The Biographical Register of the Australian Labour Movement: A Progress Report

John Shields and Andrew Moore

The Register project is now in its ninth year and progressing surely, if slowly, towards completion, under our joint editorship. The aim is the publication of a collective biographical research aid containing brief cross-referenced entries on 2,000 individuals, selected on the basis of their particular contribution to the history of organised labour in Australia down to 1975. In the great majority of cases, the main qualification for inclusion is active involvement in a trade union or other workplace, community or political organisation, as either a union official or as a prominent rank-and-file union member.

We have limited ourselves to a sample of 2,000 for eminently practical reasons. It may sound like an absurdly small number, but funds are scarce, life is short, and we can only trust that those who follow us will be sufficiently motivated to want to build on our efforts.

Similarly, we have settled on the forward cut-off date of 1975 for reasons both practical and sentimental. 1975 was, of course, a momentous turning point in Australian political history. It also marked the end of the kmg period of Australian union growth and development which began around 1900/1910. But there’s also a more pragmatic reason. A twenty year no-go zone also permits us to distance ourselves ttom sensitive present-day issues on which the dust and documents have yet to settle. Our intention is to include personalities whose lives extended beyond 1975, provided their peak period of involvement and influence – their jloruit – fell prior to this date.

To the best of our knowledge, the Register represents the first systematic attempt to employ a collective biographical approach to nesh out the historical shape and texture of the Australian labour movement. We are certainly not the first country where this has been attempted. There are now several exemplary international publications in the genre of historical collective biographies of national labour movements. Amongst the best of these are:

  • The multi-volume British Dictionary of Labour Biography (which has been running since the early 1970s)
  • Jictionnaire Biographique du Mouvement Ouvrier Francais (launched in 1964 and running to more than 30 vols.)
  • Biographical Dictionary of Amer.ican Labor (a single volume work first published in 1974 and revised and updated in 1984).

These are dictionaries with full prose entries, sometimes running to several thousand words each. Whilst we draw inspiration from these great projects, our objectives (and resources!) are more limited. Australia’s premier collective biographical project, of course, is the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). Our aim is not to replicate material already published in the ADB, but to dig a little more deeply. The 14 volumes of the ADB published to date carry entries on some 500 labour activists. For the most part, these people comprise the pantheon of organised labour: long-time union officials, parliamentarians, prime ministers, the occasional radical and ratbag. Our purpose all along has been to document the lives of the many significant labour activists for whom no published biographical entries currently exist, especially those who remained outside the parliamentary sphere. With the ADB people, all that we are doing in most cases is including a one line reference to the relevant ADB volume. Along the way though we’ve occasionally felt it necessary to to gather ‘corrective’ entries on some ADB worthies – not many, mind you, but a few. (e.g. V.G. Childe, Tom Mann, Christian Jollie Smith).

We are also well aware of the problematic nature of the concept of a ‘labour movement’ and the positivist assumptions behind historical ‘registers’ and ‘dictionaries’ of this type. But we see the Register as something other than a mere artefact of the modernist meta-narrative. We see it as an act of historical redress. These people deserve our understanding and acknowledgment. Their lives deserve recovery, reconstruction and remembrance.

By the same token, the Register is anything but a pastiche of potted hagiographies. By drawing together information on hundreds of individuals who were often at the centre of deep conflict within the organised working class, we hope that the Register may contribute to a better understanding of the diversity and division which has so often characterised the history of Australian labour. We’ve gone for a ‘warts and all’ profile: if we’ve got rebels, rank-and-filists, stump orators, strike stalwarts and fearless class warriors, we’ve also tried to include the respectable moderates, glorious failures, spies, union turncoats, party rats, union fund embezzlers, and the like.

Current Position
The planned primary source research was completed several years ago, although there’s still plenty of gap-filling to be done. The selection process is complete, i.e we have short-listed 2,000 non-ADB people, including 1725 men and 275 women.

We have 800 entries in draft form, Le. 40% of the projected total. Around 100 of these have come from volunteer contributors. Our entries do not have the polished elegance of an ADB entry; each is basically a life precis rather than a biographical essay. Each entry is written to standard format, with the heart of the entry being a point by point chronology of the person’s public career. Word length ranges between 50 and 800 words, with the average being about 400 words.

Entry writing itself is a demanding, time-consuming and at, times, exhausting process – but we are getting there, albeit more slowly than we had hoped! Sifting through the fragments of biographical information requires just as much attention to detail, selection, interpretation, and c.orroboration as any other form of properly conducted historical inquiry.

So far, we’ve put most of our effort into drafting entries on the women candidates, and that process is now largely complete – although, again, there are still quite a few gaps to fill in these entries.

Our attention is now focused on the men, on whom we currently have about 500 draft entries. Because the evidence available on the typical male activist tends to be more complete and less fragmented than that on the women, we are actually progressing rather more rapidly with the males.

Finding a publisher with the requisite patience and faith has been a fairly traumatic process. Thankfully, though, the Industrial Relations Research Centre at the University of New South Wales has come to our rescue and agreed to help with publication. Basically, our aim is to market the finished product in two forms: in two volume perfect bound hard copy, with subject index, and in CD-ROM form enabling ‘key word’ searches and instant updates as more info. comes to hand.

This has undoubtedly been the most troublesome part of the whole exercise. For a person to be selected for inclusion, he or she must have had an active and influential association with a union or other recognised labour movement organisation, such as a political party, shop committee, co-operative society, women’s auxiliary body, or workers educational association.

We’re not aiming for a ‘representative’ sample in narrow statistical sense. The selection process has really been driven by our research net, which we’ve tried to make as comprehensive as possible. Our final selection hopefully reflects the varied backgrounds of 4,000 or so people who have made it into our main file system.

Our data base initially had a bias towards figures from the mainland Eastern States, but we’ve sought to redress this by undertaking special research on figures from Tasmania, W A and the Northern Territory. Here’s how the final selection is distributed between the states.

We’re still not entirely comfortable with this distribution. As you can see, the numbers still favour the three most populous states. However,the rank ordering seems to be about right.

In making our selections, we’ve engaged in a substantial degree of ‘affirmative action’, especially in favour of those outside the category of capital-city dwelling, Anglo-Celtic, mid-twentieth century male.

We’ve achieve a balance between capital city activists and those from important regional centres like Newcastle, Wollongong, Ballarat, Kalgoorlie, Broken Hill, Townsville and Darwin. Forinstance, we’ve ‘selected in’ about 50-60 activists from the Hunter region and 20-25 each from Broken Hill and the Eastern Goldfields of WA. The overall distribution is about 1450 capital city activists to 550 regionals.

We’re very conscious of the relatively low number of pre-1890 activists in our selection. The period of heaviest concentration is 1920 1950, though we’ve “endeavoured to distribute the selection between Ihis and the two adjoining periods as evenly as possible. Here’s how our entries are distributed by time period according to individual floruit.

We must also confess to being rather surprised at the apparently low proportion of women in our final selection, some 280, or 14%. Has our sample done the sisterhood an injustice or does it simply reflect the longstanding preponderance of males in the labour movement? We have paid special attention to women ALP activists, and this does seem to have paid off For instance, we’ve turned up information on many important ‘unsung’ Labor Party women associated with Women’s Central Organising Committees in NSW, Victoria and W A.

Thanks largely to the expertise and advice of volunteer contributors like Julie Wells and Eve Gibson, we’ve been able to assemble entries on about 20 Aboriginal worker-activists, people like Fred Waters, Dexter Daniels, Jack McGinness, Dooley Bin Bin and Vincent Lingiari.

At another level, we’ve favoured those whose activism was meteoric and cathartic over those who might be said to have been time-servers. In particular, we’ve gone out of our way to honour the movement’s ‘martyrs’, most of whom had a greater impact in death than whilst alive, eg: Billy McLean, the A WU member who died after being shot at Grassmere station during the shearers’ strike of 1894; Thomas Garraway who died from. an infection contracted whilst serving a sentence for his part in the Sydney Rockchoppers’ strike of 1908; Merv Flanagan, who was shot and killed by a strikebreaker in 1917, Tom Edwards, the Fremantle wharfie killed on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1919; and, of course, coalminer Norman Brown, killed by a police bullet at Rothbury in 1929.

We’ve sought to pay homage to the jail-birds – those who spent time behind bars for the union cause. And there are plenty of those – ITom convict rebels like Frank the Poet and 1891 Queensland shearers’ strike activists William Bennett, Hugh Blackwell, William Fothergill and Shearblade Martin, to Ted Roach from the Port Kembla Wharfies, who served time for contempt of the Arbitration Court in 1941 and 1951, and, of course, Clarrie O’Shea in 1969.

We’ve endeavoured to shed light on some other neglected margins of labour activism, particularly amongst groups of workers traditionally regarded with suspicion by the mainstream labour movement. For instance, we have an entry on William Brooks, the prime-mover behind the Melbourne police strike of 1923.

We’ve also captured a few strike-breakers, agent provocateurs and police spies, nrost notably,- perhaps, the FBI plant in the infant CPA, Harry Wicks. Then there’s the anti-communist provocateur Joseph Victor Batkin, who was. active in NSW and WAin the 1930s. Doubtless we’ve included some whose clandestine role remains unknown to us.

On the other hand, we’ve excluded dozens of figures whose main attribute seems to have been length of official tenure or simply longevity. Plenty of parliamentarians have been ruled out on similar grounds.

The Register and the Larger Canvas
We’ve always looked upon the project as something more than an exercise in mere biographical fact-grubbing. Our hope was that the method of collective biography would shed light on some hitherto unrecognised facets of the history of labour activism in Australia. And in its own modest way, we think that it has.

We’ve uncovered some significant patterns of inter-regional migration of worker activists; often associated with strike activity and subsequent blacklisting and victimisation in the centre of origin; particularly characteristic of miners. These inter-regional movements highlight the importance of itinerant radicalism in the regional mobilisation of the Australian working class down to World War Two.

The entries also highlight the importance of sport to male working class culture and militancy; for example, soccer amongst coalminers, boxing and rugby league amongst wharfies.

More controversially, perhaps, we think the entries also shed some light on the nature of worker-intellectualism in Australia. There are certainly many examples of fine home-grown worker-intellectuals in the Register. Yet, examining the fine print, one also gets the impression that Australian workers do not seem to have embraced the tradition of auto-didactism which was such a defining feature of British working class culture down to the mid-twentieth century. The Mechanics Institutes, union debating clubs, socialist Sunday Schools, Plebs Leagues, WEA and university Labor Clubs were certainly patronised by many of our activists, but the commitment tended to be relatively short lived rather than life-long.

In chasing up information on women activists, we’ve been struck by the early emergence and strength of women’s political networks within the labour movement – almost a movement within a movement! Particularly significant here were the Labor Women’s Central Organising Committees set up in the first years of Federation and women’s enfranchisement. It is very clear that these bodies were much more than mere auxiliaries – they were important centres of power and influence in their own right.

By the same token, in writing the entries on women activists, we’ve been struck by just how many of them remained unmarried. It seems that, for most women, marriage was indeed a decided barrier to their continued participation in the public sphere of labour activism. Did married women jump from the labour movement bandwagon or were they pushed? Perhaps the long-standing official and unofficial bars on married women taking paid jobs in the public service and the banks (and, in places like Broken Hill, in all areas of paid employment!) has something to do with their relative absence from the ranks of labour activists. Or was it just that married women remained active but in a less public way?

Our intention is to incorporate these and other musings into an article length introduction to the published version.

We certainly don’t see the Register as a definitive exercise. It is an open-ended, ongoing project. The file system and the published register will be there for all labour historians to build on and improve. In this sense, the Register is truly an exercise in collective scholarship. It you have information on people who you think we should know about, please let us know.