Academic journal article Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

American Labour Law as a Model for Australia? or, Can You Get Here from There?

Academic journal article Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

American Labour Law as a Model for Australia? or, Can You Get Here from There?

Article excerpt

Let me begin on a personal note. I first came to Australia in 1984 as a visiting professor at the University of Sydney, courtesy of my friend Steve Salsbury, who was a dean of some kind and liked to have old pals around. I had left a country where the labour movement was already in a bad way. Thirty years of New Deal liberalism had ended, and we were into a new age of American conservatism. One of Ronald Reagan's first acts as president was to fire all 14,000 air controllers for engaging in an illegal strike, signaling that it was okay for American employers to do likewise, which, after decades of restraint, they did with a vengeance. Strike-breaking--striker replacement, as it was politely termed--became the norm, and, because losing a strike often meant losing a job and even union representation, American workers soon stopped striking. In the manufacturing sector, the heart of union power, the steel sector was shutting down, non-union foreign transplants, so-called, out-competed the unionised American car companies, and an industry like meat-packing, once heavily unionised, reverted to sweated conditions very like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The signal struggle of that era--dramatised in the film Norm Rae that some of you might remember--was against J.P. Stevens, a big textile manufacturer, which lasted for nearly 20 years and, while it ended in a symbolic union victory, in fact it showed employers how easy it was to defy the labour law. In 1984, as I de-planed, our labour movement was already spiraling down to where it is today, at 7.5 per cent of the private-sector labour force.

So you can imagine that stepping on to Australian soil seemed like entering an alternate universe. The Labor Party had just returned to power. The Premier, Bob Hawke, himself had come out of the unions. And the cornerstone of the new government's program was the Prices and Incomes Accord, with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) as principal player. There aren't good American words to describe my sense of Australia at the time, so I'm appropriating the words that Julia Gillard used when she introduced the Fair Work Bill last November: that Australia was a place that believed in the fair go, in mateship at work, and, ever since the Harvester decision of a century ago, in a living wage--a country like other great capitalistic democracies, 'but without their wide social inequalities'. I know that some of you are smiling at my naivete. Still, everything is relative, and to me, as a refugee from Reagan's America, the Australia of 1984 seemed too good to be true.

Which of course it was, because even then it was clear--I think signaled by the Accord itself--that on many fronts, including the awards-based industrial-relations system, Australia was no more able to resist the forces of globalisation than America. Ever since--you know this of course better than I do--the Australian labour-relations regime has been in the throes of change--throes is really the right word--and has just now come out at the other end, with Fair Work Australia. In the US, the labour law has similarly been in a state of siege, although our struggle began earlier, with a major, ultimately failed, effort at reform in 1978, another inconclusive round early in the Clinton years, and now, just contemporaneous with the battle that junked Work Choices, the American campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act.

All of this is by way of preface to the title of my talk today. You have to understand the timing. Charlie Fox invited me to speak at this conference in late August 2008. At that point the prospects for the Employee Free Choice Act looked pretty good. It had been endorsed by the Democrats, and they were almost certainly soon going to be in charge--White House, both Houses of Congress, the whole works. In Australia, the Rudd government was still formulating the Fair Work Bill. So, on labour law reform, both countries seemed more or less in the same place. …

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