A Long View From The Left: From the CPA to the ALP, a lifetime of fighting for Australian workers’ rights.
Published by Bad Apple Press Sydney.
by David Cragg
These memoirs are a heady mix of hope and despair. The author, Max Ogden, is a lifelong unionist and political activist whose passion and optimism shines through on every page of his entertaining account of politics and unions from the 50s to the 00s. Unfortunately, the bitter truth is that many pages record setbacks and distractions, some inflicted by opposing politicians and employer groups but others self-inflicted. Lessons have to be learnt from defeats as well as from victories.
We all know plenty of reminiscences from erstwhile Labor politicians, and the machinations of smoky backrooms and press leaks can be gripping reading. There are also plenty of earnest and worthy union histories, usually lionising various stolid past secretaries. But getting a well-curated collection of useful “war stories” from a practitioner with a strategic slant is a lot rarer — and Max’s edited highlights of 50 years’ activism make many points of contemporary relevance that ring true today.
Max is positive about Australia’s future potential, coming out of a (now sadly diminished) great Australian heritage of heavy engineering and metal manufacturing. He became a unionist in 1955 as a 2nd-year apprentice at the SECV, and remains one today. His union, the AEU (from 1972 the AMWU), was probably Australia’s most prominent industrial organisation from say 1945 to about 1985 — and Max was part of the union at its prime. It was ideological, activist — training hundreds if not thousands of workplace union delegates — and prepared to put resources into putting economic analysis and policy responses into local newsagencies, for the general public.
As one of Australia’s first generation of professional union trainers, Max helped put creating a positive workplace culture on the agenda in this country. He led an AEU state education committee from 1968, ran courses from 1969 and was the AMWU Victorian Branch’s full-time trainer from 1973. The AMWU first among unions — together with the non-ideological Workers’ Education Association — laid the foundations for the creation of the Australian Trade Union Training Authority by the Whitlam Government in 1975, with a dedicated national campus “Clyde Cameron College” in Wodonga. Max was active in TUTA councils from the beginning until the end.
The other strength of the AEU-AMWU was its internationalism, which may have been initially driven by partisan political alignments. In the longer term, though, the overseas links of the AMWU drew it to comparative studies in overseas union structures and tactics, a maturity rarely found in Australian union circles which were content to operate within the safe and predictable domestic parameters of a well-established statist arbitration system, drawing its authority from social consensus and a mild level of coercion.
Max and his union started from a Marxist viewpoint, wanting to shake the foundations. Perhaps they succeeded, but not in the ways that they foresaw. He joined the Communist Party in 1959, and frequently visited Soviet bloc countries from 1959 onwards — clearly a trusted comrade, he was elevated to the CPA state committee in 1963 and national committee in 1967. Along the way, he worked briefly as a full-time political activist overseas and as a CPA paid official in Victoria.
Perhaps ironically, Max’s formative experiences overseas were in democracies he passed through rather than the Soviet Union — a 1965 stay at a union-owned training facility in Finland, and then a 1978 stay in Sweden where he made life-long social democrat friends. Since then, Max has been a most articulate advocate of “Nordic” union strategies to embed social and workplace change. This new sort of social contract, quite distinct from the traditional “conciliation and arbitration” pillar of the early 20th Century Australian Settlement, underpinned the 1983 ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord and much of the economic changes in Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. It is perhaps best epitomised in the ACTU’s “Australia Reconstructed” 1986 mission to Europe, endorsed at 1987 ACTU Congress.
Max — together with other Victorian CPA comrades — resigned ‘en bloc’ from the Party in 1984, and joined a non-party policy group “Socialist Forum”. After 25 years in the Communist Party, Max served a statutory 12 months in limbo and then joined the ALP in 1985. (In passing, it is worth noting the extraordinary centrifugal pull of the Bob Hawke period — by 1990, the bulk of both Communist Party and National Civic Council union officials had gravitated to the ALP. Perhaps both extremes found the promise of constructive power too tempting?)
The Accord is a process of positive engagement very close to Max’s heart. Accord Mark I signed off in February 1983 underpinned the election of the Hawke Government one month later. This heralded the dawn of a golden period in Australian tripartitism, with modifications and supplements running successfully through to Accord VI in 1990. A 1990 highlight was the inclusion in the Metal Industry Award of a clause prohibiting “harsh, unjust or unreasonable” job dismissals as an award breach.
Max was a long-time colleague and collaborator working with Laurie Carmichael at both the AMWU and later the ACTU (where Max served as skills formation, and later industrial, officer 1988-2000). Many commentators correctly mark out Carmichael as the most influential union thinker and organizer in post-war Australia, as an AMWU full-time official 1958-87 and ACTU assistant secretary 1987-93. In the absence of any Carmichael memoirs, Max’s book is a good insight into the thinking which guided AMWU strategies in the 1960s-70s and ACTU restructuring in the 1980s-90s, from a colleague and friend who was debating ideas, and collaborating, with Carmichael throughout this period.
The critical importance placed on industry-by-industry organizing and industrial strategizing was hammered home by CPA party elder LL Sharkey in a widely influential monograph “The Trade Unions” (1942, revised edition 1959). This is the policy context for the discussions and debates the young Ogden and slightly older Carmichael would have enjoyed at Marx School classes in the 1950s. In the 1980s it saw fruition in tripartite policy structures such as the Australian Manufacturing Council and the National Training Board (later chaired by Carmichael).
The industrial approach has its moments in Australian union history. At one stage, the CP promoted sectoral unions such as the Building Workers Industrial Union and the Pastoral Workers Industrial Union (briefly challenging the AWU). The BWIU survived to become a constituent in 1992 of the amalgamated CFMEU. A later strategy in the 1940s was multi-union alliances such as the Building Trades Federation and the Metal Trades Federation. The MTFU tried to coordinate industry-wide campaigns into the early 2000s.
Part of the “award restructuring” process guided by the ACTU in the late 1980s was the government-funded project to encourage wholesale union amalgamations. From well over 100 unions, the ACTU target — reflecting European experiences recorded in “Australia Reconstructed” — was to have 20 industry-specific “super” unions. By 1995, the number of unions had fallen by more than half and today the number hovers around 40.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, union amalgamations have not helped the ACTU and have not helped industry-wide campaigning on the ground. Settling in merged bodies, often with very different union cultures, has preoccupied officials and sometimes wasted vast amounts of workers’ money in terrible internal brawls. Where amalgamated unions have stabilised, they are now large enough to not require a coordinating lead from the ACTU. The ACTU’s role in industry has shrunk with the shrinking number of unions it can call together. Now it appears the ALP has effectively outsourced its community campaigning needs to the ACTU, as a partner in a new sort of social contract.
Max is proud of his work at the ACTU in the 1980s up to 1996, bringing employers to the table to discuss improving skills acquisition and leading industry-wide coordination, in particular in food processing. The ACTU had a credibility proven on the ground in coordinating industry-wide strategies across vital pressure points in the Australian economy — airlines, transport & freight, steel production, vehicle building, energy & fuel resources and TCF.
This is a vacuum sorely felt today, and we can only hope that the Albanese Government is genuine in its commitment to rebuild Australian manufacturing and quality jobs. After 25 years of employer ascendancy and hard yards for the union movement, re-seeding the ground for positive tripartite cooperation will take some mighty effort and goodwill all round, but Max thinks it can be done. Simply reintroducing employers to the idea that loyalty to their employees is a smart business strategy, rather than a liability, will take years.
The Nordic approach emphasised the importance of unions talking to employers — whether the boardrooms were in Melbourne or Sydney, or Detroit or Tokyo — to identify common interests in strengthening industries and to manage competing demands. The AMWU-ACTU approach didn’t deny bottom line antagonisms but tried to be positive, and respected employer representatives like Bert Evans (MTIA) or Bob Herbert (AIG) prepared to negotiate in the pursuit of some shared national interest.
But Accord Mark VII confirmed in a National Wage Case decision of October 1991 launched the concept of enterprise bargaining (effective 1992), rather than industry-based bargaining. Keating replaced Hawke in December 1991, and in October 1993 Federal Parliament installed Accord Mark VIII, the last (and lamentable) accord — a victory for labor lawyers acting for both sides, unions & employers. The IR Reform Act 1993, introduced with the acquiescence of the ACTU, extended the concept of enterprise bargaining to include non-union agreements. It took unfair dismissal out of the award system, and created a separate (and profoundly unsuccessful) jurisdiction to deal with terminations. And it killed the effective tactic of short wildcat stoppages and created a notional “right to strike” that is deliberately cumbersome and rarely used.
The Australian Settlement of roughly 1901-14 delivered about eighty years of steady growth through a well-enforced award system of industry-wide pay and conditions, preference clauses giving a right of employment to union members, and a right to expect full-time and on-going employment except in rare circumstances (such as seasonal agricultural workers). This consensus built a strong union movement, but the consensus started to fray during the Whitlam Government 1972-75. By about 1991, the consensus had been replaced by a new social contract, the Accord.
But the Accord did not succeed in embedding good industrial relations, as evidenced by law changes from 1996 onwards. The 2007-2013 period in government is an embarrassing wasted opportunity, and the Coalition 2013-2022 had no great need to pursue any further changes in the law — they frequently pointed to the Fair Work Act 2009 and smugly inferred ‘this is the Labor status quo enacted by the ALP — our work here is done’.
Which makes the election of the Albanese Government in May 2022 — after the publication of Max’s book — all the more encouraging. The December 2022 IR reforms carefully shepherded through parliament by Minister Tony Burke are the first positive signs in Australian industrial relations since about 1990. They open up the possibility of industry bargaining, through the “supported bargaining stream” for traditionally low-paid workers. And they promise some tougher scrutiny of the widespread use of the fixed term employment contracts which have been allowed to become standard practice in undermining permanent jobs and keeping workers in precarious jobs difficult to organise.
As the December reforms progressively come on-line throughout 2023, we should in principle see an upturn in organising and campaigning. The harsh question is, is the movement well-enough to rebuild? It’s a work in progress.
Max identifies a Nordic element missing from the Hawke-Keating policy period — that achievements should not be transitory. The point of political change is to persist “even when conservative governments have gained power”. The Labor movement’s gains are only as good as their strength to withstand employer pushback. In the late 1970s, Labor was strong enough to successfully see off Fraser Government moves against TUTA — the movement wasn’t strong enough in 1996 to even rally a few employers to protect the practice of shopfloor training on productivity.
As Max observes, “management was too important to be left to managers”. The Howard Government with bare-faced contempt sold the TUTA concept to the ACTU in 1996 for a pittance, and Clyde Cameron College was converted into a hospital. That the union movement hasn’t put publicly-funded management and employee training back on the agenda 2007-2013 or today is incredible. While unions don’t have the community standing in 2023 that they had in 1975, they would surely be a major client — together with far-sighted employers — if public resources were put into management education.
The last chapter (20) of Max Ogden’s book is entitled “What does it all mean?” — it is a provocative summing-up that could easily stand alone as an instructive 27-page pamphlet setting out the main issues facing the movement today. This review hasn’t touched on many issues Max is still passionate to pursue — the structure and focus of the ACTU, the need for unions to concentrate on policy outcomes within the Labor Party, rather than parliamentary pre-selections, and the desperate need for the ALP to encourage and embrace the involvement of working unionists in the life of the Party. Max’s memoirs recount one person’s life, but they also encapsulate the promise and false starts of what our movement is today.
About the author
A life member of the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Workers’ Union, David Cragg is also a trustee of the Victorian Trades Hall & Literary Institute.