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Issue #1626      February 12, 2014


United action, not collaboration

The announcement of a $100 million Royal Commission into trade unions culminates in months of adverse publicity in the Fairfax and Murdoch media and by the Abbott government and major employer bodies. There has been a constant barrage of allegations of corrupt union officials, criminal and bikie gang infiltration of unions, extortion, etc. At the same time employers have been making their demands for lower wages, abolition of penalty rates and award conditions. The government has declared “the age of entitlement” over, with plans to dismantle the social welfare system, privatise everything in sight and destroy Medicare, public education and the public service. The National Audit Commission, the Productivity Commission and various other employer representatives have been preparing blueprints and spin to sell to the public to try to justify their agenda.

The force standing in the way of this pro-employer, anti-worker agenda is organised labour. Hence the massive smear campaign and a totally unjustified Royal Commission to lay the basis for further union-bashing legislation and even deregistration of the CFMEU. Former High Court Judge Dyson Heydon (a Howard appointee) will head the Royal Commission. Heydon has a reputation as an extremely conservative judge, strongly opposed to “judicial activism”, where courts are prepared to change or adapt precedents in common law taking into account human rights and changes in community attitudes such as towards women and Indigenous Australians.

Just days before the announcement of the Royal Commission, Paul Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, stunned the union movement with a speech to the National Press Club (February 6) calling for collaboration with the Abbott government and employers. Howes echoed the recent media and Coalition allegations “about some unions” – of “corruption”, “criminal behaviour”, “treachery”, “thuggery”, scary slogans”, etc. “You undermine every battle we have fought – every victory we have achieved – every sacrifice that we, and the generations that came before us have made. There is no place for you in any corner of our movement.”

He then continues to describe the present adversarial industrial relations system as “dragging us down”, with references to “productivity and competitiveness”, again echoing Abbott government and employer attacks on unions. Having broken ranks with the ACTU and other unions calling for the police to investigate (which they are) the few individuals alleged to have committed criminal or corrupt activity, Howes puts forward the concept of a “Grand Compact” with the Abbott government and employers based on the approach of the Accord between the ACTU and Hawke Labor government in the 1980s.

He proposes replacing the present “hyper-adversarial culture” with one of “greater collaboration” and “harmony” based on “trust and good faith” and concessions. “The union side could begin by conceding that there has been a pattern of unsustainable growth in wages in some isolated parts of the economy”, again reinforcing government and employer claims.

So what did the Accord deliver for workers and trade unions? The first outcome was wage restraint by unions and the gradual undermining of working conditions as unions abandoned the class struggle and cooperated with employers in their pursuit of higher profits. Any wage increase had to be paid for by sacrificing jobs and working conditions. Real wages declined, many hard won conditions were lost and the scene was set for enterprise bargaining to replace a strong centralised system where enterprise agreements were only add-ons to industry-wide standards.

It resulted in a compliant trade union movement that failed to resist a structural adjustment program of economic deregulation (including floating of interest rates and currency), privatisation, trade liberalisation (its disastrous results for manufacturing still being felt today) and competition policy. Attempts by more militant unions or workers to struggle were put down by the union movement itself. Unions were weakened ideologically, membership declined. In effect, the Accord disarmed the working class in the face of heightened class struggle by employers who gave nothing in return.

We now face a period with employers and a government determined to embark on another round of major economic restructuring, slashing of wages, further deregulation and privatisation and take-back of past social and economic gains. The unions have a choice: whether or not to learn from the Accord experience. “Paul Howes is advocating unilateral disarmament by the working class in the sharpening class struggle. That is the exact opposite of what workers need to do to defend their jobs, wages and conditions”, CPA General Secretary Bob Briton told the Guardian. “We need to build united action to defeat the attacks coming from the Abbott government.”

Next article – Abbot Point – now what?

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