Writing a Union’s History: the Clothing Trades’ Union

Bradon Ellem

Since the 1970s there has been a great deal of debate about the writing of trade union history, with some people questioning whether it should be done at all. However in the 1980s half a dozen unions have paid out funds to sustain postgraduate scholarships at the University of Wollongong. Under any circumstances, and especially those facing universities at the moment, this is a fairly attractive arrangement for all concerned. It might also focus attention on a more important question than one about how worthwhile union history is. It might direct us to think again how union histories have been written and how they might be written under the specific conditions of post-graduate work.

I write one of these funded union histories – on the Clothing and Allied Trades Union. Does that relationship impose any restrictions on the writer? In one sense the answer is emphatically ‘no’. There were no restrictions on access to individuals or records. No control was exercised in an editorial sense either. People often imagine that writing a sponsored history must be like being one of Rupert Murdoch’s employees. In fact, the relationship was freer – and probably more secure. Union officials were very helpful in locating rank-and-file and past officers, both friend and foe.

There are some subtle reasons for the lack of interference. As one of the Sydney Labour History Society members suggested when this question was discussed, it is more than likely that potential writers are scrutinised for any major political flaws before the scholarships are offered. There may also be a kind of mutual, benevolent ignorance. On one side, union officials not knowing exactly what a doctoral thesis will involve; on the other, the budding historian with very little idea (despite protestations at the interview) about the nature of the union.

A third factor might be that the project may be of less importance to the union than the researcher might think. Minor matters such as conferences, meetings, Commission hearings, and negotiations might just rate more highly on a day-to-day basis. And finally, the political issue is also complicated – or maybe ignored – because of differences within the union. For example, when I began my work, the Clothing Trades’ Union’s officials ranged from the Victorian Socialist Left to survivors of the DLP. How a politically acceptable candidate was chosen remains a mystery.

More seriously however there are some implicit assumptions which may affect how a trade union’s history will look. On one hand, the average Ph.D. student is faced with constraints of time and money.

On the other, the implicit ideas of officials tend to be about producing a piece of work located mainly within the union sources, be they written or oral. Naturally enough, a sole reliance on these sources would limit the sort of history which could be written, confining it within the area of more traditional institutional history, an account of an organisation’s development on its own terms. Perhaps the most difficult problem is time: unionists want the job done quickly.

All Ph.D.s take a fair bit of time and in some cases that is genuinely unavoidable. To gather and merely summarise a collection of Minute books would be a time-consuming enough task, but this is just a fraction of the work-load. For example, in my case the job could not be done without constructing a history of the clothing industry and its work processes as well as trying to think about how the state and wider social processes affected the Union’s development.

Time is also a problem in a more complex way; it is, I believe, a more difficult task to write ‘history from below’ given those implicit assumptions that the Union may have. This does not mean that writers should abandon hope; rather, it would be helpful if there were more discussions about the projects between writer, union and university.

In passing, I might mention a problem connected with all this: very often the writer will also have to be an archivist, or more simply an explorer. Not all unions have had their records compiled and neatly ordered. And even when they are, it is inevitable that minor pieces will slip through – or that some will end up in the wrong place. I once found a particularly poignant family letter in a file marked ‘Arbitration’.

This was perhaps bettered by finding a scrap of paper which, on closer examination, proved to be a Victorian Organiser’s stirring call for the Branch to join the One Big Union in 1919. It was filed away in a ‘Correspondence and other Papers’ section. And there’s no way these problems can be avoided.

There was also the problem of actually finding whole batches of material. In my case the mystery of the New South Wales Minutes from 1939 to 1943 and for most of 1949/50 was never solved. I found plenty of mildewed cartoons in some caverns beneath the Trades Hall – and thousands of rotting membership forms from the 1950s. The consensus was that the Minutes and other records were incinerated casualties of the Split, literally going up in smoke.

I’ve been suggesting so far that although there was never any overt pressure on me to write a particular sort of history, the assumptions within the Union and the constraints of time did affect the project. Another aspect of this, briefly, is that there is a tension in the process which is not resolved until it is over. At first the writer’s aim – whatever anyone else’s intentions is to produce a piece which will satisfy the formal requirements of a university and, specifically, three examiners. Thereafter, the more important issues for the Union arise. The focus now is on questions about length of manuscript, writing style and intended market. And a new actor appears on the stage – the publisher. Suddenly the audience goes from three to, hopefully, a couple of thousand.

To conclude, what did emerge from the study? I hope that it filled some gaps – or began that process. Very few of the union histories written are truly national but this covered New South Wales and Victoria in most detail and it also examined the other states especially Queensland and South Australia.

Most importantly, when it is published next year it will be the first history of a women’s industrial union in Australia. Women’s roles in both the Union and the trade were fiercely contested in the period up to the formation of the federal union in 1907. Even in those years – and especially to the mid 1920s – there was a substantial tradition of union agitation and industrial militancy amongst women. There were many examples of a commitment as deep and sometimes moving as there were amongst the better known male unions of the late nineteenth century.

It was also possible to trace a historical development amongst these women and men to the question often asked by academics; ‘what is – or should be – the functions of a trade union?’ Different answers emerged over time and from different groups – and the battle, of course, is not over.

With sustained migration, the Accord and industry planning the Union has changed greatly in recent times. As similar changes unfold in other unions, the task of recording their histories becomes more important than ever.