|Issue No 27||20 August 1999|
Michael Costa on the Kelty Legacy
It's always difficult to assess the legacy of someone with whom you have had profound disagreements. To simply eulogise Bill Kelty would be insincere, as with all complex leaders there was the good and the bad.
There is much to thank Bill Kelty for. On a practical industrial level, Bill was instrumental in ensuring that all Australian workers have access to superannuation. Without his vision and determination super would have remained the exclusive privilege of the rich. He also played the crucial tactical role in many successful industrial disputes, none as significant as his stewardship of Reith's assault on the MUA.
Bill understood the need to ensure that the lower paid shared at least partially in the benefits of economic growth. Many argue that one of the key positive affects of the Accord was the redistribution effect. Lower paid workers under many of the Accord arrangements were the winners. Like any redistribution this did cause some resentment among those with stronger bargaining positions who were required to exercise restraint.
Bill Kelty was instrumental in educating the trade union leadership that it could not ignore economic reality. This was particularly critical once the decision to float the dollar had begun the process of global integration. Without Bill Kelty the economic stability of the Accord period which benefited Labor politically would not have been achieved.
His place in Australia's political and industry history is assured, the fact he shunned the media means that many of his achievements were unsung. But he also leaves the union movement with many challenges, some of his own making, others the result of changes he never fully comprehended.
The changes of his own making were union amalgamations which he single-mindedly pursued and which the trade union movement is still struggling to deal with. What appeared to be good in theory - industry based unions - was overwhelmed by internal union politics and a changing economy. It is a pity Bill Kelty hadn't led the union movement a generation earlier, as the amalgamation strategy was a logical response to Industrial Age Capitalism.
The Information Age has changed the economic structure fundamentally. Big company structures have devolved to a matrix of virtual corporations which have created increased casualisation and sub-contractors, altering irreversibly the way trade unions need to do business. The large super-union model is a poor fit with the
modern economy. It is a measure of Bill Kelty's intellect that as he leaves the union movement, he has sought to embrace information technology and empower workers in this new world. It is a pity, however, that what appears to be emerging illustrates his inability to grasp the full implications of working in a wired world.
While initially the Accord was an innovative way to deal with the macroeconomic problems Labor inherited from the Fraser Government - declining productivity, stagnant employment growth and recession - for the union movement it was a policy framework that by the end of Labor's time in power had well and truly passed its used-by-date. Ultimately the Accord benefited political Labor more than industrial labour.
Greg Combet, who will succeed Bill Kelty, confronts an ACTU structure that is struggling for relevance. The national union movement is, without a doubt, in crisis, membership levels are dropping both relatively and absolutely. In the past few years the ACTU has operated as if the Accord partnership had only been suspended whilst there was a brief interlude between Labor governments, its Executive passing resolutions that had no real effect. The changing structure of the labour market and the sustained period of conservative government federally mean that the ACTU can no longer rely on Kelty's political approach to asserting trade union influence.
Unions are faced with the challenge of reinventing themselves. It is not just a case of going back to the pre-Kelty approach of direct bargaining for over-award payments in a regulated labour market. Unions need to learn new skills and approaches. We must learn to organise a new workforce: nurturing and invigorating groups of workers who have no background in unions and are sceptical of their benefits, but are as in need of them as any workers in the past 100 years.
It's no longer possible to sell unionism as a concept, organising is about working with the issue that workers find important and empowering them to address those issues through their own collective action. This represents a tremendous paradigm shift for a union movement conditioned during the Kelty period to believe that the right structure was the key to salvation. Large industrial age trade union bureaucracies have to give way to networks of workplace activists.
The Organising approach will inevitably bring into question the very need for structures such as the ACTU and State Peak Councils. Combet's challenge is to reassert the ACTU's relevance through its ability to let go of authority and devolve it back to the workplace. His challenge is to eschew certainty in the master plan and accept that in the contemporary labour market, traditional central structures are a hindrance rather than an asset to worker empowerment.
Interview: Stepping Up To The Plate
ACTU secretary-in-waiting Greg Combet talks about his report on international trade union trends and the need to adapt for the future.
Work/Time/Life: The Good Type of Wharf Security
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has locked in better job security for casuals as part of its collective agreement with P&O Ports.
International: Venezuela Warned By Global Labour Group
Venezuela's new Constituent Assembly has drafted a decree providing for the dissolution of the country's national trade union organisation, the CTV.
Legal: Politically Motivated Case Against Unionist Fails
A politically motivated extortion case against Eric Wicker, a long-time trade unionist on the Port Kembla waterfront has failed.
Republic: Direct Election Republicans who say YES Ö and MORE!
Despairing at the sight of Ted Mack and Phil Cleary fronting for Kerry Jones and the Australians for A Constitutional Monarchy? Appalled at the disastrous strategy and paralysis of the Australian Republican Movement? A significant group of Republicans has an answer for you!
Unions: Technology for the Times
New technology offers exciting opportunities which help union growth, according to this extract from [email protected]
History: Australian Unions and Industrial Action 1788-1900
A project is under way to compile a comprehensive record of unions, informal worker organisation and strikes from the period of European settlement to 1900 using a specially designed computer database.
Review: Stage Left! - Workers Theatre Hits the Mark
'Rare' is the word on the Melbourne Workers Theatre production, 'Who's Afraid of the Working Class?' currently touring the eastern states of Australia.
Satire: Australia's Most Earnest
Strewth magazine scours the cultural landscape for its inaugural Earnest Bastard of the Year Award.
View entire latest issue
© 1999-2000 Labor Council of NSW
LaborNET is a resource for the labour movement provided by the Labor Council of NSWURL: http://workers.labor.net.au/27/c_tradeshall_kelty.html
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005