Issue #1571 31 October 2012
Dusting off the accords
In 1983, the then newly-elected Hawke Labor government introduced the first Prices and Incomes Accord. The concept was not original. Social democrats all over the industrialised world had worked on their sales pitch to the labour movement to forego wage increases and important workplace rights in return for a boost to the “social wage”. Bosses were worried that the union movement – strongly represented in Australian workplaces at the time – would regroup and move to recover wages lost during the 12 month wage freeze imposed in the last year of the Fraser government.
Hawke moved quickly. Medicare was introduced. Wages moved upwards to the full extent of the Consumer Price Index for a while and union officials found themselves seated at tables with the captains of industry to talk about productivity and other weighty issues. Many union leaderships began to believe the line that problems facing workers could be sorted at this level and that on-the-job organisation and militancy were not so important. Over the years, unions became invisible in many workplaces.
Bob Hawke had given plenty of notice that he was the man to do the job of marginalising the rank and file of the trade unions. His 1979 Boyer Lecture entitled The Resolution of Conflict declared that the old left/right divides were dead and that employers and employees had nothing but common interests. According to the former ACTU president, the class struggle was over as was the ideological struggle against capitalism. What he was really advocating and promising to deliver was unilateral disarmament by workers in those very real, ongoing struggles.
Bosses are not as worried as they were in 1983 about the capacity of the trade unions to defend their members’ wages and conditions. Years of ideological assault and anti-union legislation have brought the corporate sector record low levels of industrial disputation, no wages “blowout”, unprecedented workforce “flexibility” and tidy profits despite a global economic crisis of capitalism. The attacks made during the Howard years, with its WorkChoices legislation, may have caused a backlash in the electorate but Labor’s Fair Work Act did not roll back the worst aspects of the Libs’ legislative barrage.
Workers aren’t being offered sweeteners for bitter workplace pills any longer. So it is curious that the current Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten would revive the notion of an “accord” in recent times. He has been given the hurry up by corporate interests to tighten the legislative noose on unions even further. He has had a report reviewing the Fair Work Act for almost four months. The report notes that the Act has not adversely affected productivity but the bosses are out for gains it recommends like the expansion of individual flexibility agreements and total corporate sway over greenfields sites. Pressure is building for these “reforms” to happen and it appears that the federal government is reaching into the archives for a “fix”.
The new “accord” is a pale imitation of the old one. No centralised wage fixation or Medicare-style reforms are on offer this time – just a Centre for Workplace Leadership where workers with managing roles can rub shoulders with some high-flyers and soak up their ideas for deregulation and greater productivity. On the advisory board are Richard Goyder from Wesfarmers, John Borghetti from Virgin, Catriona Noble from McDonalds, Pip Marlow from Microsoft, Ray Horsburgh from Toll and two blasts from the past – Lindsay Fox from Linfox and former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty.
The intention is clearly to get a corps of influential workers to see the world through their bosses eyes, to promote greater “flexibility” (fewer entitlements) and deliver more productivity gains for big business. It will be sold as a “win/win” flowing from the “soft skills” of leadership and engagement.
It is doubtful many workers will fall for something as lame as this new “accord”. Workers are continuing to resist privatisation and de-regulation in spite of the threat of massive fines to their unions and members. More and more workers are coming to realise that the class struggle is not over. Accords might serve a function in blunting class consciousness for a while, but the crude reality of exploitation shows through.
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