The Accord and the state of working class organisation

by Tom Bramble • Published 20 April 2020

Industrial Relations at Work: The Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey[1] is a survey covering 2,350 workplaces, conducted from late 1989 to early 1990 by the Federal Department of Industrial Relations. The workplaces covered ranged from prisons to law offices and from abattoirs to schools; it is the most wide-ranging overview of workplace “industrial relations” ever made in Australia. It is therefore useful to put the outcome of the Accord into perspective.[2]

When the Accord was first devised, its supporters made a number of claims as to its miracle properties. By showing restraint, well-placed workers would leave more of the “national cake” for poorly organised workers, especially women workers, who would otherwise be left behind in the race for higher wages. By holding back on wage increases, powerful trade unionists could also create space for improvements in the social wage, in pensions, education and health services, assistance for sole parents and so on. The message was trumpeted loud and clear and, when certain unions decided to press on anyway, like the Builders Labourers Federation and the Pilots Federation, they were blasted off the industrial battlefield by the ACTU. In a variant on the theme first made popular by the American army officer during the Vietnam War, who stated that he had had to destroy a village in order to save it, the ACTU went out and destroyed union activism in order to “save it from itself”. The ideas behind this strategy were articulated by the ACTU in Future Strategies for the Union Movement and Australia Reconstructed.

For several years, there seemed to be a material basis for this strategy: more than 1.5 million jobs were created in the first five years of the Hawke government. Economic growth was amongst the strongest in the world. Those who argued that wage restraint was only serving the bosses could point to falling real wages and increasing company profits, but the Accord’s supporters could cite lower unemployment, increased welfare payments for poorer families, and cuts to income tax rates for most workers. However, with the talk of the “Banana Republic” in 1986-87 and the advent of the “New Right”, the tune emanating from the ACTU began to change from a waltz to a dirge. Job losses, falling union membership and continued reductions in living standards, through “discounting” and delays to national wage cases, led to a change of mood. This was indicated best by the title of an alarmist publication by the BWIU, Can Unions Survive?, issued in 1989. Instead of advances, the organised working class was now in a major retreat, it was alleged, and the Accord was the only thing that stood between Australian unionism and decimation. The BWIU prophesied that union organisation could fall to 25 percent of the workforce by the year 2000 and the union officials were worried that, if union organisation kept falling at this rate, employers and the government would refuse to treat them seriously.

So we saw the union officials and their advisers swinging from wild optimism about the prospects for the Australian union movement, to deep pessimism. At one moment busying themselves releasing documents, sitting on planning committees and proclaiming their latest victory in Accord wage deals and at the next, sitting like rabbits blinded by headlights waiting for the juggernaut of history to crush them. That it was possible for the same individuals to hold both sets of seemingly contrary beliefs at the same time can be easily explained by the fact that both arguments ignore the possibility that the working class could be mobilised for its own interests or, in many cases, betray the very fear that it actually could.

The survey shows that the bosses have used the opportunity of the second-tier and award restructuring pay rounds to make major inroads into work practices, and they have done this without consulting unions for the most part. The survey also shows, however, that working class organisation in Australia, although damaged, has not been smashed, and this is the major limiting factor on the bosses’ offensive. While some of the alarmist warnings of those responsible for publications such as Can Unions Survive? are much exaggerated, it is certainly true that working class organisation has been damaged in recent years.[3] The proportion of men in unions fell from 56 percent in 1976 to 53 percent in 1982 and then dropped to 45 percent in 1988: in the same period, the proportion of women in unions fell from 46 percent to 35 percent, this entire reduction coming about after 1982.[4] Apart from the demoralisation in the working class brought about by years of high unemployment and the activities of the ALP government, the two biggest hindrances to successful union activism in the 1980s have come from the union bureaucracy and management. While the survey does not indicate trends across time, we can surmise that the Accord itself, far from protecting trade unions, has done much to hollow them out from within. Nearly 60 percent of workplaces with more than five workers have no union members. In many unionised private sector workplaces, there are relatively few workplace meetings. In the early 1970s, over-award campaigns were the bread and butter of shopfloor union organisation in manufacturing industry, but the no further claims clause of the Accord, first agreed to by the left-led AMWU in the 1982 Metal Industry Agreement, has ensured that many workers have never had experience of strike action.

The other factor that has undermined union activity in the workplace has been management’s attempts to tie up delegates in endless procedures covering disputes and grievances. Nearly three-quarters of workplaces now have formal disciplinary procedures, covering 85 percent of employees, and one half have grievance procedures, covering two-thirds of the workforce. The main purpose of these agreements is to take anger at management high-handedness out of the workplace and into management’s offices. Such procedures can help to prevent arbitrary sackings or victimisations, but they also legitimise management’s right to discipline and fire “trouble-makers”. Management has not, by and large, attempted to smash strong union organisation where it exists, but has tried to co-opt the delegates, by providing a range of office facilities and involving them in joint committees. In many of the largest workplaces, management and the union officials have tried to drag the stewards away from their base by giving them full-time status. Better steward facilities represent a double-edged sword, since they can be used to entice union delegates into cosy relationships with management but, in different circumstances, can be used to mobilise against management.

At Ford Broadmeadows, once one of the most militant factories in Australia, the number of stewards was maintained through the 1980s, but overseas trips for union delegates and work in tripartite “industry councils” were used to drum home the message about the need to cut costs and increase productivity. By the end of the decade, the activities of many of the stewards in the vehicle industry appeared little different to those of their supervisors, in the eyes of many workers in the industry. The same process of steward co-option was evident in the US and Britain in the 1980s.[5] One of the arguments put forward by the union bureaucracy in the 1980s was that workers in Australian industry had to co-operate with the bosses to bring about job security. Bosses took the cue and hired PR experts to push the ideas of “team work”. Management at Ford, for example, set up an elaborate network of committees to push “employee involvement”. In April 1990, Ford management was proudly boasting:

We have already shown that, by working as a team – company, union and employees – we can achieve great things. We are improving productivity, we are improving quality and we are reaping the benefits.[6]

In the recession of 1990-91, the result of this “teamwork” was made clear when Ford sacked over 2,100 workers.[7] The tragedy was that dozens of Ford stewards agreed to the deal, and 18 stewards took voluntary redundancy rather than attempt to force a fight on the issue.[8] The survey shows that the rhetoric surrounding employee participation schemes is mostly nonsense, and that such schemes work to management’s advantage. Where consultative committees have been introduced, 90 percent of managers claimed that these improved “management-employee relations”. Over 80 percent of managers said that they made it easier to introduce changes and 70 percent said they helped improve productivity. But most major changes affecting workers are decided by management beyond the workplace. In half of all workplaces where significant changes occurred, the unions were not even informed. In a further quarter, they were only “informed”, most probably after the event. Rank and file workers were told even less: nearly a quarter weren’t even told of the changes, under half were just “informed” and fewer than a third were consulted.

These findings are confirmed in the car industry by a series of working parties organised by the Vehicle Builders Employees’ Federation (VBEF) in November 1990.[9] Hardly surprisingly, they found that management were only interested in implementing changes suggested by workers if they cut costs, and ignored those that improved working life. At the GMH Dandenong plant, the workers involved in a “Quality of Work Life” (QWL) program made a range of suggestions to reduce labour turnover, only to find management deciding to lease out the plant to Toyota in the middle of their investigations. Workers involved in QWL committees in the GMH Elizabeth plant in South Australia found that management were using the committees as a way of circumventing negotiations with the unions.

What of the much vaunted award restructuring, which was supposed to present blue collar workers with a career ladder out of dead-end jobs? The working parties in the vehicle industry discovered that the benefits of award restructuring were accruing almost entirely to management. One working party concluded:

Whilst managements evinced the view that award restructuring would over time deliver fewer, more highly trained workers in their enterprise, the evidence is that they have a current preoccupation weighted towards the shedding of labour, and no proportionate increase in training.[10]

During the boom in the industry in the late 1980s, managements claimed that they couldn’t afford to release workers for training since they were needed on the shop floor. Then with the slump and mass sackings, any idea of “career paths” became a sick joke in the industry. The decision of the ALP government to kill off hundreds of thousands of jobs by sending the economy into a sickening free-fall in 1990-91 smashed any remaining illusions that the Accord really could deliver. Seven years of wage restraint ended up with unemployment as high as the Liberals had left behind in 1982 and, in the meantime, union organisation had fallen from 49 percent to 42 percent of the workforce. The abolition of the dole and the use of Newstart to get people off welfare, the attempts to destroy the one remaining real benefit of Labor’s early years, Medicare, and the sacking of thousands of teachers and other public sector workers, all gave the lie to the claims of Labor’s apologists. The restructuring of industry and work practices, promoted as “microeconomic reform”, has meant worsening work conditions in many areas. Five years ago, the ACTU was trying to lash workers behind the program of the Accord by pointing to the threat of New Right enterprise bargaining. Now they’ve embraced it themselves. Enterprise bargaining means the deterioration of working conditions, safety standards and trade union rights, and it is now being actively pushed by an unholy combination of the ACTU, the ALP, the Liberals and the Confederation of Australian Industry.

Deals done at ICI and Kellogg’s in Sydney have brought in what are effectively “no-strike” enterprise deals, and have been followed by similar arrangements at Shell’s refinery at Geelong. Deals on the waterfront have undermined the common working conditions that bound together workers as far afield as Perth, Port Hedland, Townsville and Port Melbourne. The stench that issues forth from these agreements forces the ACTU to keep changing the ways in which they are promoted: “award restructuring” is now out and has been replaced by “workplace reform”. But reality is remorseless: jobs in the car industry were lost in their thousands in 1990-91, and the militant core of the Turkish workers at Ford Broadmeadows was decapitated in a mass sacking in early 1991.

Survival of basic union organisation

Having said all this, however, the survey also points out some bright points in the state of working class organisation. Union density may be falling, but the rate of decline has slowed considerably since 1988,[11] and 54 percent of workers in workplaces of more than five are in unions. Only 4 percent of the very largest workplaces (with more than 500 workers) have no union members. Overall, 80 percent of workplaces with more than 20 workers are unionised, and unions are particularly well-organised in public sector workplaces, although abysmally so among white collar workers in the private sector. Even on the ACTU’s own figures, there are now 6 percent more trade unionists in Australia today than there were in 1976.[12] The survey casts doubt on many of the nostrums of the postmodernist pessimists. It has been argued by many associated with the ACTU strategy that unions have to fundamentally reorient their approach if they are to reach out to new sections of the workforce.[13] It is suggested that women, youth and white collar workers cannot be attracted by “old-fashioned” forms of union organisation waged by “macho militants”, based on collective identity forged through strikes and picketing. Instead of emphasising struggle to improve wages and working conditions, unions can recruit such workers by providing financial advice, cheap loans and insurance policies, and discounts on their no doubt frequent use of the services of Flag Hotels and Hertz car rentals.

Academic respectability was lent to these new sentiments by the growth of postmodernist and post-fordist ideas, which filtered through to the union movement through union research officers, academic consultants and other avid readers of journals such as Marxism Today and its local mouthpiece, the Australian Left Review. The post-fordists tell us that workers are increasingly identifying as individualist consumers with leisure interests their main focus in life. By the end of the decade, many of those who had spent the early 1980s advising us to get behind the Accord were now saying that the working class, class struggle and all that other stuff about fighting the bosses was so much modernist mumbo-jumbo. Rather than the nirvana they had once prophesised, the union movement, they now argued, was headed into oblivion. The working class was simply disintegrating and being replaced by a status-conscious “citizenry”, more interested in listening to its CDs while trying on Bennetton’s latest addition to modish wear than going on strike and organising picket lines.

Leaving aside the question of when many Australian unions were last involved in militant workplace struggles, is it true that workers cannot be attracted to unions by “old-fashioned” methods? The survey suggests otherwise. Far from people being bought off by the “consumer society” or more interested in identifying as consumers than workers, many realise that belonging to a union pays, and are interested in joining unions not to get discounted holiday accommodation, but mainly to win pay rises, better working conditions and job protection,[14] which factors the Accord has done so much to undermine.

In well-organised unionised workplaces, which comprise about one seventh of the total, covering 40 percent of the total workforce, the survey shows that wages are highest, dismissals are least frequent, people leave their jobs less often, and management feel that unions are the single largest obstacle to changing work arrangements. The bosses were hindered by the higher rate of industrial action that occurred in these places, even in the late 1980s. ln the badly organised workplaces, by contrast, there is a high rate of dismissals, no employment security, lower wages and generally much more arbitrary management authority. With enterprise bargaining, workers in these sorts of workplaces are going to be savaged, as indeed is the intention of Coalition policy. One of the most damaging effects of the Accord was to make it seem as if trade unionism was the ACTU, that wage rises came down from the Arbitration Commission as if by the benevolence of the state and the skilled bargaining tactics of Kelty and co. In these circumstances we should be surprised to find anyone still volunteering to become union delegates, but the survey finds about 50,000 delegates in the workplaces surveyed. Far from base level union organisation disappearing, it has a tenacious grip in many areas, even if it may not be obvious at present. As we’d expect, the better unionised larger workplaces have the most delegates, particularly in the public sector.

If we listened to some feminists, who argue that trade unions are simply male institutions established to keep women out of skilled jobs,[15] or the ACTU, who tell us that women can’t be attracted by “macho unionism”, we’d get the impression that women would be repelled by the unions. In fact even though the proportions of both men and women in unions are falling, the rate has fallen faster for men. Women are taking up delegates’ positions in increasing numbers. Although still under-represented, they now comprise 29 percent of the total number of delegates. Given the double burden that many working women face, this is a major advance on the situation in the 1960s.[16] The opportunities are certainly there to reverse the trend of falling unionisation among women, and by “old-fashioned” methods of industrial action against ruthless bosses. Mass sackings and the use of Sunday trading by retail giants such as Coles simply reinforce the bitterness of many young women workers. Thousands turned out to protest against Sunday trading in Melbourne in August 1991. The crime is that the shop assistants’ union did nothing to tap into this potential for resistance and at times actively stifled it. Industry restructuring has meant thousands of job losses for women in rural Victorian towns dependent on the textiles, clothing and footwear industries. The clothing and footwear trade unions have gone along with this, tied as they are to the ALP and its plans for the industry. Increasing unionisation among women in these sorts of industries doesn’t mean offering discount air fares to Europe, but a preparedness to fight hard struggles. After the one day general strike in NSW in October 1991, there were reports of shop assistants, public servants and library staff deciding to join their unions as a result of the action taken on the day.[17]

Similarly with white collar workers: far from them being put off by the “low status” reputation of collective action, the survey reported that nearly one third of delegates in the survey were professionals or “paraprofessionals” (teachers, nurses, etc.); 11 percent were clerks and 10 percent were in sales or services. These workers are just as enthusiastic about such “old-fashioned” forms of industrial action as strikes and work bans: the rate of picketing during disputes was highest of all, not in the building industry, coal mining or engineering, but in public administration. In October 1991, it wasn’t just Victorian meatworkers at Camperdown who were being arrested on picket lines: at the University of NSW, three academics were arrested for picketing in the October general strike, indicating how workers with very professional notions of their work are drawn into industrial struggle to protect their collective rights. Less than one half of all delegates are now manual blue collar workers.

Despite the recomposition of the working class that has been occurring in the last 20 years, there is a core of delegates who have extensive experience in the job: 15 percent of senior delegates have had more than 10 years’ experience as delegates at different workplaces, and over one third have had at least four years’ experience. While it is true that the militancy of many has been sapped by years of employee participation and other such schemes, many of these delegates will play a major role in any upsurge in industrial action when it comes. Most delegates surveyed are elected to their positions and at 40 percent of workplaces, elections are held at least annually, indicating a basic level of organisation. A certain continuity of union organisation is also indicated by the fact that, even in 1989-90, a period of very low strike activity, two-thirds of the delegates in the largest workplaces said that there had been some form of industrial action in the previous year. One of the core ideas behind the Accord was that, if the strong unions were to use their industrial muscle to win big pay rises outside the system, this would cause a leap in unemployment (quite unlike the outcome of seven years of wage cuts!), as workers would be “priced out of their jobs”. This survey throws a large bucket of cold water on this idea as well. In only 2 percent of cases were wages regarded by management as the major cause of job losses in the late 1980s; the main causes by far were the lack of demand for their product or service (43 percent) and organisational restructuring 17 percent). In other words, it was the capitalist system itself, and the re-emergence of one of its regular bouts of “overproduction”, that was responsible for the major lay-offs in the late 1980s, not workers’ wages.

In many workplaces, there is a deep distrust of management, despite their best efforts to win workers over. In the 1980s, this did not result in strikes in, for example, the car industry, because of the lack of confidence to take on the employers. Instead, workers took sickies or quit their jobs, indicating that they have not become part of the company “family”, despite all the publicity reported about “new moods” of worker-management co-operation in the workplaces.[18] In future periods of industrial advance, the frustrations that are expressed today in individualist forms will be channelled in a collective direction. Those groups of workers most repressed today may turn out to be the most explosive tomorrow, as the history of migrant workers in the car industry has proved so vividly.


Managements have clearly been on the offensive in recent years. They have increased the pace of work, cut workforces and introduced changes without any serious discussion with workers or their unions in most cases. The union officials have gone along with this for the most part and, in several cases, have made the running. Despite these attacks, workplace unionism is still a force to be reckoned with for both the union officials and the employers. Fifty thousand delegates, and millions of unionised workers who elect them, stand in the way of what is required to make Australian capitalism truly competitive on a world scale, a frontal attack on working conditions and wages. Although union activity on the ground is more feeble in some key areas than in the 1970s, it has not disintegrated. The bosses have not dared yet to try “New Right” direct confrontations with the Australian working class as a whole, firstly because they have won significant concessions by working through the union bureaucrats, and secondly because they are forced to confront the bedrock of class organisation that exists in some of the key workplaces.

Even without a high level of struggle, the points that socialists can make about the role of the working class as the key social force are still strong: surveys such as this give us some hint as to workers’ potential power. Whether or not this potential is realised, however, depends on the battle of ideas: those whose main contributions to the arguments on the left in the 1980s were hyped-up support for the Accord, followed by attempts to write off the working class as a social force, will be an absolute obstacle in any attempt at organising a fightback. The task of socialists is to provide the dynamite, in the form of ideas, to blast them aside.

[1] R. Callus, A. Morehead, M. Cully and J. Buchanan, Industrial Relations at Work: The Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey, Commonwealth Department of Industrial Relations, AGPS, Canberra, 1991.

[2] For a review of the Accord from 1983 to 1989. see J. Minns, Hawke, Class Struggle and the Left, International Socialists pamphlet, 1987, and T. Bramble, “Award Restructuring and the Australian Trade Union Movement: A Critique”, Labour and Industry, volume 2, no. 3, 1989.

[3] For other evidence, see BWIU, Can Unions Survive?, BWIU ACT Office, Canberra, 1989; D. Peetz, “Declining Union Density”, Journal of Industrial Relations, volume 32, no. 2, 1990; and ACTU, Organisation, Resources and Services of the Trade Union Movement, ACTU 1991 Conference Document, Session 511, Melbourne.

[4] ACTU, page x.

[5] For evidence on the experience of unions in the British car industry, see J. Holloway, “The Red Rose of Nissan”, Capital and Class 32, 1987; and on America, see M. Parker and J. Slaughter, Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept, South End Press, Boston, 1988.

[6] Ford News April 1990.

[7] The Age, 25 February 1991.

[8] The Age, 6 February 1991, and information from Gerard Morel, VBEF steward, Toyota Port Melbourne.

[9] These comprised groups of stewards and some union research officers who made plant tours through the industry in late 1990.

[10] Federation of Vehicle Industry Unions, Mid-Term Reports of the FVIU Working Parties, Melbourne, December 1990. For a bowdlerised version of some of the findings of these working parties, see also the Final Consolidated Report of the FVIU Working Parties, VBEF Federal Office, February 1991 (also available in the National Key Centre in Industrial Relations Working Paper No. 17, Graduate School of Management, Monash University, September 1991).

[11] ACTU, Organisation, Resources and Services of the Trade Union Movement, page x.

[12] ibid., page ix.

[13] See ACTU, Organisation, Resources and Services of the Trade Union Movement. For other criticisms of these arguments see M. Armstrong, “The ‘Dinosaur’ that Refuses to Die”, The Socialist, 1 February 1991, p14; and D. Fieldes, “Workers Give a Lesson in Class”, The Socialist, November 1991, p9.

[14] According to the results of the ANOP survey of union members, non-unionised women and non-unionised youth, conducted for the ACTU in 1989 (reported in ACTU, Organisation, Resources and Services of the Trade Union Movement, page xii).

[15] See C. Cockburn, Brothers: Male Dominance and Technological Change, Pluto Press, London, 1983.

[16] Similar trends are evident in Britain: see L. German, Sex, Class ad Socialism, Bookmarks, London, 1989.

[17] See Fieldes, “Workers Give a Lesson in Class”.

[18] See Automotive Industry Council, Labour Turnover and Absenteeism: Costs and Causes in the Australian Automotive Industry, Australian Manufacturing Council, Melbourne, 1990.

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