Some Thoughts on ‘Union’ History

Rowan Cahill

The battlelines of the future are being drawn. The tactics of the robber barons, their families, and their corporate hirelings, the mega rich enshrined in the columns of magazines like Business Review Weekly, and the promoters of the philosophy of the New Right, seek to emasculate the trade union movement. No matter how this is to be done, whether through repressive legislation or the promotion of company unionism schemes, something else will have to be done first … and is being done. This is an ideological battle, a fight of words and ideas, where the strategy is to make trade unionism seem irrelevant to the everyday lives of workers.

As aware unionists we know that the wages and conditions we enjoy as workers today are based on the initiatives, struggles, and sacrifices of other workers, many unknown and forgotten over the decades, reaching deep into the Australian past. We know too, the tremendous contributions workers have made to the development of our nation, that it has not solely been built by Capital, but by the sweat and toil, even deaths, of workers. We know too that much of the social justice enjoyed by Australians today has come from worker and trade union initiatives, rather than from the benevolent visions of far seeing and caring legislators and establishment figures. We understand that workers are the builders of Australia, and in a very real sense its heart and soul. But this is an understanding the enemies of unionism do not want us to communicate to others, to kids in hi~ school studying Australian history, to union recruits, to the public ID general, to future generations of Australians.

A recent issue of IPA Review (December-February 1988/89), journal of the New Right ‘think tank’ the Institute of Public Affairs, made this clear. In a series of articles by conservative academics Australian history was discussed; recent work by left historians was condemned for concentrating on disharmony and social conflict, political and social repression, racism, sexism, social inequalities “the dark underside” of the Australian past. As Dr Ken Baker, editor of the Review, observed, ‘He who controls the ‘past, controls the future’. Apparently, seeking control of both is an important part of the New Right’s agenda.

The writing of a union history need not be a vague, irrelevant, academic exercise, but the creation of a sophisticated union tool and weapon, a deliberate political act, its use and deployment limited only by the imaginations and understandings of the consciousness creators in modern unions, the elected officers, the hired officers, the publicists, journalists, and editors. The object of the exercise is, in a small way, to gain control of part of the past, so that present generations of unionists can understand how they come to be where they are in terms of wages and conditions, can be aware too of. the tactics used against their interests in the past by employers and governments — and so prepare themselves for the future, can appreciate that in solidarity there is strength; and each unionist can feel that instead of being one human being who is a member of an ‘organisation’, is in fact part of a vibrant living collective with a past full of proud traditions.

It is the development of these sorts of understandings and bonds the enemies of unionism must, of necessity, seek to trivialise, undermine, or destroy.