The 1993 ACTU Congress: Rewriting the Rules

By Davis, Edward M. | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, December 1993 | Go to article overview

The 1993 ACTU Congress: Rewriting the Rules


Davis, Edward M., The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


Extensive revision of the ACTU's rulebook distinguished the 1993 Congress. Policies passed at the 1987 Congress encouraging affiliated unions to embark on amalgamations had borne fruit (ACTU, Future Strategies, 1987 and Davis, 1988, pp.119-121). The number of affiliated unions in 1993 was much reduced with the great bulk of members now in 20 unions or union federations. The structure of ACTU decision making, based on the traditional profile of the movement, therefore required major surgery.

The 1993 Congress was held from 30 August to 3 September in one of the large auditoria at Sydney's Darling Harbour. As at the previous Congress at Melbourne's World Trade Centre, there was the feel of a business convention; smart tiered seating, an imposing platform, a large video screen, sporadic bursts of muzak and the trill of mobile phones. ACTU Assistant Secretary Bill Mansfield announced on the first day of Congress that there were 730 credentialled delegates from 72 affiliated unions, six state Labor Councils and eight provincial Labor Councils. Many unions again took advantage of 'plural voting' enabling a delegate to exercise between one and four votes (ACTU Rules, S.5.2(i)d). (1) The Finance Report to Congress indicated that there were 80 affiliated unions covering 2.6 million members. There were, as usual, international visitors but none was invited to address the Congress.

The two years since the last Congress had witnessed several major developments. Hopes that the economic recession of 1991 would be mild and shortlived were not realised. The economy contracted sharply, unemployment rose to above 10 per cent and stuck. Slow growth in 1992 and 1993 proved insufficient to reduce the proportion without work. On the political front, Paul Keating became Prime Minister, defeating Bob Hawke in a Caucus leadership vote before Christmas 1991. With Labor low in the opinion polls and the economy in recession, re-election appeared most unlikely. The stakes were high for unions since the Opposition had indicated in Fightback! and later in Jobsback!, Coalition reform blueprints, that it intended to limit severely union power and influence (Fightback!, 1991, p. 13 and 267 and Jobsback!, 1992, pp.18-22).

Unions pulled out all the stops in the 1993 federal election campaign. In the aftermath, Secretary Bill Kelty commented that unions had provided an unprecedented level of organisational support, especially targeting workers in marginal electorates (ACTU, Workplace, Autumn 1993, p.5). A product of the campaign was the unveiling and subsequent endorsement by unions of Accord Mark 7. As with the first and sixth Accords, announced respectively during the 1983 and 1990 election campaigns, the intention was to demonstrate the broad economic and social benefits of the partnership between the Australian Labor Party and unions. Accord Mark 7 committed the government to the reduction of unemployment. Government and unions pledged themselves to continue the devolution of wage fixation by encouraging bargaining at industry and workplace levels, to the retention of award wages and conditions as a safety net and to measures to retain "an inflation rate comparable with those of our major trading partners" (ACTU, Putting Jobs First, 1993, S.5.2).

On March 13 1993 Labor won a stunning and most unlikely victory, securing the Party's return for an unprecedented fifth term. Jubilation in union ranks subsided as it became apparent that the Prime Minister and his new Minister for- Industrial Relations, Laurie Brereton, intended to push hard for the rapid spread of enterprise bargaining. In a speech in April 1993, the Prime Minister said, "We need to find a way of extending the coverage of agreements from being add-ons to awards, as they sometimes are today, to being full substitutes for awards" (P.J. Keating, April 1993, p.ll). The concern expressed by unions was that the government intended to dismantle the award system. …

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