Michael Easson Profile in: Gerard Henderson, Australian Answers, Prominent Australians Speak About the Social, Political, Economic and Religious Shaping of our Time, Random House Australia, Sydney, 1990, pp. 120-131.
When I visited Michael Easson at the Sussex Street headquarters of the Labor Council of New South Wales he gave the impression of being very busy indeed. I was left biding my time for a considerable period before Mr Easson emerged from behind a security door to welcome me. Soon after, before the formal interview got under way, he had to excuse himself to take a call from the State President of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party. I made use of Michael Easson’s temporary absence to cast my eyes over his office book collection. Along with a Moscow 1938 edition of The Case of the Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites there were volumes on John Strachey, David Owen and the Australian poet James McAuley. There was also a carefully annotated copy of a book on Australian history which I wrote in 1982. I don’t know whether this was part of an elaborate tactic designed to impress me. In any event, I was impressed.
Michael Easson is one of many tertiary-educated activists who have moved into positions of power within the Australian trade union movement in recent years. In 1976 he did a BA honours thesis at the University of New South Wales on Karl Popper’s critique of Marxism. The following year he commenced an MA thesis on the Sydney philosopher and ex-Trotskyite John Anderson. Easson did not complete his MA but in the course of his preliminary research got to meet Laurie Short, another former Trotskyite who led the successful fight against the communist leadership of the Ironworkers’ Union in the 1940s. Easson was attracted by an offer of a job in the Ironworkers’ Union but settled instead for education officer at the Labor Council of New South Wales when Bob Carr vacated this position to become a journalist on The Bulletin in 1978. In 1984 Easson became assistant secretary and took over as leader of the NSW trade union movement in February 1989 when John MacBean was shuffled off to become a deputy president of the Industrial Relations Commission.
These days Michael Easson is firmly aligned with the dominant Centre Unity group in the NSW labour movement. But his first political experiences were on the left.
GH: You became active in the Labor Party in your youth?
ME: In my teenage youth, that’s right. When I first joined the Beverly Hills ALP branch in Sydney I was recruited by the left, but within 18 months I had moved away from that position.
GH: At what age were you recruited by the left?
ME: When I joined the party at the age of 19.
GH: And you had moved away from the left within a few years?
ME: Yes. At University I moved away from the left position studying in the School of Political Science at the University of New South Wales under people like Professor Doug McCallum. Bob Carr recruited me to Centre Unity. He joked at the time that it was like dragging me over the Berlin Wall. A friend of mine, John McCarthy, was also influential in that period.
Easson had only limited involvement in student politics during the 1970s. In 1977 he enrolled in Law at Sydney University and was soon expelled from membership of the left-dominated University of Sydney Labor Club for ideological heresy or some such crime. He was briefly active at Sydney in the Australia-wide campaign against the left- wing dominated Australian Union of Students and got to know other student activists such as Michael Danby and Peter Costello who were involved in the anti-AUS campaign.
In recent years Easson, along with Bob Carr, John McCarthy, NSW ALP State Secretary Stephen Loosley and Graham Freudenberg, has been busy building up the image of Sir William McKell (1891-1985). McKell was Premier of NSW from 1941 to 1947, resigning to become Governor-General of Australia. He fell out of grace with the labour movement when he granted a double dissolution to Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1951. There seems little doubt that McKell acted constitutionally in granting Menzies the dissolution. But the ALP at the time was in no state to fight a Federal election campaign and McKell was unfairly blamed by many for Labor’s defeat at the polls in April 1951. In recent years the powers that be in the NSW ALP have established McKell Schools for young members along with an annual McKell lecture. There is also a McKell Prize for the Environment. In 1988 Michael Easson edited a book which went under the odd title McKell: The Achievements of Sir William McKell.
GH: Why the fascination with McKell ?
ME: I’d never heard of McKell until I attended a lecture that John McCarthy gave to St George Young Labor in 1976. He talked about this brilliant man McKell and the Labor tradition he had established from 1939 when he became Leader, and how he had defeated the left and formed a very broad-based Labor Party. It seemed to me at the time it was absurd to be praising McKell to the skies until I delved into labour history and spoke to a number of people. Then I realised that John McCarthy’s judgment about McKell was right. Years later I came to know McKell and would pop out to see him at his place at Double Bay. In 1981 the Labor Council decided to give him a Scroll of Honour – Barrie Unsworth was instrumental in doing this to honour McKell’s achievements for the labour movement.
GH: But isn’t it overdone a bit? The Catholics have the Pope and the NSW Labor Party has got Saint McKell.
ME: I remember when I first heard of McKell – no one had promoted him. The myth of McKell has been developed over the last decade.
GH: What is the attraction? Is it merely that he defeated the left?
ME: He defeated the left. But he had a vision for improving New South Wales. He did immense things with the war effort, the Housing Commission, the Snowy Mountains Scheme and the development of a labourist view of politics. After McKell left, a kind of Tammany Hall Labor Party came into being in New South Wales.
One of the strengths of the Australian Labor Party is that it understands the importance of ideas in politics. For many years the left was in the intellectual ascendancy within the labour movement. But in recent years, particularly in New South Wales, the Centre Unity faction has attempted, with considerable success, to establish a social democratic centrist tradition as the predominant creed within the Australian labour movement.
GH: Are you also attempting to address the left-wing interpretation of trade unionism?
ME: That’s right. I think we, as sensible people in the labour movement, should be capturing the ideological high ground.
GH: Obviously you think that the left-right battle (to use the common labels) in the labour movement is still important.
ME: Yes l do, but I also believe that these factional differences have receded enormously over the last five years. It is interesting that Laurie Carmichael is now an assistant secretary of the ACTU and yet this does not excite much comment even though he is still a leading member of the Communist Party of Australia. I am of the view that he is an outstanding unionist nowadays. I think many criticisms can be made of what he was on about in the early 1980s, but nowadays I’m sympathetic with a lot of what he’s putting forward in the areas of award restructuring and industry training. To a great degree the ideological battles in the labour movement have receded as a much more responsible and pragmatic left has emerged.
GH: Why do you think this has happened? Has one group won, or another given up, or both?
ME: It is almost incomprehensible today that there were hundreds and thousands of trade unionists in the 1950s who really believed in communism – one of the differences between the situation in the late 1980s compared to the situation thirty years previously. No one believes in communism any more in any real sense. To that extent I believe that the left has been significantly eroded. But for historical and other reasons there is a group which identifies itself with left. It is pragmatic and on most questions has few differences with the view of the world on industrial relations and economic matters of a Bill Kelty or a Simon Crean or a Michael Easson.
GH: In other words, you are saying that your position on industrial relations is not much different any more from the broad left’s position.
ME: With the pragmatic left position.
GH: Which is now Laurie Carmichael’s position.
ME: Which is Laurie Carmichael’s position, which is Martin Ferguson’s position, but which is not George Campbell’s position.
GH: Is it Greg Harrison’s position?
ME: I think so.
GH: So Michael Easson, Martin Ferguson, Laurie Carmichael, Bill Kelty and Simon Crean are all saying much the same thing in the area of industrial relations.
ME: More or less.
The tight unity of the Australian trade union movement since the announcement of the ALP-ACTU Accord in February 1983 is a fact of political and industrial life. ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty has been able to draw together the likes of Laurie Carmichael and Michael Easson on industrial relations issues. This is a considerable achievement and demonstrates how the ACTU has been able to get its act together under the technocratic and tertiary educated leadership of Bill Kelty and Simon Crean. Modern trade union leaders are not so visible in the streets as they once were but they are certainly street-smart. Contemporary trade union bosses seem to have put aside the open-neck shirt for a tailored suit/white shirt and tie while the small but growing band of female trade union officials also seem to dress out of a David Jones catalogue.
There are, of course, differences within Australian trade unionism. But these days what unites the trade union movement, the quest for greater influence and power, is significantly more important than the ideological and internal rivalries which divide it. It is one of the ironies of modern Australia that the trade union movement has been able to rise in power and stature despite declining union membership (particularly among workers in the private sector) and despite the low approval ratings which union bosses invariably score in opinion polls.
GH: Obviously the Accord has been central to the developments since 1983.
ME: The Accord is a unifying concept within the labour movement which appeals to people from a social democratic tradition like myself and also appeals to people who would regard themselves as democratic socialists or socialists. The essential questions in industrial relations are very largely technocratic these days.
GH: Could it be that the Accord puts both traditions, the social democratic and socialist traditions, at the heart of government decision-making? In other words, it increases your influence especially during times of falling living standards.
ME: This has been a practical outcome of the last five years.
GH: The red-raggers may have gone or moderated but the union movement is extremely influential.
ME: That’s right. But I think the union movement has always been a pragmatic organisation.
At this stage Michael Easson the historian, took the floor. He quoted at some length from Tom Sheridan’s history of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, The Mindful Militants, and thesis that there was not much difference in industrial relations tactics, or indeed in militancy between the right-wing-inclined Industrial Groupers of the 1940s and 1950s and their left-wing counterparts. Easson believes that this theory holds especially true today and that it is particularly difficult to dislodge trade union leaders (whatever their policies) if they are paying attention to industrial relations issues and keeping their membership on side. This comment entails a considerable criticism of the leadership of the right-wing Clerks Union which has suffered a series of defeats in Victoria and Queensland in recent years.
GH: In a sense the moderating of the trade union movement which has occurred in recent years has made the movement more significant.
ME: Yes it has. And yet, at the same time, the trade union movement’s influence in terms of membership and penetration of the private sector is probably weaker than ever before in the post-War period.
GH: You are propped up by privileges enshrined in legislation.
ME: No. I believe we are propped up by being adaptable to changes in society and being sensitive to wages and industrial relations.
GH: Can I give you a basic statistic? At the moment trade union membership in the private-sector workforce is only 32 per cent and yet trade-union-derived award coverage among the private-sector workforce is about 80 per cent. In other words, the trade union movement through the industrial relations system is determining the pay and conditions of 80 per cent of the private workforce while only having membership among one third of that same workforce. Now there must be some privileges in existence that make this possible.
ME: It’s certainly the case that the industrial relations system supports the trade union movement and it is undoubtedly the case that the legislation underpinning the system ensures that the labour movement in this country has greater penetration than most other western countries. But the union movement’s current standing is very much dependent on how we react to current events. If the labour movement were to support a George Campbell view of the world then you would see the trade union movement broken, not only by a conservative Liberal-National government coming to power but by a Labor government forced to take tough action against the movement.
GH: Surely the harsh reality of those 32/80 per cent figures provides ample reason why the intelligent and politically astute group within the trade union leadership is going to stay with the Accord.
ME: That’s true and that’s also why the ACTU document Future Strategies for the Trade Union Movement points out why we need to pitch our appeal much better to those workers unconvinced about the need to join a trade union.
It would be foolish for anyone to underestimate the abilities of many of the current crop of young trade union apparatchiks who have moved into positions of power over the past decade. They are, almost to a man and woman, hard-working and articulate, with a very clear idea of what they are doing and what they hope to achieve. Whatever one may think of the ACTU’s Australia Reconstructed document it is a work of some merit, albeit a somewhat tedious read.
It is sometimes said that the late George Meaney was once asked in the days when he headed the AFL-CIO what the American trade union movement stood for. He is reported to have responded in one word: more. In recent years the Australian trade union movement has behaved with relative moderation on wages and conditions. However, it has been insatiable in its quest for more power in the decision-making process, especially in the crucial area of national economic policy.
The union movement’s successful drive for power in recent years has left it increasingly susceptible to charges of denying or hindering the individual rights of unionists and non-unionists. Not all the opponents of union privilege recognise just how susceptible the movement is to such charges. But some of the more able union leaders are repositioning their policy to deflect the criticism.
GH: Can I ask a more philosophical question? Why should workers be forced to join unions against their will?
ME: I don’t believe they should.
GH: So you don’t believe in the closed shop?
ME: I don’t believe in the closed shop.
GH: But you tolerate it. You sit up in your office here knowing that a lot of your members are members only because they work in closed shops.
ME: I believe in preference for unionists. In the United States, for example, what often occurs is that there may be an industry agreement that requires, in an industry or bargaining unit, that people belong to a trade union or that, if they are not inclined to belong to a union, that they pay a service charge to that union. That seems to me something that is worth exploring in New South Wales.
GH: So you are against the closed shop. But you admit that some closed shops exist.
ME: To the extent that they do I think that’s unfortunate and should not be allowed. I believe that there should be preference for unionists in awards and agreements and maybe voluntarily worked out. I also believe that there should be conscientious objection from any of those provisions.
GH: Why should there be union preference? Why should you get a job more readily if you are a member of a union than if you are not?
ME: It depends on your attitude to the industrial relations system we have. In a democracy often decisions and judgments are made as to conflict of interests and conflict of rights. The trade union movement is an essential part of sensible industrial relations and an essential component of pluralist democracy. Therefore, I believe the state should support the trade union movement on these grounds. However, in looking at preference arrangements, l believe that the penetration of the union movement is a relevant factor in determining whether a preference clause should be inserted into an award or whether an industrial tribunal should accept such a provision in an agreement.
Since around the turn of the century the privileges granted to unions in Commonwealth and State legislation have effectively denied such basic rights as freedom of contract and freedom of association. Strict provisions concerning registration have effectively prevented the creation of new trade unions and employer organisations. Moreover, all-embracing award provisions have prevented employees from making legal agreements with their employers to fit in with their own domestic requirements on such issues as starting and finishing times, hours and days of work. The result has been to create what can perhaps best be termed a demand-driven black market in industrial agreements. Towards the end of our discussion I decided to raise this sensitive issue.
GH: What about voluntary work agreements? A lot of them exist now but most are illegal. There is a massive black market out there not involving wages but rather conditions of work.
ME: Well, I wouldn’t call it a black market. I would say there are many voluntary arrangements in industry, that’s right.
GH: Do you think they should be encouraged? Or would you insist on a strict observance of award conditions?
ME: Well, I think that awards should provide for minimum standards in industry particularly where the union movement has significant membership. Those arrangements should promote to the greatest degree possible flexible working arrangements including agreements particular to companies or industries. I’m in favour of greater flexibility but controlled flexibility under a centralised system.
GH: Let’s just take hours for example. Any employer who agrees to depart from standard hours in order to accommodate the wishes of his or her workforce faces the risk of prosecution for an award breach.
ME: That employer generally would not have a problem if such an agreement were registered by the Industrial Relations Commission.
GH: But that means each employer fronting up before an industrial tribunal in Sydney or Melbourne or wherever. There are 700,000 small businesses in Australia.
ME: I believe that flexible working hours, if they are agreed to between employer and employee and provided they do not cut against award standards, should be automatically registered by the relevant industrial tribunal. Where they have significant implications for the award standard they should be argued out within the Industrial Relations Commission.
GH: But if every black-market agreement that exists now went before the Industrial Relations Commission the queues in Melbourne and Sydney would be enormous. How would the system cope?
Michael Easson is highly intelligent. Rather than answer the question he went on to query a claim I had made some time earlier to the effect that 80 per cent of the Australian workforce came under awards. He seemed to suggest at some length that while legally this was so, nevertheless it might not be so because, for some reason or other, award coverage did not necessarily mean award coverage, especially in certain industries and especially if no one found out. I made one last valiant attempt to establish my point in the face of a very able and determined adversary.
GH: Do you work award hours here in the Labor Council?
ME: No award covers me.
GH: Not you – your clerical staff, for example.
ME: Our staff? We have them on a nine-day fortnight and we have flexible hours for them coming in and leaving, so long as they work the 35 hours.
GH: Is that in accordance with a strict interpretation of their award?
ME: I have no idea.
I asked the Labor Council Secretary how he worked peacefully by day knowing full well that just outside his door technical award breaches may well be occurring on a regular basis. He denied that there were any such breaches taking place and argued that, in any event, the relevant union encouraged such flexible arrangements to take place. He also directed my attention to Chapter 3 of the Labor Council’s recent submission, A Fair Deal At Work: The Union Movement’s Agenda for Industrial Relations Change in New South Wales, which spells out in some detail the Easson plan to introduce flexibility within a centralised system. The document is an impressive one and proof, if proof were required, of the skill and historical depth of the contemporary trade union movement. However it did not resolve the question which I had raised.
Michael Easson wears many hats, including membership of the board of the State Rail Authority. He has skilfully managed this position in spite of the fact that the new management of the SRA, appointed by the Greiner government, is intent on a quick rationalisation of the notoriously inefficient railway system.
GH: We have a situation in New South Wales where nothing works. The ports don’t work, the airport is an absolute disaster, the railways don’t work. I’m not blaming the Labor Council of New South Wales but nothing seems to work, despite the fact that we are an exporting country. Where do you see micro-economic reform going?
ME: Well I think the major problems in those industries is likely to do with nobody having any plan.
GH: What, a five-year plan?
ME: No, nothing of that sort. Everyone has to have a plan and there’s no need to think of planning in Indian or Soviet terms. My understanding of the railways is that the whole system was crazy. There were fifteen different lines of management in the SRA. No-one had any responsibility for anything.
When you talk to Michael Easson it is obvious that he understands Australia’s economic problems and that he believes in reform at both management and workplace levels. But his essential brief is to manage and influence the inevitable reform process so that at the end of the day – or month, or year or decade – the power of organised unionism will not be diminished and, if possible, will be enhanced. Easson has a sharp sense of humour and is good company, is widely read and has a detailed knowledge of international events and developments. Yet, as with many of his trade union counterparts, he lacks a sense of urgency about the necessity for economic reform in Australia. There is no doubt that the Easson generation of trade union officials is the best Australia has produced. But it is by no means self-evident that they are willing to force-march the trade union movement along the path of economic reform.