Australia, which has oft been referred to as “the lucky country”, is now embracing workplace reform — yet again!
Under aegis of the PR friendly title of “Work Choices” the new industrial system that has been introduced by the Howard Liberal/Country Party federal government is designed to force workers onto individual contracts and do away with the shop floor relevance of trade unions by among other elements, making striking illegal.
Australia which used to be one of the most highly unionised countries in the OECD can now only boast a trade union membership of some 23% — although 20 years ago trade union coverage was closer to fifty percent of the workforce.
The brutal irony is that this fall in union strength and coverage occurred primarily during the years of a federal Labor government– the Hawke/Keating ALP governments, 1983-1996. This fall was a consequence of a consensual agreement between the bosses, the government and Australia’s peak trade union body the ACTU. The Accord (aka the Prices and Incomes Accord was rigorously policed such that this so called empowerment of trade unionism was in fact a fast track to corporatization and the ACTU became an arm of federal government policy.
Bob Hawke had been federal president of the ACTU before shifting to politics.
The added irony was that the Accord strategy was hatched and advanced in the trade union movement by the Communist Party of Australia. Generally, the official trade union left embraced the Accord as a ticket to a new era of political relevance for the trade unions and is was this left that was the Accord’s most dedicated champions.
Total hours worked climbed and workers’ share of the GDP fell. Labor’s Accord was more succesful in driving down wages and working conditions than the economic rationalism and coarse aggressiveness of a Reagan or a Thatcher. It was Australia under the ALP that was the inspiration for Blair’s New Labor in the UK.
No wonder, therefore, that trade union membership and combativity collapsed.
So today, a weakened and a chastised trade union movement faces a major challenge to its future existence and all it can offer the ranks is a “vote Labor” strategy.
Does that sound familiar?