Laurie Carmichael & The Accord: A Contested Legacy

I first came across Laurie Carmichael in November 2020. Desperate to meet the looming deadline to submit a thesis proposal, I had spent days frantically leaping down academic rabbit holes in search of a suitable Honours topic. But after stumbling across Carmichael and the Prices and Incomes Accord, I knew I had found someone (and something) worth writing about.

Carmichael’s career was an exemplar of a lifelong dedication to solidarity and the working class. His innovative approach to trade union politics during the Accord years (1983-1996) has enduring significance for the Australian left – as it was Carmichael’s political and industrial strategies that helped guide the labour movement through this extremely difficult restructuring period.



Carmichael was the archetype of a battle-hardened 20th century unionist. Born in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Coburg in 1925, Carmichael – like so many members of his generation – was profoundly affected by the scarcity and harshness of the Great Depression. Deeply impacted by his family and friends struggle with unemployment during these years, Carmichael left school at age 14 in pursuit of a vocational career and the stable income it could provide.

After his departure from school, Carmichael progressed steadily along the radical pathway. From age 15, he was involved in the Eureka Youth League – the official youth wing of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). By 18, he was an official CPA member. In 1943, Carmichael also enlisted in the RAAF to fight fascism overseas. And, had Laurie not contracted rheumatic fever while completing air force training at the MCG, he may very well have done so. Following his days of service, Carmichael completed his fitter’s apprenticeship and found work at the Williamstown dockyards in Melbourne.

At the dockyards, Laurie escalated his involvement with the CPA and the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) – the CPA-affiliated union to which he belonged. Gifted with an impressive public speaking capacity and a ravenous appetite for socialist literature, Laurie’s potential for radical leadership was quickly recognised at the AEU. Twelve months after arriving at the dockyards, Laurie was elected shop steward, and within a decade he was appointed district committee secretary (the highest AEU position in Victoria). `

With the AEU securely under his progressive leadership thereafter, Carmichael went on to lead his union through the major political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, Laurie was seemingly at the forefront of every progressive campaign in Australia from the 1960s onwards. For example, Carmichael was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Many alive at the time still remember the frantic scenes at the Williamstown Court House in 1969, where Laurie, appalled by the conflict as both a father and a communist, was arrested alongside his wife Val for protesting their son Laurie Jnr’s conscription.

Equally as remarkable was Carmichael’s role in the general strike of 1969. As one of the first leaders of a major union to publicly call for a general strike against the federal government’s penal powers, Laurie was instrumental in delivering what is widely considered to be one of the greatest trade union victories in Australian history.


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RATs and Australian Manufacturing

Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) are an essential part of the Coalition government’s new policy framework for the current “Omicron phase” of the pandemic. RATs are essential for workplaces, schools, nursing homes and other locations at the heart of daily life.

It is false to assume that Omicron is less damaging than Delta, or even that Delta has gone away. The other obvious risk is that there will be another mutation into a new variant, requiring a new response.

The main purpose of the RATs is to get workers back in production and distribution, so that profit-making does not fall. It’s workers who make the economic world go around, not the businesses that employ them.

Deliberately, the government has set this policy knowing that there is insufficient supply of RATs to match the requirements of its own policy. Meanwhile, the supply chain crisis distracts from the making and supply of PCR tests.

Australia, overwhelmingly, relies on offshore manufacturing of RATs, but it didn’t have to be this way – and it still does not. Dependence on imported RATs could and should have been avoided. Locally made RATs have been possible but neglected or ignored.

Recently, the ABC reported on the potential for Australian mass manufacturing of RATs, but producers claimed they had received little support from the government to develop this capacity. One Australian firm has now set up manufacturing operations in the USA. In fact, the ABC report appeared the same day that the government confirmed the closure of 2 flagship funding schemes that would have helped these manufacturers and their potential workforces (see below).

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Rebuilding Vehicle Manufacture in Australia

A new report from the Carmichael Centre, Rebuilding Vehicle Manufacture in Australia: Industrial Opportunities in an Electrified Future details how the global transition to EV manufacturing is an enormous opportunity for Australia to rebuild its vehicle manufacturing industry. The report, written by Laurie Carmichael Distinguished Research Fellow, Dr Mark Dean, details how an EV-driven industrial future contains significant opportunities to take advantage of our competitive strengths in renewable energy, extractive industries, manufacturing capabilities and skilled workers.

Australia possesses many of the crucial elements for an EV manufacturing industry:

  • Rich mineral reserves,
  • An advanced industrial base,
  • A highly skilled workforce, and
  • Consumer interest.

The benefits of an EV manufacturing industry would be significant for our economy, society, and environment, and include:

  • Tens of thousands of good-quality manufacturing jobs.
  • Stimulus for further development of a high-technology supply chain.
  • Opportunity to utilise Australian mineral resources (including lithium and other rare earths) in value-added industries, thus expanding their value many times over.
  • Diversifying Australia’s export profile and reducing our dependence on raw resource extraction and export.
  • Complementing and reinforcing our accelerating transition toward non-polluting energy sources and systems.
  • Spurring enhanced innovation, research, and engineering activity in Australia – still recovering from the closure of mass vehicle manufacturing in the mid-2010s.
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The AUKUS subs: a sunk deal for Australian workers

Osborne is a suburb in Adelaide’s north, sandwiched between the Port River and the Gulf. It has one major industry – shipbuilding – at the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC).

At its peak, when producing the Collins-class submarines, under the memorably-named Hans Ohff, it employed around 2,000, mostly highly-skilled, workers. Many skilled tradespeople, technicians and engineers got their start there; it was a strong union shop as well.

The announcement of the new submarine project gave the workers at Osborne and ASC a new lease on life. Economic shock hit Adelaide’s northern suburbs when the car industry closed. First Mitsubishi in the late-1990s, and then most drastically, General Motors-Holden, closed after the policy effects of the federal government’s “lifters versus leaners” rhetoric denied any financial support to a car industry still reeling from the GFC. The Elizabeth area where Holden was located registered 30% unemployment after Holden closed in 2017.

During his brief time as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott tried to convince the Australian defence establishment that purchasing the Japanese Soryu-class submarine “off-the-shelf” was a smart strategic decision. This decision was condemned by that same defence establishment – but just as importantly by the workers and the communities of which they were a part.

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Australian Union Women - An Oral History Project

Click here: Australian Union Women - An Oral History Project website

By Sarah Kaine

In February 2016, Cathy Brigden and I sat drinking tea during a break in the annual AIRAANZ (Association of Industrial Relations Academics, Australia and New Zealand) Conference and began talking about the types of research projects we would ideally like to undertake. It didn’t take us very long to narrow it down, we were both interested in labour history, union renewal, the experience of women at work and voice at work.

We were also concerned that the rich and valuable contributions made by women in the labour movement were rarely acknowledged in contrast to the more frequently chronicled contributions of men. Part of this concern was that the activism and achievements of women in the movement were/are often invisible due to the historical legacy of fewer women holding official leadership positions in union structures. So – we landed on a project which we hoped would be part of efforts to address this - an oral history project to collect the stories of women activists – in their own words and in their own voices.

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Just Transitions and Green New Deals

The broad range of Just Transition proposals are necessary, but not adequate, to reverse climate heating. These proposals must be synthesized into a Democratic Just Transition that pursues an open-ended programme and strategy for transitions that unite all workers and communities.

For better or for worse there is now a plethora of “Just Transition” (JT) concepts and programmes. These are a response to the crisis facing humanity and the natural world with global heating. In some countries they are also described as a “Green New Deal” (GND). All of these and probably more will be promoted by their champions as humanity heads towards the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow in late October.[i] Many, but not all of them, contain rich material that shows what can be done to reverse the momentum of climate crisis by 2030.

However, the plethora of JT proposals and the ideas behind them can itself be an obstacle to winning the changes of direction that are required before 2030 and, that cannot be reversed after that. Some share commonalities and are seriously researched, with specific and detailed strategies for broad action. Others are conceptual or narrowly focused. Some proposals argue that the climate and economic crises are interconnected. Key examples of Just Transition proposals can be viewed  here, and here[ii]. Some proposals have been reviewed to demonstrate that the response must move the economy beyond capitalism.

How do we assess, from the point of view of workers, the different ideas and programmes that come before us? How do we synthesize a programme that can unite peoples’ mass organisations in a focused effort that more adequately forces change in the face of opposition?

In 1977 Laurie Carmichael, former President of the CPA, ACTU Assistant Secretary and AMWU Assistant National Secretary[iii], set out the why and how to put together a Peoples Economic Programme for those times (click here). He emphasized a clear critical analysis of the prevailing macro situation – the continuity and changes in the development of capitalism happening at that time.

Carmichael’s lecture (later a pamphlet) suggests a framework to help us in the union movement and the broad left to evaluate what is being put forward in our times and, to help synthesize what is available into a “programme of and by the people”.

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Post-COVID-19 policy responses to climate change: beyond capitalism?

A sustainable social, political and environmental response to the "twin crises" of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change will require policymaking beyond capitalism. Only by achieving a post-growth response to these crises can we meaningfully shape a future of jobs in renewable-powered industries shaped by organised labour, democratic values and public institutions. Anything less will merely create more markets and more technocratic fixes that reinforce the growing social and environmental inequalities that our current political system cannot overcome.

As Australia moves further away from anything resembling a sustainable pathway to reach these goals (i.e., $90bn submarines that we will not see for at least 20 years but no meaningful action on climate change), a new Labour and Industry article - co-authored by Laurie Carmichael Distinguished Research Fellow Mark Dean and Centre for Future Work Associate, Professor Al Rainnie analyses four alternative responses proposed by Australian unions, climate change groups and grassroots community organisations.

The first 50 downloads of the article are free and a pre-print of the article is available at the Carmichael Centre website here.

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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.

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Nordic Policies: Will Australia 'look north' again?

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.

Laurie Carmichael's legacy and its importance to Australia today

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.