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] 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.Read more
A recent review of The Nordic Edge: Policy Possibilities for Australia (edited by Andrew Scott, Deakin University and Rod Campbell, The Australia Institute) written by Benjamin Clark and published by Crikey has drawn attention to the public policy successes of the Nordic nations (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland). As the review makes clear, notions that these northern European nations are 'monocultural', or that their extensive social spending are only made possible by 'free markets' do not stand up to rigorous critique.
The book's wide-ranging coverage of social, environmental, employment and industrial issues all together reveal how the myth of high taxation/low-growth so often touted by conservative Australian politicians and commentators is easily debunked, alongside a number of other misconceptions about Nordic and Scandinavian nations - such as a widely held yet outdated belief that these nations are deeply homogenous (Sweden, for example, is ranked 9th in the world for refugee intake, whereas Australia is placed 50th).
The book uncovers truths about the 'Nordic Edge' that are difficult to refute when careful research shines a spotlight on pathways to prosperity focused on investments in public goods, rather than a deference to business-led investment.
Importantly, The Nordic Edge and it's coverage in Crikey also remind us of the instrumental role that Laurie Carmichael played in the Australian union movement's early embrace of the solutions that the policy responses of Nordic nations posed to social and economic problems during the 1970s and 1980s. Carmichael's role in the ACTU and TDC's Australia Reconstructed (1987) report highlighted in particular the positive policy initiatives of Sweden's unions in collaboration with its Social Democratic government, designed to bolster industrial policy priorities that protected workers, guaranteed full employment and ensured wages growth in step with corporate profits.
The Nordic Edge, and furthermore, Crikey's review of the policy ideas inspiring its proposals for Australia, are again at the fore of public debate about Australia's post-COVID-19 economic trajectory. These are very real and achievable political choices Australia can make. And it is worth remembering that these ideas are not new in the Scandinavian, nor the Australian context - Laurie Carmichael championed the Australian union movement's embrace of policy possibilities that break with the status quo of Anglosphere neoliberalism. The way forward for our political choices is in revisiting the positions Carmichael held 30 years ago and placing them at the centre of public policymaking in Australia today.
The review is behind a paywall, but subscribers to Crikey can access it here.
What values and vision can Australia look to in the 21st century to restore nation-building achievements of the labour movement?
Laurie Carmichael, trade union leader and activisit, was dedicated to collective values and principles that are deeply relevant to Australians today. As a nation, we again face the callous and corrupt rule of a Coalition government incapable of offering workers a vision that empowers them to participate in political, social and economic transformations that create quality jobs, a fairer society and a greener environmental future.
Carmichael's life was one of service to Australian workers. The values he held and the beliefs he demonstrated embodied ideas that all workers must hold close to their hearts when they next negotiate for better pay and conditions with increasingly powerful employers; when they next go to the ballot box to decide whether workers should have a bigger say in the economy or whether the investment banks, oligopolistic corporations and fossil fuel executives should decide what trickles down to the workers on a dying planet; and in choosing, in the workplace and in public life, whether this legacy might shape the union movement’s decades-long effort to leave future generations a better Australia – the kind that Laurie Carmichael wanted for all.
Exploring the legacy of Laurie Carmichael in this essay is how I have come to understand what unions have done for Australians, and how Carmichael’s values hold meaning for all workers. A study of Carmichael’s life and values uncovers guiding principles by which the Australian trade union movement could actively shape a social contract for the 21st century.