Bill Kelty speaks about Laurie Carmichael

The below is an excerpt from a speech delivered by Bill Kelty, Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions from 1983-2000 about Laurie Carmichael's life, accomplishments, impact on the labour movement and Australian politics, and the legacy he leaves today.


Laurie Carmichael … was probably involved directly and indirectly with more industrial disputes than any other individual unionists, yet was a person of peace, persuasion, humanity and humility.


The Early Days

Born in 1926, Laurie Carmichael came from a ‘fairly poor family’ – his father an iron moulder.  The sheer exhaustion of the work left an indelible mark on his life.  The appreciation of the working ethos of families struggling to survive in the toughest of economic times.  His poor health and his innate search for knowledge sent him to the local Library.  ‘I would be studying music when others would be playing football’.

As [Carmichael] was growing up in the thirties the depression and the development in world politics would frame his political and industrial view for a lifetime:

“One could not live at the time without being affected one way or another by the polarization of society under the impact of Naziism on the one hand and democracy on the other".


Carmichael’s Communism

[Carmichael] went to the Soviet Union in 1979.  I saw him when he came back.  He had been changed forever.  On his first day they offered him women when all he wanted was a good cup of tea.  On the second day when he put forward an interpretation of communism that was more liberal and practical, he was asked to leave.

Carmichael’s communism was a complex philosophy.  He believed that capitalist societies generated an inherent contradiction that would eventually lead to their transformation. He believed that unions could be agents to change societies. The ultimate state was to give people more independence and self-belief. Left to its own devices, the power of capital would stagnate.

Carmichael’s view was that Industrial strength needed to be managed and developed and most importantly it must be applied for the benefit of all not just some.

For Carmichael the power of the union was real, but … [u]ltimately, class struggle was not confined to a workplace but for gender, race and the world at large.

[H]e was a unionist all his life believing in the power of working people to better their lives but understanding the importance of leadership and strategy.


Carmichael and the Unionists of the 1960s

Laurie joined the AEU [Amalgamated Engineering Union] on the first day he could. He remained a member for his entire life. By the time he was 24 he was a shop steward at the Dockyard. In 1951 he was elected to the Melbourne District Committee. He was 33 when he became Secretary in 1958.

His first major industrial campaign was to increase annual leave from two weeks to three weeks.  The NSW Labor Government had legislated for three weeks annual leave in NSW.  In Victoria the leave provisions were covered by the Federal Metal Industry Award.  The employer resented its extremism.  The Victorian Government under Sir Henry Bolte refused to legislate similar conditions.

Carmichael went to the members, explained the position, developed the resolution in support of it, made the claims and initiated industrial action – targeting the key companies set back temporarily by the 1961 credit squeeze. By 1963 the Arbitration Court established three weeks as a standard provision.

The dispute with GMH, over wages and work organisation … sharpened and honed his industrial and political views.  The Taylorist organisation of work, the lack of respect and understanding of the multicultural workplace, the inadequate return for workers and the capacity of multinational corporations to take the best from each national without contribution, confirmed his view of militancy but strengthened the commitment that a union had a greater responsibility than just wages – the quality of working life, education industrial democracy. 

The employers in the industry, and the Liberal Government were joined by the main media, Bob Santamaria and even many in the ALP and ACTU continuously denounced him.

Work Value and the Penal Sanctions

One thing was for certain.  The employers were fearful even frightened.  His toughness and determination seemed impenetrable. There was little doubt that Laurie Carmichael was a key co-ordinator of the industrial campaign against the penal sanction. The campaign against the bans clause was about the right of unions to bargain.  To exercise union power there must be bargaining rights.  Therefore, the rule of law which limited this capacity would limit the utility of unionism.

The story tellers and keepers of history in the Left would later tell me of the importance of Carmichael in the Bans Clause dispute of the late 1960s.  They would meet and wait for Laurie Carmichael.  When people got excited and wanted to accelerate action he would quietly say “not now/not yet there is still work to be done, education to be undertaken.  If we go on the attack we are the ones undermining society, we must not respond yet we must wait.  They will go too far. Then we will”. The jailing of Clarrie O’Shea was the step too far.

When Carmichael smiled they knew he judged it was time. He was a genius.  His gentility belied his strength until he spoke.  It was like facing a falling brick wall of argument and reasoning.  It was best to get out of the way.

He would be contested at every election until 1985 when he ‘retired’ to become Research Officer.  He became the most unpopular union leader of the time, possibly of all time.  But he won every election, albeit narrowly on every occasion.

As an observer of Laurie Carmichael of the 1960s I became a confidant, supporter and ally.


The Oil Industry Shorter Working Week Campaign

The battle cry for the hours of work campaign was sounded in early 1972.  Not by the Unions but by the Employers, who determined they would not negotiate with the Engineering Unions unless the Unions agreed they would not pursue the issue of reduced hours.  The Employers created what became an issue of principle - the principle of an employer telling the unions what they could and could not ask for.  It was made for Carmichael and gave him the opportunity to pursue his claim with greater authority and weight.

Support for a 35-hour week was minimal amongst some union members accustomed to working 48 hours on a regular basis.  Carmichael listened patiently and quietly as these fears were played out.  However, as soon as the uncertainty started to take over the mood of the meeting Carmichael raised both his voice and his determination.  He did not question the intent of the Government or the employers rather he argued they had played the wrong card and given the unions the opportunity to win a shorter working week in an industry which would prove to be a catalyst for other industries.

Moreover, they had given the opportunity to campaign on principle.  Carmichael made it clear the AEU would not walk away from this chance.  His determination was apparent.  It would make no sense to oppose him for the unions would look divided and the Government would still have its issue and the arch enemy Laurie Carmichael in their firing line.

After the election had been won [by Whitlam] and it was now most likely that the Oil industry would concede a reduction in hours.  The discussions began in February 1973.

Prior to the meeting with the employer the unions met and to the surprise of most people Carmichael questioned the 35 hour week as the best outcome.  He argued for a survey of members as to the form in which they would prefer the reduced hours.

The survey resulted in very little support for a 35 hour week with clearly dominant preference for a 9 day fortnight and a 4 day week.  The survey itself served the twin purpose that Carmichael had argued for – the employers would realise there was now an expectation that had to be fulfilled; and that the workers were involved in the promotion and understanding of the issue.  However, it also confirmed that the eight hour day was now no longer a sacred objective.

By 1974 the union had won for the first time in history a negotiated 9 day fortnight.  Carmichael was the catalyst for this achievement.  However, as we celebrated over our customary cup of tea he confided that this was just a step in a much bigger campaign to reduce hours of work for all workers.


Carmichael, the ALP Government and Whitlam

The 1972 to 1975 period of Government was both exciting and disappointing.

As the economy deteriorated, with inflation and unemployment rising, and the polls showed a deterioration in support for the Labor government, the search for scapegoats began on both sides of the political equation/ both sides of politics.  Both sides resurrected the ghosts of the past – the militant Left and militant unionism and Carmichael was head of the list.

The Labor Government was falling apart. The ACTU Congress in 1975 was to be a stage where Gough Whitlam confronted his trade union enemies.  It was held in the South Melbourne Town Hall.

Every delegate knew that this would be the last Congress that Whitlam would ever address as Prime Minister.  When I inferred this to Laurie I remember him saying “He deserved more really.  Next time we will need more time and understand more”.  It was generous, insightful and constructive and it was the conversation upon which the Accord would be built.

He would later say to Michelle Grattan:

“I regret that we did not insist on a much closer relationship with Government and a much closer relationship between wages and the economy, between the industrial wage and the social wage.  We did not calculate adequately enough and accurately enough just how society would carry reform within the terms of its productive capacity and its inequitable distribution of power including the international dimensions.”


The Centralised System and the Hours Campaign

The centralised wages system was put into place by the Labor Government.  It did not sit easily with Carmichael, but he ultimately accepted the reality of it.  In his discussions with me he made three points.  First, there always had to be a period of consolidation of gains as workers generally caught up with newly established conditions; second, unions could expand their agenda including industrial democracy; and third, the hours campaign would only be suspended as no centralisation system could last for long.

It was never easy to improve wages or conditions without the bargaining power of workers being exercised.

The centralised wages system of the late 1970’s marked a truce and an uneasy truce for a defined period.  Carmichael lived up to his word as he sought to broaden our trade union strategy on the Arts, Industrial Democracy and adjusting to technological change.

When Carmichael’s speech to the International Metal Workers’ Union Conference calling for a reduction in working hours was made, it immediately lit the funeral pyre of the centralised wages system.

We agreed on three fundamental points.  We would both support a campaign, seek to implement it through the centralised system for as long as possible, and we would not abandon the claim for reduced hours so as to maintain the centralised wage fixing system.  The ACTU would publicly support the campaign and it would be the ACTU Reduced Working Hours strategy.

The ACTU Congress in 1979 adopted the Shorter Working Week Campaign and we began to process the claim strategically beginning in those industries where there was a connection to the achieved standard in the oil and stevedoring industries or where there were a substantial proportion of clerical and administrative employees working 38 hours or less.

The scene was set for one of the toughest campaigns in Australia.

Carmichael brought into play his warriors – loyal and supportive organisers and delegates, who listened carefully, followed his advice and would never take a backward step unless he consented.  You could see how ten people could influence a hundred, and a hundred convince a thousand.  Witnessing this organisation of ideas and believers was a sight to behold.  The arguments were honed and crafted meeting after meeting.

Finally, the arguments resonated.  It was unfair that the workforce was divided between white collar and blue-collar workers on the issue of hours.  It was unfair that workers had not received a fair share of the distribution of productivity and that some workers had already secured reduced working hours, while others had not.  Workers were voting overwhelmingly in support of the claim and were prepared to take industrial action.

When the centralised system finally collapsed the campaign had made so much headway it was irreversible.

Carmichael brought it all to a head when he negotiated with Bert Evans the 1981-1983 Metal Industry package.  The 38-hour working week was established as the new national standard.

[The 38-hour working week] campaign showed the steel, stamina and style of Carmichael.  It was conducted as a form of industrial warfare.  The targets established, the pressures built, and the members persuaded that this was a fight for them.

Bert Evans would describe Carmichael campaigns as fearsome and strategic.

The campaign had seen the IRC ban productivity bargaining, end indexation but ultimately establish the 38-hour week standard for all employees in the country.  There would be more industrial action over the issues of hours of work than at any period in Australia’s history.

Not at any stage before had Carmichael been so closely intertwined in the implementation of ACTU policy.


Prices and Incomes Accord

The Prices and Incomes Agreement had been on the agenda since the 1975 Congress and the defeat of the Whitlam ALP Government.

Carmichael had been convinced that supportive Governments could establish long term gains, that union inputs into those Governments would give them more substance, that the world was changing, and adjustments had to be made and that bargaining could be channelled through centralised means.  He also became convinced that if he could work with the ACTU he would be listened to, respected and involved in a constructive way.  He could have real and lasting influence on the policies of the time both directly through his union and collectively through the ACTU.  He came to the view that his influence could be extended beyond the experience of any other member of the Communist Party.

The Accord took on a new significance as the economy crumpled, unemployment soared and an ALP Government became more likely.  It was essential however to prove that the ALP could manage the economy.

Carmichael was involved directly in the discussions and he specified four essential conditions.  First, that the Accord would cement the Metal Industry settlement, second that unions were involved in the processes, third that industry policies for adjustment of the economy were included and fourth that a national health system was introduced as a priority.

Both Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke gave him these understandings.  Charlie Fitzgibbon, Simon Crean and I continually reinforced Carmichael’s essential conditions as issues of substance.

Carmichael’s influence and integrity were the key to gaining the broader Left commitment.  There was considerable scepticism in many quarters, particularly in the Left, but Carmichael was able to soothe some concerns and ultimately led to a broad-based acceptance of the Accord.


Relationships with Bob Hawke, John Button, Brian Howe, Paul Keating and John Dawkins

Carmichael was able to establish critical relationships with the ALP Government, Brian Howe, progressively Paul Keating and later John Dawkins.

Laurie Carmichael’s relationship with Bob Hawke was a combination of respect and suspicion.  He was dubious about Bob Hawke’s conviction on penal sanctions, thought that his style was too personal and abhorred his drinking ethos.  However, he admired his intellect, his stand against apartheid, commitment to education and Medicare and advocacy.

Bob would say “that while I have never been able to agree with Carmichael’s political philosophy, Laurie is straight to deal with.  You know where you stand with him and if he gives you his word, he keeps it.  He’s tough but reliable”.

Laurie Carmichael had enormous respect for the former Minister [Brian Howe].  He was a conduit to the Labor Party Left, many of whom were both fearful of Carmichael and cynical of the Accord.

Together with Martin Ferguson, Carmichael worked assiduously with Brian Howe on the development of the social wage … Here was the Left of the ALP and the Left of the Union Movement working together to establish some long-term gains.  Carmichael was particularly proud of Brian Howe’s initiatives termed supplementary payments.  Here was an example of raising the income of lower paid workers without raising the costs on employers.

From my perspective there were two significant statements that both reflected the change in Australia in the 1980’s and laid the basis for future change.  The first was Paul Keating’s warning that unless the nation changed its ways we would become a ‘Banana Republic’. The other was Laurie Carmichael’s speech to the ACTU Congress in [YEAR?] reflecting what he had said privately for some time, regarding the need for a productive economy … Keating the change agent and Carmichael the wealth creator would prove to be compatible and complementary in reframing the nation.

[Keating] listened to Carmichael.  He knew one thing, that his support was an essential condition; if not his support at least not his opposition.

Carmichael’s intelligence was attractive to Keating, as they both possessed an ability to discuss and debate issues concretely; they shared many common interests particularly in classical music, and they saw Australia in a changing world.  Both of these two men possessed a universal spirit.

In short, they shared a romantic vision for the world in which peace, music and arts and architecture played a major part.


Assistant Secretary of the ACTU

Bernie Taft, a long-standing communist … asked me about the ACTU Assistant Secretary position that had become available because of Bill Richardson’s retirement.  I told him that the Left had no vision.  They should be running Laurie Carmichael.  He was interested and then enthralled by the prospect.

As soon as it became known that Carmichael was a contender the telephone began ringing.  Every negative experience was raised.  How could we tell the world that Laurie Carmichael was an Officer?  I told them that the only surprise for the rest of the world was that Laurie was not the Secretary.  I would support him getting the position come what may.  The pressure receded and Laurie Carmichael became the Assistant Secretary and part of the team that would have to face the biggest changes in industrial relations in our history.



For Laurie the centre of industrial life was never about wages.  If there was a central element to his industrial efforts it was the capacity of a worker to have a life in which they could be fulfilled.  For that reason, education was the most important issue.

When he joined the ACTU as Assistant Secretary, he worked with Bill Mansfield in extending the education agenda and the education reforms became so associated with him they were known as the Carmichael Reports. From this report and activity, he argued that:

  • Unions should give education a higher priority in their dealing with employers;
  • There needed to be new streams of education for the new streams of work and work organisation;
  • The recognition of trades skills should be enhanced;
  • The recognition of the contribution towards wealth creation was enhanced;
  • Tertiary skills would be different into the next generation.

All these factors led to the establishment of the training levy in which employers were required to spend at least 1% of their revenue on training.

The understanding and mutual respect between John Dawkins and Laurie Carmichael was a significant factor in the promotion of this agenda.


Australia Reconstructed

The search for a practical demonstration of a way forward shifted to Scandinavia.  Every time we talked there was increased admiration for the Scandinavians.  It was an open society, where debate was encouraged, life was free, travel uninhibited but there was an overwhelming sense of compassion.  The unions were respected as partners who in turn reinforced the view that workers were also respected.  [Carmichael] would talk of Volvo as a leading exponent of industrial democracy.  It helped of course, that Sweden had a reputation as a peacemaker.

With Ted Wiltshire, an ex-AMWU officer and a close confidant of Laurie’s, now working in the Department of Trade under John Dawkins, proposals emerged for the ACTU to send a mission overseas to examine restructuring of the world economy.  The Australia Reconstructed Mission was put together.

The Mission went to Sweden, France, England and Germany.  The essence of the report was left for me and Laurie to settle on; Ted provided the working drafts.

We finally concluded that the power of the ACTU had to be returned to the Unions.  However, before it was done, we needed to cement four things; the reform of the wage system, superannuation extended, reform and investment in education and prepare Unions for a changed work environment.

The policy was more interventionist than the Government wanted, called for more co-operation from employers than they were prepared to give and underestimated the retarding impact of the Industrial Relations Commission and the market pressures that were building up.


Award Restructuring

Australia had developed a comprehensive and complicated system of wage protections.  However, it was a wages system in peril.  A comparable system in New Zealand had collapsed and represented a beacon for zealous reforms in Australia.

For Carmichael the reform of the Award system should reflect the modernisation of the working environment.  The “Taylorist” work model was embodied in the award system with over 50 classifications.  There was inadequate recognition and incentive for education and qualifications; Award restructuring was born.  Simplification, enhancement for skill recognition and the creation of a national minimum system.  It would involve changing relativities and behaviour on a scale only the most confident or silliest would contemplate.

It was the single most important reform in Award fixation since its introduction.  It involved multi-skilling, differential wage increases, absorption of over-awards and significant new measures for skill and training.



As a practicing unionist [Carmichael] combined extraordinary intellect, strategic genius and practical capacity to improve the position of working people.

There is hardly a condition of employment that was not impacted by the campaigns that he led.  His campaigning strategy was unambiguously a struggle for the class of working people.  Education, agitation, localized achievement, consolidation and universalisation.  This is what Laurie did.  He used the strong for the benefit of all.

However important were the industrial objectives of money and time, there was in some sense a greater cause that drove Laurie Carmichael – the absolutely extraordinary passion of his to advance the quality of life of working people and those without access to power and influence – this translated itself into industrial democracy, to the right to strike, to respect for the environment, to striving for peace, safety at work, indigenous rights, health care, arts and culture and in a sense most importantly, education.

The lives of every Australian have been richer for the contribution [Carmichael] has made to the fabric of this country.  This is not wealth that is measured in money but a wealth that is measured in value and ideas and inspiration and sheer character.  Laurie was a great and remarkable and larger than life man, a wonderful and inspiring trade unionist and a champion for workers who has made an extraordinary contribution to workers and to this country.