Redeeming Australian Labor

If they’re to have any chance of reviving, Australian unions need to abandon backroom deals and activate their rank-and-file.

Last month’s Australian election has apparently given the country’s union movement reason to celebrate. Labor leaders are trumpeting what they see as the rejection of the Turnbull coalition government’s “destructive policies” and the important role unions played in anti–Liberal Party campaigns across the country.

The coalition’s reduced majority seemed unthinkable only ten months ago when Malcolm Turnbull rose to power. And, in many ways, the election can be seen as a remarkable turnaround for a labor movement that has been under attack for years.

Yet as leaders revel in the results, they continue to ignore the serious issues their movement faces. While the Australian Labor Party (ALP) came close to winning this year’s federal election, union membership remains at an all-time low, and labor withstands attacks from across the political spectrum.

During the election campaign, unions focused on the threat to Medicare, completely refusing to discuss workplace issues. This was particularly noticeable given the fact that the election was triggered in order to pass the anti-union Australian Building Construction Commission (ABCC), a bill that all sides largely ignored during the campaign, but looks likely to pass in the new parliament.

Some will blame the Australian labor movement’s decline on a “wide-ranging attack” launched by “the establishment,” but these problems go right to the heart of the movement itself.

The Consensus

I first joined a union as an idealistic eighteen-year-old. Working part-time in a cafe my colleagues and I were presented with a workplace agreement we thought was deeply unfair. We tried to organize against it, but I was forced to quit when my shifts starting disappearing.

Since then I’ve been heavily involved in a number of unions, acting as a delegate, network coordinator, and volunteer. I participated in the Your Rights at Work Campaign (YRAW), fighting against John Howard’s WorkChoices legislation in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election. At the time I was excited to see a mass movement demanding worker rights.

But the victory created problems. With Kevin Rudd’s election the movement disappeared almost overnight, as leaders dedicated two years to developing the new Fair Work Act with the government. Negotiations took place mostly behind closed doors, blocking members from the process. The resulting legislation didn’t even return workers to a pre-Howard environment. The right to strike, in particular, remained curtailed.

The Fair Work Act was emblematic of a broader set of union woes. Not only is it further evidence of decades of attacks from “the establishment,” but it also proves that union leaders have bought into the ideology of that very establishment.

Decades to Forget

In the 1970s, Australia — like much of the world — entered an economic crisis. After three decades of postwar boom, its economy fell into a downturn, with growing unemployment and increasing inflation terrifying business, politicians, and unions alike. This collided with decades of significant wage growth and an increasingly militant union movement, which in 1974 alone caused five million “lost” working days due to industrial action.

Australia limped through the crisis for most of the seventies, with Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser unable to provide any substantial change. In 1983, Australians turned back to the Labor Party and elected Bob Hawke as prime minister.

Hawke and his treasurer (and future prime minister) Paul Keating made economic stability a core of their government, ushering in an era of major reform. The Prices and Incomes Accord, negotiated with the Australian union movement, was part of this effort. The deal between workers and government was meant to return the economy to its former glory.

With the economic crisis hitting around the world Australian unionists watched newly elected conservative governments — particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States — implement a range of “monetarist” solutions. These policies, retrospectively named “neoliberalism,” were designed to deflate the economy by raising interest rates and cutting government spending. Theoretically, this would increase unemployment, forcing wages low enough for business to resume hiring.

Australian unionists wanted to avoid this fate — something they thought a newly elected Labor government would do in 1983.

The accord offered Australian unionists a compromise. In exchange for wage cuts and an end to militancy — both of which were understood to be key causes of the crisis — they would receive significant social spending and tax breaks: including easing the tax burden on low- and middle-income earners, ending the tax avoidance industry, reducing indirect taxation, and eliminating poverty by ensuring “wage justice” for low-income earners. The government also promised to raise social security benefits, to introduce Medicare, and to make other improvements to the social wage.

As an essential part of the process, the government promised unions a central role in these and future economic decisions. While for decades unions had centrally negotiated wage and award conditions with government, the accord expanded their role in broader economic decisions. At the time, the agreement was described as “a historic chance for the working class to intervene in the determination of national economic policy.”

Hawke and Keating led the Australian government for over a decade. All the while, the accord process shaped economic policy. Union leaders, particularly represented by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), largely abandoned the picket line in order to negotiate outcomes to ensure the stability and survival of the country’s economy.

But the reality did not meet expectations. While the accord was supposed to avoid painful neoliberal policies, it in fact stealthily introduced them. In particular, the changes to the industrial relations system — which shifted to enterprise bargaining — caused median wages to drop across the 1980s, which continues to this day.

New social programs did not mitigate this pain; broken and delayed promises ensured that social spending could not meet the gap of lost wages. The Labor governments abolished free higher education and introduced a levy to accompany Medicare, which transferred the costs of its introduction onto workers.

This massively impacted unions. In the lead-up to the 1980s, union membership was at a high — close to 65 percent across the country. These numbers began to fall over the course of that decade and never returned. Last year unions recorded their lowest-ever numbers, sitting a paltry 15 percent density.

Many unionists and unions dissented from the accord process, resisting the more centralized style of union activity that came with the deal. Others fought against wage cuts, arguing they were bad for workers.

But these dissenters were told they were “selfish” for putting their own interests ahead of the broader good. The Communist Party of Australia, for example, accused them of “economism” and of encouraging “individual groups of workers to follow a narrow policy of self-interest, and ignore the political and class dimensions of the struggle.”

The Present Crisis

The accord caused many of the labor movement’s woes today: it changed the country’s economic structure, and the role of unions within it, making union leaders responsible both for workers’ rights and for the health of the economy as a whole.

As a result, unions became more firmly embedded in the political class, and saw their role as maintaining overall economic stability and capitalist profitability rather than advancing particular class interests of workers. Rank-and-file militancy was seen as obsolete. As even the ACTU president Ged Kearney admits, many unions forgot how to organize after the accords.

Perhaps the best example of the labor movement’s collusion with capital is the current leader of the ALP, Bill Shorten. Last year, details of a workplace agreement Shorten negotiated with construction firm Thiess John Holland while he was general secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) came to light. The agreement slashed worker conditions, while saving the company millions of dollars. At the same time, Thiess John Holland made a $300,000 donation to the AWU.

Further allegations included claims that during Shorten’s leadership Winslow Constructors paid the union $40,000 to cover 105 workers’ memberships, and that the chemical manufacturer Huntsman paid the union’s Victorian branch hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure workers “didn’t disrupt” their operations.

Responding to these claims Shorten came out swinging, stating that this is simply what modern unionism looks like. He defended his record, arguing that a more consultative approach between union leaders and employers is the only way forward in today’s economy.

Unions declined rapidly as they entered the political class at the very moment that class entered crisis across the advanced capitalist world. The “establishment” — of which many unions are now proud members — has been rightfully blamed for stagnating wages, growing economic uncertainty, and continued political instability.

This is why the union movement’s post-election celebration was so telling. Unions spent little time talking about workplace rights, and the ABCC especially. They seemed unwilling to step up and fight, likely because they feared they’d lose. So, the labor movement has started to define success almost solely in political terms, this time crowing about the “near defeat” of the Turnbull coalition government.

But this only further underlines how disconnected unions have become from parts of the working class. The labor movement has lost its ability to defend and fight for workers, at the moment when they are experiencing excessive strain within the workplace and the broader economy — strain unions hardly ever talk about.

So, what should Australian union members do? As Godfrey Moase argued in Jacobin earlier this year:

A retreat at this moment would be disastrous; it would move the union movement from a defensive crouch to utter devastation. Instead, Australian labor needs to carry out work stoppages. It needs to engage in “calculated and contemptuous law breaking” to free workers from the authoritarian vice that is squeezing their rights at work.

Many union members would agree. Despite my concerns, I maintain a committed unionist, constantly inspired by the organizing work that is going on. I belong to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), whose bottom-up structures have allowed workers to play a large role in the organization. Over recent years the NTEU — radicalized over the neoliberal reforms within the university sector — has initiated industrial action across the country.

Unfortunately the NTEU is not typical. Most unions are now so enmeshed in the political system that the very idea of this sort of militancy is foreign to them. While Moase’s solutions would advance the needs of workers, they will not happen until the movement rethinks its position and purpose.