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Labo(u)r and neoliberalism

by Lee Rhiannon on March 26, 2019

In August Laurie Carmichael, former AMWU and ACTU leader, former president of the Communist Party of Australia and one of the architects of the accord, died. In October commemorations of Laurie’s life were held in Melbourne and Sydney. I attended the Sydney event. It was very moving and obviously Laurie’s work on the Accord was spoken about. 

A short time later I bumped into a senior staffer for a couple of unions and former labor Party member who was involved in many of the Accord negotiations. As we exchanged pleasantries I mentioned I had been at Laurie’s commemoration. 

He told me he did not go as he could not stand the reverence for the Accord. His words were strong and they surprised me. I realised that I had incorrectly assumed he backed the Accord. These were some of his words: “I sat in on the negotiations. There should be no doubt this was about wage control. I saw and heard the trade offs done. Union members were betrayed.” The words “trade offs” were spoken with considerable anger. 

As I said goodbye and walked away my memories went to the 1980s and 1990s and the sharp divisions that arose over the Accord. At that time there was much debate and quite a lot written, but analysis was close to zero. 

The paucity of critiques of the Accord period is not surprising. The Australian Left is notorious for being strong on action, but weak on theory. So I wish to pay a huge tribute to Liz Humphrys for her book How Labour Built Neoliberalism. This publication is hugely significant. I feel we have waited 30 years for this analysis.

This book is significant not just for its analysis of the Accords of the 1980 and 1990s. I also hope it helps ensure there is no repeat of the Accord and the Left learns some fundamental lessons from this period. 

First off the title. It needs to be noted that How Labour Built Neoliberalism” is labour with a U. For me and certainly from reading Liz’s book Labor with no U as in the ALP are very much part of the labour that built neoliberalism.

Now some might argue that the title is provocative. However you want to describe it we need to recognise the title is accurate.

In celebrating the title I am not saying that the pro Accord union leaders were agents for neoliberalism. Many, such as Carmichael, believed this was the path to democratic socialism. The Australian Labor Advisory Council said as much in 1981. 

So a few comments on the book and then I will come back to the relevance for today’s politics.

Liz puts the role of the state centre stage in her analysis. I give emphasis to this part of the book as it is essential that we understand that the state is not a neutral force – a surprising mistake some of the Accord backers made. If we fail to recognise this fact and fail to ensure that each rising generation of unionists and activists understand this and incorporate that fact into the strategy and tactics for today’s struggles we could well see another version of the Accord or Compact or whatever language the 21st century throws up is used to seduce another generation of union activists.

The state is not neutral. One of its roles, prominent in the Accord period, is resolving the crisis of capital accumulation. That was largely achieved as the union movement was brought into – Liz calls it assimilation – state lead economic restructuring. 

I sometimes wonder if the right wing think tanks thought they struck gold with the labour movement in this country. Here was a mechanism, the Accord, that created the conditions for neoliberalism. 

They had union leaders at the negotiating table delivering on the trade offs, union amalgamations and privatisation of our once robust national pension scheme. And many of those leaders did not object to putting limits on workplace militancy. 

The latter is most serious. Liz documents that there were sections of the union movement that mobilised their members to take a radical stand – the meat workers union, builders labourers, pilots are some examples. Sections of the large left unions supported these strike actions. 

To varying degrees the ACTU and some of the influential [in terms of the Accord and government relations] unions were minimalist in their support these struggles.

The use of trade practices law to police union activities was not surprising. But for the Accord to be used limit workers’ actions was deeply shocking. 

A hallmark of neoliberalism around the world is that industrial struggle is curtailed through legal means and outright suppression. The usual drivers of this are corporate interests and government. What we saw in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s was some union officials take on a policing role of unions.

One of the major consequences of this – I think tragedy is not too strong a word – is that we lost a generation – probably more than one – of young worker activists. This is not surprising – the objective conditions that were created under the Accord effectively locked out union militancy. It was a time when workplace issues occurred behind closed doors. 

Liz gives comprehensive coverage to this huge negative aspect of the Accord – how the shift in the relationship between labour and capital in the Accord period saw sections of the union movement, lead by the ACTU, drive the disorganisation of labour. This may have been unique to Australia in terms of the development of neoliberalism. 

Power was transferred from active union members, delegates, and shop stewards to an elite group of senior officials. 

In her book Liz poses a number of questions that I hope will prompt an ongoing assessment of the Accord years and importantly will provide lessons for the Left over the coming months and years. A period that could be framed by a Shorten Labor government. 

Liz asks the question. “.. why do we assume it was aways the New Right that was at the centre of constructing neoliberalism?”

This implies intent on the part of sections of the Left and centre forces to create neoliberalism. If that is what is being argued I would phrase it differently. But the semantics of this issue is not the main point. 

Liz’s next question is “why do we accept that the labour movement was simply the victim of neoliberal change, rather than involved more intimately in its manufacture?”

Those questions are most pertinent as a 21st century Accord could well be on the table. One could even be announced before the election

These are Shorten’s words delivered at last year’s John Curtin lecture: “We need business and unions and policymakers and leaders and the Parliament to do something drastic, something radical, something profoundly different that we haven’t seen since the 1980s: we need to co-operate.”

Analysis published in The Conversation last year speculated that a new Labor-ACTU Compact for the 2020s would not focus on economic objectives but on the protection of workers rights under automation and due to the changes in service delivery. 

While Ged Kearney in 2013 at the 30th anniversary of the Accord said the Accord’s spirit should be revived and that the agreement was the “highpoint of the political and industrial wing of the labour movement”, she has also described it as “a heavy cross to bear” and she said we “forgot how to organise”.

And then we have Sally McManus who since coming into the job of ACTU secretary has said that neoliberalism has “run its course”.

Those comments could reflect tension between those who would be key drivers of any 21st century Accord type arrangement.

What I think needs to be explored here is how the radical Left engages with Labor and the union movement close to Labor. How do we respond to talk of any formal deal between the unions and government? On the economic side the argument is not too hard when we refer back to the Accord years. 

Remember Keating’s view, accepted by too many, that capital’s share of GDP over workers had to increase to improve the prospects of a robust Australian economy into the future has proved to be a disaster. 

Even the Reserve Bank of Australia has been saying over the past two years that wages are too low to maintain a stable Australian (read capitalist) economy – the exact reverse of Keating’s vision.  

The depth of the failure of the Accord period continues to play out. Billions of dollars were handed over to steel and car manufacturing industries through programs that in the end only assisted corporate interests. We know that the CEOs of the companies involved were not out of pocket when factories closed. They cleaned up while workers lost their jobs. This saga continues. In the last few years workers in the Illawarra at Bluescope Steel lost out while their company bosses picked up a tidy sum under deals similar to what dominated manufacturing in Australia during the 1990s.

Many people did come to feel betrayed by the Accord. One long time opponent of the Accord said to me she can remember seeing hatred emerge among lower paid workers in response to Keating’s vision and has often wondered if this shift in part lead to Labor’s 1996 federal election defeat. 

So thanks Liz. This is a book that the Left needs. 

So who knows if there will be some type of Accord. What we can be more confident about is that there will be a Labor government in 2019. That is very good news as the Morrison government is a disaster for this country.

So two thoughts that arise from reading this book and in dealing with today’s political reality.  

  • The Australian Left needs to give solid support for the Change the Rules campaign. Yes I think it could be stronger – we clearly need to back the right to strike for political as well as industrial reasons – but right now we need to be solidly behind what the unions are backing. 
  • And we need to work for an independent union movement. That means no affiliations to political parties. It would then be much harder for the destructive aspects of any form of Accord to arise. And most importantly it would empower the strongest arm of Australia’s progressive movement – the organised workforce, our union movement.  

This speech was delivered at the launch of How Labour Built Neoliberalism by Elizabeth Humphrys at the Historical Materialism Sydney Conference, December 2018.

Lee Rhiannon
Lee Rhiannon has worked in the social justice and environment movement for five decades. She is a qualified zoologist and botanist. Prior to commencing work with the Greens, Lee was the Director of AID/WATCH, the coordinator of the NSW Coalition for Gun Control and a member of the Women’s Advisory Council to the NSW Government. She has worked for a number of unions. Lee is particularly committed to sharing the skills she has gathered over five decades of campaigning. She was elected to the NSW parliament in 1999 and the Senate in 2010. As a Greens NSW MP and as a Senator Lee worked on a range of issues including exposing corporate political donations, supporting local environmental campaigns, public education and promoting workers’ rights. Lee resigned from the Senate in August 2018. She continues to work with communities on local housing campaigns, solidarity with Palestine and supports many other campaigns.
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  • Ron
    March 27, 2019 at 8:08 pm

    The Hawke Consensus was reached after the Fraser years of ham-fisted Liberal trouble-making in a period of capital strikes and stagflation.
    The next Consensus — if their can even be one — will be in the aftermath of a financial crash which will dwarf even the 1929 crash. And should ‘Labor’ crawl in to mop up the devastation, it will be by default, because Labor is now as hated as the LNP.
    We fervently hope the difficult period will not, as was the 1929 depression my parents suffered, be extended by a bastard in Australia’s Reserve Bank who insisted on paying off debts to English banks, instead of Roosevelt-style credit activation. Our depression lasted a decade: America’s did not.
    Economist John Adams tells a chilling anecdote of an LNP rat who is quite confident the political class can get away with blaming our looming crash on ‘overseas factors beyond their control’.
    The prep for this blame-shifting is already in place. They have salted away their ill-gotten gains, and don’t give a damn about anyone outside their little cabal. Start knocking up those gibbets now.

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