FROM TRAGEDY TO FARCE: The sorry story of the 1984-85 ACOA pay campaign


 Paul White

Convenor ACOA Reform Group

Introduction by Peter Ellett
Branch Executive member, ACOA, Victorian Branch

(Originally a 16 page brochure published in 1985 – Ed)

tragedy to farce

“The lesson learnt in 1982 was that in the current economic climate we will pay an unreasonably high price if we rely solely on arbitration procedures without the full involvement of the membership.”

Joint ACOA/APSA/FCU(TOB) broadsheet. 1982

“…isn’t the lesson of the past precisely that we’ll get nothing, in terms of a real wage increase, without determined industrial action?

Karl Marx once wrote: ‘History often repeats itself. The first time is tragedy; the second is farce’. You don’t have to be a Marxist to realise that he could have been writing about ACOA’s sorry track record on pay campaigns.

Given the conservatism and passivity of our official leaders, it’s clear that we’ll succeed on pay in 1984 only to the extent that we’re able to take determined, mass industrial action, regulated by regular well-attended mass meetings.”

Alternative Viewpoint. May 1984
(Reform Group journal)


The Prices and Incomes Accord has been hailed by many in the trade union movement as a positive gain for the workforce, a guarantee of advance in a period of economic uncertainty.

Public Service unions were effusive about it, especially the Accord’s commitment to maintain the principle of fair comparability in public sector wages. It is now history that during the 1984-85 Anomaly claim for 8.3%, the Labor government went to extraordinary lengths to betray its commitment.

Yet despite this rank hypocrisy and the miserable 2% result, the leadership of the unions have refused to face up to the real lessons of the dispute. They chose instead to portray the defeat as a victory and their leadership of it a success.

But in areas such as Customs and the Taxation Office, where union members were stood down and threatened with charges, it’s simply not good enough to tell them that 2% was worth all the sacrifices and anxiety they went through. The union can ill-afford member concluding that militant action itself is a failure.

That is why Paul White’s analysis of this dispute is both valuable and necessary. If the union leaders made mistakes, if they failed to marshall their forces, if they were compromised by their allegiance to the ALP leaders and the Accord, if they allowed inter-union jealousies to damage a proper coordinated effort, these matters must be recognised and put right so that next time there will be a more effective response.

The pay dispute provided just a glimpse of the combined industrial potential of the unions involved. I am confident that by learning through experience, our unions can continue to advance towards realisation of this potential.

Finally the introduction would not be complete without paying tribute to the union members in Taxation and Customs who carried the burden of the dispute. Their strength and resolve during those difficult times was a source of inspiration for those of us who believe in the union and are proud to be part of it.

Peter Ellett
Victorian Branch Executive Member, ACOA


 “Major Breakthrough…”

This was how the official journals of ACOA greeted the news in February 1985, that the Australian Public Service (APS) pay case was going back to Arbitration.

Yet few members shared their enthusiasm. Only the month before, the same Arbitration Commission had thrown the case out of court.

Even fewer were surprised when, on 24 May 1985, the Commission handed down meagre increases of 2% for clerks, 2% to 2.6% for clerical assistants and 4% for keyboard operators.

This represents a pay rise of about $6 to $8 per week for most clerks. Clerical assistants, the lowest paid group of commonwealth public servants, receive only about $6 per week extra before tax. Many of this last group are already below the poverty line. The minimum junior wage for a clerical assistant is now $127 per week before tax.

The insulting decision is the logical result of the three unions meekly submitting to the so-called Prices and Incomes Accord.

Such industrial madness, in turn, is itself only the most recent in a shameful series of capitulations over recent years.

The increases are the result of a claim lodged in December 1983 under the “Anomalies” provisions of the post-Accord National Wage Guidelines, for an 8.3% increase.

The three unions involved are the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association (ACOA), the Australian Public Service Association (APSA) and the Federated Clerks Union (Tax Officers Branch).

The claim was termed an “Anomaly” under the Guidelines, since it was designed to enable us to regain our rightful place in the market. This would be done by providing a so-called “equitable base” for the increases obtained by all workers from the National Wage Cases.

It was clearly understood between all unions in Australia and the government, that the government could not impose the new wages guidelines without unions having an “equitable base” for such miserly increases.

The APS unions claim was a modest one. In fact, some ACOA officials had calculated that we needed an increase in excess of 20% to make up what we’ve lost over the past ten years.

Even the Arbitration Commission itself half admitted this. In January 1985 it conceded that APS wages had declined in real terms since 1982. Citing a list of 26 comparable public and private sector clerical occupations, the Commission noted: “by March 1982 APS salary rates were next to last and in July 1982 they were last.”

Not surprisingly, 1981 was the last year any of the three unions took serious industrial action to press a wage claim. The upshot: a respectable result of 10% to 13%.

In 1982, in contrast, we took no action and ended up with a 6% increase (we’d sought 12%, although being able to prove 20%) and had to cop a six month pay freeze.

Having got away with this (union officials squashed attempts by militants such as the ACOA Reform Group to fight on), Malcolm Fraser then imposed a further freeze – for 12 months – on all workers in Australia.

Early the following year, two of the unions involved, ACOA and APSA, began considering preparations to break through the freeze. These were abandoned, due to assurances from ALP leaders during the 1983 federal election campaign, that the ALP in government would support the principle of “fair comparability”.

In other words, the ALP would support a claim to restore what public servants had lost in real terms over previous years. The size of such increases would be determined by an examination of comparable salaries in the public and private sectors.

At the time, both ALP and union leaders feared industrial action during the Labor Party’s election campaign would “jeopardise” Labor’s electoral chances. So our campaign was abandoned before it had even started, on the basis of promises by ALP leaders.

In government, the Hawke government continued Fraser’s freeze, up til October 1983, when all Australian workers obtained a National Wage increase. APS workers had still not achieved “fair comparability”.

Due to the APS unions’ acceptance of the Accord, we were locked into the new National Wage Guidelines, which only allowed six monthly increases and “Anomaly” claims. But, due to Hawke’s astute manoeuvring (the Summit and other associated humbug), the government succeeded in keeping public servants’ wages frozen over 12 months. The APS unions were thus unable to seek the promised “equitable base” till December 1983 – fifteen months after our wages reached rock bottom.

Officials of the three unions relied solely on private meetings with Ralph Willis for the first three months of 1984, before finally calling the campaign’s first mass meetings in early April, of APSA and ACOA members only.

The mass meetings were only convened when it was clear that the government had exploited our misplaced trust in them. Ralph Willis had reneged on promises to support a Market Rates Survey of our wages and both the government and the Arbitration Commission had delayed the initial hearing of our claim until 22 June, 1984.

The June hearing decided on further ingenious means of filibustering. It established a Committee to decide what surveys needed to be conducted. Only then, it resolved, would the actual surveys be conducted. Then the findings of the surveys would be haggled about by all parties concerned, prior to their translation into dollars and cents. A leaflet produced jointly by the Victorian ACOA Reform Group and a group of APSA activists commented prophetically on this at the time: “If we don’t apply pressure the case could drag on until next year and the final result could be a very small pay increase, with no retrospective date of effect.”

A joint meeting of APSA and ACOA shop stewards and delegates in Victoria was held on 5 July 1984 to consider the state of the campaign. This meeting determined that joint membership meetings be held shortly, to consider appropriate action. ACOA’s Victorian Branch Executive met that same night and resolved to ignore the delegates’ decision. Given the disastrous state of the campaign, APSA’s Victorian Branch Pay Campaign Committee then reluctantly decided to ‘go it alone’.

On 30 July a well-attended mass meeting of APSA members voted overwhelmingly to launch a series of monthly 24-hour stoppages, with the principal aims of securing a conclusion of the Market Rates Survey by no later than 1 October 1984 and agreement on a retrospective “date of effect” for any increases.

ACOA members met separately the following day in Melbourne. (Primarily due to a series of manoeuvres by the ACOA Branch Officers’ Group in Victoria, joint meetings of APSA and ACOA members were yet to occur!) A motion moved by the Reform Group Convenor, for ACOA Victorian members to join the APSA stoppages was defeated by a mere 12 votes.

The August 1984 edition of the Reform Group’s journal, Alternative Viewpoint reported what happened next:

“Friday, 10th August will go down in the history of public service unionism as ‘ACOA’s day of Shame’.

On that day ACOA members throughout Victoria attended work as usual. Yet, that same day, thousands of APSA members stopped work in this State, in support of the 8.3% pay claim, supposedly being jointly sought by both unions.

ACOA Branch Executive met on 2nd August and unanimously agreed to adopt a motion moved by David Bunn and Doug Lilly to ‘inform ACOA members that they are entitled to work, and to pass through any [APSA picket] lines to do so.”

This is not only the biggest single blow yet against our farcical ‘joint pay campaign’, it also creates massive distrust between APSA and ACOA members, thus making amalgamation of both unions virtually impossible in the near future.

After all, why should APSA members want to amalgamate with a group of workers who sabotage APSA industrial action?”

 National joint APSA/ACOA membership meetings were held on 16 November 1984. Most meetings stopped work for the rest of the day and agreed to meet again in December.

Meanwhile, members of the Federated Clerks Union (Tax Officers Branch) had met in October and decided to take industrial action if there was no progress in the campaign. Faced with the prospect of having to wait till the New Year for a poor result, the FCU(TOB) stirred itself. A 24-hour stoppage was called for 16 November, to coincide with the APSA/ACOA stop work meeting.

The FCU(TOB) also embarked upon a campaign of industrial bans on the collection of taxation revenue. By the end of the year, this modest action resulted in one billion dollars being denied to the tight-fisted Hawke government.

Following meetings with unions during November, Ralph Willis gave a series of assurances. These were summed up in the December issue of the official ACOA journal, Viewpoint:

The Government’s position –
1.  It accepts that prima facie a pay anomaly exists

2.  It believes that steps must be taken to ensure that correction of the ACOA/APSA anomaly does not lead to other claims.

3.  Before the Government will support in Arbitration the finding of a pay anomaly it will seek assurances:

  • from the ACTU that no union will make claims based on the change in pay relativities caused by an ACOA/APSA pay gain;
  • from State Governments that they will oppose salary claims based on the ACOA/APSA pay movement.
    The Government believes these assurances can be obtained by the end of November.

4.  Once the assurances are obtained, the Government will expedite convening of an Arbitration hearing and:

  • will support the formal finding of a pay anomaly
  • will argue that the pay rise should be dated from the date of formal anomaly finding
  • will then agree to substantive negotiations outside Arbitration on the size of increase warranted by the data available
  • will not propose, before the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission that any increase be phased in.

National joint meetings of APSA and ACOA members in early December passed the official National motions demanding that the government support the finding of an anomaly and an operative date of effect by 7 December. Otherwise, it was resolved, a 24-hour stoppage would occur on 10 December.

An alternative motion presented to Victorian meetings by APSA Victorian Branch officials – to stop work in any case – was lost (the figures for this across the State were 926 in favour, 1034 against.)

A Reform Group motion was also defeated at the main Melbourne meeting. This called for members of the two unions in Victoria to impose immediate bans on the collection and processing of revenue and social security overpayments.

Arguing against the Reform Group proposal at the main Melbourne meeting, ACOA officials claimed that any action beyond a token 24-hour stoppage would only “jeopardise” the pay claim.

The government, however, was not so naïve. Taking advantage of the timidity and senseless self-restraint of our union officials, it asked the Arbitration Commission to find no anomaly exist until the full bench of the Arbitration Commission had initiated an inquiry to determine the “flow-on” effects of the pay claim to other groups of workers.

Of course, this sabotage by the government was contrary to all the promises it had made to the APS unions, not to mention the spirit of the wonderful Accord. But that didn’t bother Hawke and Willis, since the Accord is really only about pay restraint anyway.

The government’s provocation was met by further joint APSA/ACOA mass meetings around the country on 14 December. The official motion presented at all meetings by national officials of both unions complacently noted “the decision of the full bench to commence hearing to finality the ACOA/APSA pay claim from Monday 17 December, 1984, without determining whether an anomaly exists and without setting a date for payment”. The only national official recommendation for action came from APSA national officials. This merely called for a further (industrially useless) stoppage for the rest of the day. ACOA national officials proposed that delegates meetings be held in late January 1985, if no result was forthcoming by 18 January.

The ACOA 18 January deadline was endorsed nationally. In Victoria, however, members had an alternative – and took it. APSA Branch officials successfully moved in Victoria that the full bench must hand down its decision no later than 18 January, at which time further mass meetings would be held, to consider motions arising from workplace and shop steward/delegates’ meetings.


Meanwhile, FCU(TOB) members had decided to lift their bans when faced by a clear refusal of the other two unions nationally to supplement them and threats by the government and the Arbitration Commission to further sabotage the pay case.

It was a recipe for disaster. When the Arbitration Commission finally handed down its decision, it was clear we faced an historic defeat. Our claim was unceremoniously dismissed and a nil increase awarded on 10 January, 1985. Events had more than confirmed what the Reform Group had predicted in June 1984, that, without industrial action from the start of the ‘campaign’ the case would drag on to 1985 with a “very small” increase and no retrospectivity.

The decision provoked unprecedented anger and spontaneous walkouts across the country. National mass meetings – for the first time now also involving the FCU (TOB) – were held on 16 and 17 January, to decide on a response to the Commission.

The official national resolution presented to these meetings was a cop-out. This denounced the Arbitration decision as inconsistent with the Accord. An anti-Accord motion moved at the main Victorian meeting by APSA Branch Officials received about 40% of the vote. Incredibly, supporters of the Victorian ACOA Branch Officers Group argued that we needed to stay in the Accord now, more than ever, to pressure the government to ‘pay up’.

It also resolved to launch a campaign of industrial bans. Two things need to be said about these. First, the brunt of the action was placed on the comparatively small number of FCU members in the Tax Office, and to a lesser extent on Telecom and Customs members.

Secondly, action by members in other Departments was to be strictly “controlled”. In fact, from the number of times the word “controlled” was mentioned by union officials at the mass meetings, one wonders who was more worried about the wildcat stoppages and bans that had preceded it – the government or our union officials!

At the main Sydney mass meeting, motions to withdraw from the Accord and take indefinite strike action were defeated.

Members of the three unions met separately – and on different days – in Canberra. APSA members met first. The ACT Branch Secretary of APSA called for the Accord to be “ripped up and thrown away”. ACOA members did not meet until 23 January. Even then, frightened ACOA officials managed to pick a day when a stop work meeting of ACT bus drivers was known of at the time the meeting date was set!

The ACT ACOA meeting was volatile, with both Branch and national officials facing strong criticism from members. A statement by National Assistant Secretary Peter Robson to the meeting that ACOA needed to “stay within the Accord guidelines” met a hostile reception from members. As one member put it, to loud acclaim from rank and file members: “If it was a real Accord – an agreement – why do we have to fight for it?”

The meeting also passed a rank and file motion establishing a rank and file pay disputes committee to coordinate and conduct the campaign.


On 29 January, the government took another feather out of Malcolm Fraser’s cap, by applying for stand-down powers it had promised unions it would never use. Over 200 APS unionists were subsequently stood-down.

ACOA National Office’s response was swift – and pathetically predictable. Acting National Secretary Peter Robson (National Secretary Paul Munro had declined to return from annual leave!) wrote a letter to all Federal MPs.

“As a committed party to the Accord, ACOA is looking to the government to honour its commitment in that document. ACOA’s clear preference is that the supportive and constructive relationship which has characterised dealings to date between ourselves and the government should continue…”, wrote Peter Robson.

By this time, about $589 million worth of revenue had been blocked, according the government. A week later Ralph Willis was complaining that about $41 million was held up in Telecom, $4 million in Australia Post and over $1 billion in the Tax Office. In addition, Paul Munro revealed on his return from leave that soon $1.8 million was being denied the government in customs and excise duties. In fact the Customs work bans were causing product shortages and lost sales by big business, as goods piled up on the wharves, unable to be cleared by Customs.

The denial to the government of substantial funds meant that the government, in turn, was unable to invest these funds, as would normally be accepted, on the short term money market, generating chaos there.

At the same time, the Australian dollar was experiencing some difficulties, for other reasons. The revenue bans further exacerbated these.

Thanks to the efforts of Tax and Customs members, we’d severely embarrassed the government, squeezing it to the point where it would soon have to talk turkey. APS unionists were clearly capable of resisting the government and would have been prepared to confront stand-downs by broadening and extending the  action, if given a firm national lead in that direction.

Alas, this was not to be. Only hours before the full bench of the Arbitration Commission handed down stand-down orders, Paul Munro had indicated his preparedness to negotiate with the government on a reduced claim.

National meetings of ACOA delegates were held on 12 February to ‘ratify’ the new claim. The meetings in Melbourne and Sydney rejected the sellout overwhelmingly and passed a motion framed by the ACOA Reform Group. This called for national three union stop-work meetings to be held by 20 February, to consider the course of the campaigns and more intensive action. Further joint workplace meetings would consider appropriate action at the workplace level.


“The Australian Government employment sector will not be a pacesetter in established wage rates and cost-related conditions comparable in other public sector employment and in the private sector. However, the government will ensure comparability of such conditions with the relevant State public sectors and the private sector fully consulting the industrial organisations concerned for their advice and guidance.” The Accord

Union officials have been tight-lipped about the difference between what the Accord says and how the government behaved during the dispute.       _____________________________________________

Speakers opposed to the official recommendation and in favour of the Reform Group motion argued two fundamental points:

  • The ‘revised claim’ worked out in conjunction with the ACTU was undemocratic, since only mass meetings of the rank and file as a whole had the right to abandon the original claim;
  • It offered nothing. The government had already declared it would offer only 2% for clerks and ‘a little more’ for clerical assistants. After tax the ACTU proposal would mean merely $7 per week for CA Grade 1. Any increases would not be backdated.

That same night the APSA Victorian Branch Pay Campaign Committee met. The Campaign Committee rejected any weakening of the original claim and called on the APSA Federal Council to widen the industrial action.

National joint meetings of delegates from the three unions were held about a week later to ‘ratify’ the finished version of the National Joint Disputes Committee/ACTU sell-out proposal. In brief this amounted to:

  • keyboard rates increased by 4%
  • rates for clerks to rise by 2% to 3.8%, with the increase tapered through the higher classifications
  • CA1 and CA2 to receive over 3.8%
  • an attempt to be made to procure another couple of percent through reorganising the APS incremental structure.

Once again the official motion was rejected in Victoria and a Reform Group motion passed. This opposed any dropping of bans and favoured an escalation and extension of industrial action to all government departments and authorities. It also supported the continued pursuit of the 8.3% claim. Voting in favour of the RG motion was 173 in favour and 95 against.

Unfortunately, the official recommendation was passed in all other States and Territories. The only exception to this was Western Australia. A meeting there of Tax Office unionists from all three unions on 15 February had resolved to “accept no less than 6%”. At the joint delegates meeting on 19 February the motion initiated by the Reform Group in Victoria was passed by only two votes.

Speakers against the national recommendation pointed out that we were not being told the whole truth; the hidden agenda was that we would be expected to take off all work bans in order to get the ACTU’s ‘support’. Now was not the time to back down, just when we had the government on the run.


These fears were realised when the final joint delegates’ meetings of the campaign were held on 21 February. The official national recommendation read that all industrial action cease, given that “our campaign has been successful in obtaining the re-opening of the clerks’ and clerical assistants’ claim” and that the ACTU “supports and will argue on our behalf before the Commission” the proposal voted upon by the last round of delegates’ meetings, by national officials.

Amazingly, this capitulation was not made in the face of a collapsing campaign. As David Bunn, Victorian ACOA Secretary/Treasurer put it, in a bulletin distributed to members just prior to the mass meeting: “The campaign is of unprecedented strength both in Victoria and nationally. Members in the front-line Departments have been heartened by support from others, including from waterfront unions….”

Yet, instead of building on that support – and the support of other unions – our officials urged us to stop the only effective action of the entire campaign, so as to secure ACTU ‘support’.

Just prior to the final mass meetings, hundreds of APS unionists had walked off the job in the Bureau of Customs in Fremantle and the Tax Office in Perth, in protest at stand-downs. In Melbourne, Tax unionists also walked out for the same reason – then to walk back shortly after, to sit at their desks but refuse to work!

The arguments of union officials favouring the back-down was summed up in the March edition of Victorian ACOA’s Viewpoint: “The reasoning of national officials, put to the meetings, was that it was hard to see what would be gained by fighting on.

“The agreement by the Arbitration Commission to rehear a case which had previously been thrown out is a major breakthrough and a rare occurrence in industrial relations…

“To continue action at this time could have lost us support from the ACTU and the individual unions which had backed up with public statements and industrial assistance.

“There was also the threat that our members would be excluded by the 2.7% indexation case.”

 However the ACTU had never supported our campaign at any point. Only two days before the mass meetings, ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty had made it clear to the Arbitration Commission that the ACTU did not “condone” industrial action by the APS unions. He said our action was “misguided, serves no purpose, cannot be expected to change the position of either the ACTU or the government, or the Commission”. With friends like Bill Kelty, who needs enemies?

The spontaneous wildcat stoppages and bans which had terrified our officials so much in early January had been “controlled” by officials in the period between the two mass meetings. (That is, the action had been limited to a comparatively few members in ‘front line’ departments). The growing number of stand-downs was beginning to enable proposals to widen the action in scope and make it stronger to gain much more credibility, however. Members in the so-called “front line” were beginning to wonder when other APS unionists would do something.

These pressures generated two very different states of mind. Among the more politically aware members and many of those in the thick of the action, they caused a strong determination of fight for the original 8.3% right to the bitter end, even if this meant widening and strengthening the action.

Among less politically aware members, those with less of a tradition of struggle in their workplaces and among some of those in the front line disheartened by the lack of similar action in other departments, however, these events bred a growing sense of passivity and despair. To their eternal shame, this despair was fed by daily attacks from the ACTU and ALP government leaders, in the bosses’ media.

In this situation the position of our national officials was vital. If they were prepared at this stage to take a united stand in support of broadening the action to include strike action and extend it to all areas, the campaign could have been re-invigorated with a vengeance.

Certainly, this would have meant in effect by-passing Arbitration and demanding that the government settle with us directly. But the industrial basis clearly existed to make this work. (Anyway, as speakers at the mass meeting very accurately predicted, we’d get precious little from the ACTU’s ‘support’.)

But a strong lead was the last thing to expect from our officials. The result was a devastating blow to our three unions, as 15,835 members nationally voted to accept the officials’ capitulation, while a mere 3044 voted to fight on. Of the votes to fight on 1705 came from Victoria, 800 from NSW and 370 from WA, the three main centres of industrial action. The votes in WA and in Victoria represented roughly one third of the vote at their respective mass meetings.

Not satisfied with this devastating victory for union bashing, the government continued standing down unionists continuing to impose work bans, while the votes from mass meetings were being tallied.

Kelty puts the boots in

The APS unions’ case before the full bench of the Arbitration Commission was conducted by Bill Kelty. He opened by knifing our original claim:

 “Let me make it absolutely clear, if it is not already clear, that the ACTU does not embrace and has never in fact embraced a claim for 8.3 per cent across the board for all employees of the Australian Government employment sector.”

 Later he added:

“Let me also say that the fact that the ACTU did not seek to intervene after our initial appearance was also a measure of the fact that the ACTU did not believe that the claim had a basis in terms of the 8.3% that was capable of success and we were not prepared to give a commitment in respect of flow-on.”

 Furthermore, stated Kelty:

“The ACTU does not accept ranking surveys as constituting an anomaly – they are circuitous, they form no basis for determination of an anomaly and have no basis in proper wage fixing principles in this country….

…The ranking surveys, of which the private sector have very little part and which the public sector, heavily biased by Victoria, predominate, should in our judgement be properly discarded, absolutely, by this Commission.”

 He was adamant that:

“The concept of comparative wage justice is not a wage fixing principle and the ACTU will be saying that clearly to the courts and to its affiliates.”

Allegedly in defence of the APS officials’ claim that the increases sought would not and should not flow on to other groups of workers and in order to avoid such a “destabilising effect upon salary levels”, Kelty proposed an even more restrictive interpretation of Principle 6 of the current National Wage Guidelines. (Principle 6 is the provision under which, if they’re very lucky and industrially determined, unions might obtain pay increases apart from the ‘regular’ National Wage rises).

Kelty added that the ACTU, for the first time in its history, would not be supporting unions claiming pay increases based on increases elsewhere. He even offered the ACTU’s services as the Arbitration Commission’s hatchet person, in this regard. On behalf of the ACTU Kelty offered to intervene in any industrial tribunal – Commonwealth or State – where a union sought to pursue an inequitable case inconsistent with the ACTU’s more restrictive definition of the National Wage Guidelines.

In other words, while going out of its way to justify the 10 January nil increase decision in the APS pay case, Kelty used the pretext of ‘supporting’ our revamped, next-to-nothing claim to further restrict the wages movements of all Australian workers.

About seven or eight years ago, Bob Hawke, then ACTU President aptly described Malcolm Fraser’s Industrial Relations Bureau as an “industrial police force”. Apparently since Hawke has now left the ACTU to become Prime Minister, the ACTU believes it must itself serve as an industrial police force!

Given such stirring support from the ACTU and the fact that our industrial action had been stopped dead in its tracks, it’s no surprise that the final result amounted to even less than our so-called revamped claim. (Which was itself only a fraction of what we should have claimed.)

As militants in the three unions – such as the majority of the APSA Victorian Branch Pay Campaign Committee, the ACOA Reform Group, a minority in the Victorian FCU(TOB) Executive and others around the country had said all along: there is no getting around the iron law of industrial relations. That is that unionists only ever get out of Arbitration what we are willing to extract from it through bitter, tenacious struggle.


1981 – Serious industrial action gains a respectable pay rise of 10% to 13%

1982 – No action leads to a very small rise and a six month pay freeze.

Late 1982 – Fraser imposes a twelve month freeze on all workers.

Early 1983 – ACOA and APSA prepare to break the freeze, but drop their plans due to promises by electioneering ALP leaders to support “fair comparability”.

March 1983 – Labor elected federally. Fraser’s freeze is continued until October.

September 1983 – First CPI wage increase awarded under the post-Accord National Wage Guidelines.

December 1983 – ACOA/APSA/FCU(TOB) lodge an 8.3% “anomalies” claim under the new guidelines.

January 1984 – Union officials talk to Industrial Relations Minister Willis who reneges on promises to support a Market Rates Survey.

Early April 1984 – ACOA/APSA national mass meetings threaten industrial action.

22 June 1984 – Arbitration hearing wastes time by establishing a committee to decide what surveys are needed.

5 July 1984 – APSA/ACOA delegates meet and call for joint membership meetings to discuss action. ACOA’s Vic Executive ignores the decision. APSA Vic Pay Committee decides to go it alone.

30 July 1984 – APSA Victorian members vote for monthly 24 hour stoppages, aiming for the Market Rates survey to be concluded by 1 October and for an agreed “date of effect”.

31 July 1984 – ACOA Victorian members narrowly vote down an ACOA Reform Group motion to support APSA stoppages.

2 August 1984 – ACOA Vic Executive meet and agree to “inform ACOA members…to pass through any (APSA picket) lines…”

October 1984 – FCU(TOB) threaten industrial action.

16 November 1984 – National APSA/ACOA members meetings held. Most stop for the afternoon and agree to meet again in December. FCU (TOB) members strike for 24 hours and put bans on tax collection.

November 1984 – Willis promises: support for the formal finding of an anomaly; the “date of effect” to be the anomaly hearing date; and substantial negotiations on the size of the rise.

Early December 1984 – National ACOA/APSA meetings pass official motions calling for government support for the anomaly claim and a date of effect. 24-hour strike threatened for 10 December.

mid-December 1984 – The government asks Arbitration to defer the anomaly hearing until it has investigated “flow-on” effects.

14 December 1984 – APSA/ACOA mass meetings accept official motion to take no action and to hold delegates’ meetings in late January.

December 1984 – FCU(TOB) members, isolated and under government and Commission attack, lift bans that have $1 billion held up.

10 January 1985 – Arbitration hearing dismisses the claim totally, provoking spontaneous walkouts nationwide.

16 January 1985 – ACOA/APSA and for the first time FCU(TOB) joint meetings carry the official resolution which denounces the decision as inconsistent with the Accord. Anti-Accord motions get strong minority support. Selective, highly controlled bans are imposed, mainly on revenue collection in Tax, Telecom and Customs.

29 January 1985 – The government applies for stand-down powers. Over 200 unionists later stood down.

Early February 1985 – The bans begin to bite. $1-3 billion is held up, disrupting government financing and the exchange rate for the dollar, while goods pile up on the wharves. ACOA National Secretary Munro agrees to “revise” the claim only hours before stand-down powers are granted.

12 February 1985 – ACOA delegates meetings: NSW and Victoria reject sell-out overwhelmingly and pass ACOA Reform Group motion for mass and workplace joint meetings to step up the action. APSA Vic Pay Committee backs the motion.

Mid-February 1985 – National joint delegates meetings consider the final revised claim for: 4% for keyboard staff; 2-3.8% for clerks; over 3.8% for CA1 and CA2; and a reorganised incremental structure. It is endorsed by all meetings except in Victoria and WA, which pass a Reform Group motion to step up the action and continue with the original 8.3% claim.

21 February 1985 – Final joint meetings accept the official motion to cease all industrial action, given that “our campaign has been successful in…reopening…the claim” and the ACTU supports the revised claim.

24 May 1985 – Arbitrators award 4% to keyboard staff; 2% to clerks and 2-2.6% to clerical assistants.