The Accord Process

One hundred and fifty years ago this month -- on April 21st, 1856 --the eight hour day movement began in Australia when stonemasons and building workers marched through the city of Melbourne. The young Australian working class, proved its industrial worth as one trade after another won the right to shorter working hours. Australia became one of the first countries in the world to win the eight hour day and towards the end of the nineteenth century, the working class here was one of the most highly unionised.

However, by the end of the 21st century, Australian workers were registering the longest working hours in the OECD and industrial coverage of the trade union movement had collapsed. Furthermore, the new Work Choices legislation intends to marginalise unions completely in the workplace by replacing any semblance of collective bargaining with individual contracts.

What happened?

This was the question asked in a recent ABC radio documentary on the eight hour day movement by the broadcaster’s Hindsight team. The program is still available for listening on line*.

While many factors served to bear down on the trade union movement over time, Hindsight was keen to single out the Accord experience as the most salient of these. The Prices and Incomes Accord was hailed by the ALP as a new way of working with the trade union movement such that it became the cornerstone of the Hawke and Keating governments after the Labor poll victory in 1983. The Accord was sponsored by the trade union leaderships as a means to broaden the relevance of unionism by trading various on-the-job wages and conditions for the sake of greater workplace efficiency and economic restructuring in return for social gains, such as with superannuation, Medicare, taxation, etc. The Accord process integrated the trade unions into national policy by making them a partner in government -- or at least that was the rhetoric.

The Accord was ‘supposed’ to be tripartite and the employers were ‘supposed’ to join with the unions at the same table to participate in all the consensus making. But that never happened, such that the unions instead became an arm of the ALP federal government.

While there were some very vocal opponents to this, trade union leaderships in the main worked to marginalise them and Accord became the core industrial strategy which was sold to the ranks. One of the by products of the Accord and its associated restructuring of the trade union movement, was the sacrifice of union democracy and on the job combativeness.

In the Hindsight program, John Robinson( now Secretary of Unions New South Wales), considered that the failure of the Accord process was a problem of the way it was managed. “The Accord process wasn’t managed well by the unions with their members,” he told Hindsight,” and I think what you saw --and everybody talks about this -- is that at the point of our most influence in our history we went into our biggest decline in terms of members. I think this was due to the way the whole Accord process was managed.”

Robinson went on to explain how, as an union organiser at the time, this was supposed to work: “Guys I’d worked with on building sites were calling me all sorts of names because of the way we were dealing with the second tier agreements to get wage increases and those sorts of things . We weren’t being told how we ought to be communicating with our members about this stuff . We were being told that you have to go out there and there has to be trade offs and those sorts of things and we started to disconnect.” Robinson then goes on to say that the unions,”went out there and told people this is how it has gotta be. And it was almost this thing that the medicine doesn’t taste nice but you have to take it because it’s good for you.”

But it wasn’t. The Accord which was promoted as the peak of trade union relevance and political strength, became the primary vehicle that sacrificed the working class’ independence. Contrary to what Robinson suggests -- the major problem with the Accord was the trade union movement’s collective deference to the Labor government.

Unfortunately today the same “Accord process” is being embraced within the trade union movement without any thought to what has happened in the past. In the face of Work Choices we are being told that our best strategy is to rely on an ALP election victory and not our own collective strength and organisation.

*ABC Radio :National Hindsight