At the 2019 Marxism Conference held in Melbourne I joined a panel with Liz Humphrys and Tom Bramble on “How labour built neoliberalism: Australia’s Accord, the labour movement and the neoliberal project”. Below is my speech.


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and I pay tribute to their history, their culture and their ongoing struggle for justice for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across this nation.

I would like to thank the organisers of this conference and of this session. And a big thanks to Liz for writing her book “How Labour Built Neoliberalism”. It provides significant historical and theoretical analysis and therefore is very valuable for the Australian Left.

I’ll start with the Accord.

I sometimes wonder if the right wing think tanks in the 1980s thought they struck gold with the labour movement in this country. Here was a mechanism, the Accord, an initiative of a number of leading unionists, 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 restrictions on workplace actions was most serious. I do acknowledge there were exceptions to this trend and Liz documents this in her book. Sections of the union movement mobilised their members to take a radical stand, including the meat workers union, builders labourers and the pilots. Sections of some large left unions supported these strike actions. 

However, to varying degrees the ACTU and influential unions – influential in terms of the Accord and government relations – were minimalist or non-existent in their support of these struggles.

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

In an ABC analysis of the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Accord we gain an insight into how one leading union official was aware of the contradictions they faced from Accord style activities.

This is how former ACTU secretary Greg Combet described the problematic aspects of the Accord – “One of the consequences of changing the economy and the …  restructuring done during the Accord period has actually been the decline in the level of union membership in the Australian workforce, and that has weakened the influence of trade unions.”

Before I comment on Combet’s assessment a quick reflection on union membership numbers. Research by Andrew Leigh, shadow assistant treasurer, has found that you have to go back to 1904 to find a time when the union membership rate in this country was lower than it is today. That is bad news. There is no denying that. But let’s remember that unions still remain the largest collectively organised force campaigning for equality and the common good. I emphasise that fact as we should not allow the media’s harping on about the drop in union membership to become a negative narrative designed to undermine our movement.

Back to Combet’s comments that the Accord “weakened the influence of trade unions”. I think it is significant that a former and well connected union leader makes that admission. Although this view is not as widely acknowledged as I think it should be I believe there has been some reassessment at senior levels within Australian unions.

I would like to relay a conversation I had last year shortly after Laurie Carmichael, former AMWU and ACTU leader, former president of the Communist Party of Australia and one of the architects of the Accord, died. I attended the commemoration of Laurie’s life at the event held in Sydney. 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.”

This person spoke with anger in his voice. The words “trade offs” hung in the air.

In this conversation we were not just identifying how workers had lost out in terms of wages and conditions in the negotiations but how workers were denied the experience gained in workplace struggle.

This is my strong memory of the Accord years. Personally I was not involved. In the 1980s I’m raising three young children. My political activity at the time was through the women’s movement and turning up to rallies. What I do remember though was the growing awareness within the Left that there was a major downside to the Accord in terms of loss of on the job struggle and the associated learning of tactics and organising skills.

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

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 governments. What we saw in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s was some union officials take on a policing role of unions.

I do want to emphasise this point. One of the major consequences of the Accord – 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 the resolution of workplace disputes occurred behind closed doors. 

Effectively leading unionists favoured legal processes and top level negotiations over the industrial strength of collective worker action.

So how do we ensure workplace collective actions are the foundation of our union movement and our struggles.

A few thoughts on this. Liz, in her book and as we heard in her contribution, puts the role of the state centre stage in her analysis. It is essential that we understand that the state is not a neutral force – a fact that is little understood even in many Left circles. 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 some other neoliberal scam thrown up to seduce future generations 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. 

36 years after the signing of the Accord there are many lessons for the Left.

One is how do we build an independent union movement? We have to bring about the separation of the union movement from the role many have adopted for unions as the election campaign arm of the Labor Party.

Linked to this quest is how do we ensure that on the job struggle is the foundation of union activity and not usurped by behind the scenes negotiations with bosses?

Many mass union activities are subordinated to the Labor’s electoral prospects. Unions formed the Labor Party in the late 1800s because of the exploitation and abuse that workers were exposed to at the hands of companies and conservative parties, so we should not be surprised that unions back electing a Labor government.

But 100 years later a lot needs to change. History has taught us time and time again that electing a social democrat government and then waiting for them to deliver on their promises is a recipe for frustration and often failure.

The tactics and strategy involved in the Your Rights at Work Campaign, the 2007 union campaign to get rid of the Howard government’s WorkChoices, is a case in point.

12 years ago that campaign brought a sophisticated level of campaigning to Australian shores. But the whole Your Rights At Work Campaign was geared to an election outcome. This was clearly demonstrated by the sad fact that post the election the fantastic network of campaign groups made up of hard working unionists and community support activists were actively dissolved or died as there was no movement building, no ongoing campaign plans. 

The main problem was that all the activities to defeat Howards WorkChoices were entwined with elevating Labor’s profile and getting Labor into government. Strengthening social movements was not part of the plan. The Greens and other Left parties had to fight to be acknowledged by the drivers of the Your Rights at Work Campaign. But to repeat the major failing was that overnight the foundation for a significant community backed union support movement was lost.

So there is no doubt about it back in 2007 and every election before and since I have wanted to defeat he Coalition parties. But elections are about a lot more than running a pro-Labor campaign.

The history of progressive struggle teaches us that the most effective way to influence progressive political change and win wage increases and improve workplace conditions is to build social movements.

So what are our tactics in the Change the Rules Campaign – another campaign initiated by the union movement and one with a strong electoral focus.

I wish to emphasise that I think Change the Rules is a great initiative.

What direction do we want for Change the Rules in terms of its demands and how do we ensure it has a post election future?

Here are some suggestions for our tactics and discussions at our workplaces, engaging with organisations we are active in, and with our family and friends –

  • join your union,
  • become active in your union,
  • join community support actions that back union activities,
  • organise your workmates to march in May Day, and
  • become very, very active in the Change the Rules Campaign.

Obviously these ideas are quite basic but I would argue they are still the building blocks of campaigning and building mass movements.

In terms of the Change the Rules campaign surely the priority must be a call for the right to strike to be recognised in Australian industrial relations legislation.

Under international law the right to strike is codified as a human right. The right to withdraw one’s labour is fundamental to the common good.

The International Labor Organisation for decades has informed Labor and Coalition governments that their failure to include the right to strike in industrial relations laws puts Australia in breach of international conventions.

It’s worth noting that workers have more rights in the US compared with workers in Australia.

Let’s remember why we put emphasis on building social movements. Workers exercising collective action by going on strike is the heart of social action and transformative change. Such actions have brought great benefit to Australian workers their families and wider communities, won environmental protection and contributed to international solidarity wins.

To name a few – Australia was one of the first countries to win the eight hour day; wharfies in the 1930s stopped pig iron going to Japan where it was to be used to manufacture bombs; the Green Bans saved urban bushland, heritage sites and public housing; union bans were hugely significant in the campaign to end the war in Vietnam, apartheid in South Africa and Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia.

It was the strength of people’s actions that was the key to these wins. Where legislation was needed to enshrine progressive change MPs acted in response to public pressure. They were not the leaders.

When we talk about the right to strike we need to ensure the legislation covers not just industrial action but also political strikes. Throughout the Green Ban era with the Builders Labourers Federation and the fantastic work of Australian wharfies and seamen, whose actions contributed to the world wide boycott and sanctions movement that proved critical to the defeat of the racist South African government, there were no fines or imprisonment of union members or officials. They were tough struggles but at least strike actions for political campaigns could occur.

Whatever happens in this election it is up to all of us to ensure that the Change the Rules Campaign continues to grow into a strong mass movement. That is a most effective way to learn the lessons of the Accord debacle and put more nails in the coffin of neoliberalism.


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