an insult to political historians, not anybody can do it and Badham is one of those who cant do it. Her description of Hayden’s leadership and her claim Labor would not have won with him as leader was a farcical rewrite of history, all designed to suit her fatally flawed Corbyn thesis. Social justice is her area, political history is not.
I was recommended to this podcast by a young activist in the union movement, because and she sought my views as a union activist going back to the pre-Accord years. I have listened once and there is no way I would recommend it for a fair dinkum understanding of the Accord strategy. If people want to listen to it for other reasons there is no reason why they should. There are several problems apart from some factual and conceptual errors. For brevity, there is a very poor grasp of what happened from 1974 to 1983 from the point of view of workers and their unions. Essentially the form in which the struggle for wages and conditions was conducted was not beneficial for all workers and clashed with what was happening to living standards as determined especially by government policy on taxation, social wage spending, and manufacturing investment. In union education the basic question we were asked was, “Are these matters union business?” Then, “If they are, what is the best way to make them union business?” We were also challenged to work out whether the union movement could play a better role in defending a reformist government, like the Whitlam government, than it actually did, including with stronger membership mobilization. For the right of the union movement – including Hawkeand his supporters, these were not comfortable discussions. For those steeped in “money militancy” likewise. On the second question above, we challenged the well established LABORIST approach that was based in electing Labor Party lefties who would once elected then do the right thing by us. The Metalworkers leadership, not always identically, encouraged and cultivated these discussions and did a power of smart membership level education to help it all along, starting with “Australia Uprooted”, “Australia Ripped Off”, and also including the wonderful “inflation, the Silent Robber”. This is poorly understood, if at all, and discussed by the podcasters. More seriously, and related to what Inhave said so far, their discussion proceeds on the basis that the employers were entirely inactive and that the dynamic of the economy was irrelevant both in the pre-Acord years and through the Accords period up to 1996. For example, in the pre-Accord era, the Fraser government on top of its own austerity budgets, introduced because of employer pressure statutory arrangements that defined solidarity actions as secondary boycotts not into the Industrial Law but into the Trades Practices Act, with very heavy fines and other consequences. On memory in 1978. The decline in union density started not long after that, NOT during the Accord years. There was a recession in 81-83 that produced a wage freeze. The Accord document was negotiated between the ALP and the union movement. That process was excessively bureaucratic mainly because that is what suited the doMinant laborist way of doing things by both Labor Party and most of the union negotiators. After election the first thing Hawke – with Keating not sure of himself at this stage – did WA stop shift the framework from the directly negotiated Accord to the TRIPARTITE NATIONAL ECONOMIC SUMMIT. He brought the employers in as decisive players in re-framing and managing the Accord. Hard not to imagine given that we did, as we do now, live in a capitalist society. But this did enable the laborist Labor government to dodge both democratic content and intent of aspects of the Accord by a very stage managed minimum conflict government role. The employers, with the newly emerged and increasingly effective Business Council of Australia, adapted very quickly to the new terrain and backed up by very effective Dispute management as in Mudginberri and Dollar Sweets reinforced the attack on solidarity across workplaces and industries using Fraser’s secondary boycott laws etc THAT LABORISM HAD NOT REPEALED. At the same time manufacturing unions – led by the Metalworkers – were able to slow down and in some cases stall the crumbling of some manufacturing industries, the crumbling process left to its own dynamic was entirely the responsibility of dim witted, lazy and vision-less employers. Havoc in manufacturing was prevented, and on occasion it was membership based activity that was critical. Class struggle WAS very much alive in the Accord years although from our point of view not always conducted with sufficient mindful militancy on the new terrain. The wages battle was also conducted in the context of a desperate need to deal with award classifications that had been designed in an early twentieth century production and service technological era. Failure to deal with that historical dilemma would have failed thousands of workers into the future. On that issue, it was very rare that employers and unions were in agreement, and commissioners in n Conciliation and Arbitration Commission really could not cope with a union movement trying to make classification structures and pay relativities relevant and applicable to the production technologies of the late 20th century. I can also remember progressive academics, many of them in the job because of good career paths and super arrangements, arguing that such demands for workers who had been denied them should not be a part of award bargaining.
The real problem for Australian workers in the Accord years, before then, and since, is Laborism – an approach to workers struggles that is based on pragmatism (strangely enough underpinned by a very idealistic understanding of how the economy works), careerism, parliamentarism, arbitrationism, and bureaucratism, helped along by an embrace of laborist hero worship as with Whilam, Hawke and Keating, and also Kelly. The ALP’s laborism especially under Keating and then Rudd / Gillard did embrace much of neoliberalism but not purely so: I call it neolaboralism. It solved more and more difficult big picture problems for the employers than for the workers. Trade policy, the banking system, social wage cuts, and the workplace / industrial laws are all in this picture.
Understand the real Accord process, please, and you will understand why the Your Rights at Work Campaign was shit down by ACTU leaders during the negotiation of the Fair Work Act. Once again a Labor leader, Gillard this time, worked with those negotiators, BROUGHT THE EMPLOYERS INTO THE PROCESS, to produce a policy framework for the Fair Work Act that was significantly compromised against the established labour movement policy to the great strategic advantage of the employers. Laborism is the problem – before the Accord, during the Accord, since the Accord. If we do not understand how that works, especially in its interaction with the dynamic of the economy, we will not be properly prepared for what happens when the current LNP government is defeated.
The podcast fails miserably in developing a coherent understanding of the Accord and the way in which class struggle continued through it.
Finally, on the Accord, if the expectation is that it was to have produced radical social change – a socialist momentum if you like – it didn’t work on those terms. At the time, my view was that it might have opened up that possibly if it was not dominated by Laborism. If it is assessed more basically as a new attempt at a reform only based living standards strategy in which jobs and the social wage interacting with the industrial wage was critical, then the outcomes are mixed, but not disastrous. Union density was declining before the Accord, and has continued since.
Should the Accord strategy be reprised. No. We are living in different times in a different capitalism under a different industrial law and that requires a new type of strategy that, nevertheless, requires the application of the same principles of class based, mindfully militant, solidarity organising across workplaces and industries. Change and continuity.