Writing the History of the Labor Council of NSW

Ray Markey

The Labor Council of NSW is one of the most significant labour institutions in Australia, whose history is closely bound up with much of Australian labour history generally. This article reflects on the recent project on the history of the Labor Council of NSW, 18711991, which led to the publication of In Case of Oppression. The Life and Times of the Labor Council of NSW (Pluto Press, 1994). It discusses the significance of the Labor Council in Australian labour history, theoretical and methodological approaches to writing the history of peak union councils, and the major outcomes.

The Labor Council of NSW is the senior peak union body in Australia. Founded in 1871 as the Trades and Labour Council of Sydney, it is the oldest peak union council in Australia, and one ofthe oldest in the world. Its only possible rival as the oldest Australian peak body is the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, which was founded in 1856, but until 1883 it was essentially a building management committee rather than a peak council.1 The London Trades Council was the earliest English peak body to be formed, in 1860, and the English Trades Union Congress began in 1868, only three years before the formation of the Sydney TLC.2

The ACTU was not formed until 1927 . In the formation of the ACTU itself, the Labor Council was arguably the single most important force. The earliest instances of interstate or national union organisation were the seven Intercolonial Trades Union Congresses of 1879-91, which were initiated by the Sydney Council. Similarly, in 1902 the Labor Council instigated the first of six Interstate Congresses of Trade Unions, which were succeeded by the four All-Australian Trade Union Congresses from 1919-26. From 1915 the issue of union federation in peak bodies became subsumed in notions of closer organisation associated with the One Big Union Movement. The OBU, led by the Labor Council of NSW, provided the main momentum for the final formation of the ACTU. In this way, the Labor Council also had a major impact on the nature of the ACTU, in terms of its OBU-style commitment to supplanting craft with industrial unionism in its constitutional methods, and in terms of the major structural presence given labour councils. State labour councils became the state branches of the ACTU, with power of veto over congress decisions until 1947, and with majority representation on the executive until 1957.

In terms of membership, the. Labor Council of NSW has remained by far the most important of the ACTU’s state branches since 1927. This has occurred for two reasons. First, NSW has a large number of unionists, largely because it has been the most populous state in Australia throughout the twentieth century, and one of the two most industrialised states. NSW unions have achieved a density of membership in excess of the Australian average throughout this century. In comparison with other state bodies, the Labor Council has also been able to achieve a relatively high proportion of affiliations from amongst those unions organising in NSW for most of its history. The main exception was in the 1920s and early 1930s, although ironically, this period was one of the most nationally influential for the NSW Labor Council. From 1901, even prior to extending its jurisdiction from Sydney to the State as a whole in 1908, it has never faced a serious rival for the status of premier union organisation in the state. Although the A WU was a significant omission from the Council’s affiliates for much of the first half of the century, it was never as important a union in NSW as it has been in Queensland, and so, never the genuine rival it was for the Brisbane TLC, Nor did the NSW Labor Council ever endure a major split of the kind which occurred in Victoria and took a third of that state’s unions ond holf of its unionists outside the jurisdiction of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, to form a rival power centre from 1967-73.3 By the 1980s the Labor Council ofNSW accounted for almost 40 per cent of total ACTU membership.4

The long term numerical strength and representativeness of the Labor Council has assisted it in developing a significant industrial role in the state, which has usually surpassed that of the ACTU at a national level. Historically, the ACTU has played a very limited role in control of strikes, or intervention in their settlement. It was not until the era of the Hawke presidency that the ACTU began to regularly intervene in industrial disputes. However, the Labor Council has frequently been in a position to exert a high degree of control over disputes, and been willing to do so, with peaks in the 1880s and early 1890s, during the special circumstances of the First and Second World Wars, and from the 1940s through to the mid-1960s. The Council was also willing to co-ordinate industrial campaigns on a number of occasions, such as for reduced working hours in the 1870s, 1970s and 1980s. Historically, even if the ACTU did intervene in a dispute, it usually did so through one of its state branches, i.e. the labour councils, because they were their agents ‘on the ground’.

The importance of the NSW industrial system within a dual system of arbitration in the Australian federal framework also fostered an important industrial role for the Labor Council. A significant majority of NSW workers have always been covered by state awards. The NSW arbitration system was the first to become effective in Australia, and it arguably remained more important than the federal system for many years for NSW workers, even after the 1907 Harvester judgment which created the basic wage system. NSW established its own basic wage system in 1914, before the federal system covered many workers at all, and the NSW basic wage continued after the abolition of the federal basic wage system in 1967. The Labor Council has enjoyed a major role in submission of general wage cases and some other test cases before the state Industrial Commission, in much the same way as the ACTU has before the federal tribunal. The most recent example was the case which extended family leave entitlements to gay couples. This role is underwritten in legislation for the Labor Council of NSW. An amendment to the state Industrial Arbitration Act in 1981 gave the Labor Council the right to appear in all disputes before the NSW Industrial Commission, and this clause was retained in the new Industrial Relations Act of 1991.5

However, the single most important factor which has shaped the significance of the Labor Council has been its special relationship with the state branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) which has enjoyed more electoral success than any other branch of the Party. The Labor Council formed the Labor Party in 1891, and in that same year the Party achieved the balance of parliamentary power in the first election that it contested. Although there is some debate as to which state branch of the Party was formed first – NSW, Queensland or South Australia – the NSW Party clearly achieved the first significant parliamentary presence. In 1910 the NSW branch formed the first full majority state ALP government, in the same year that it achieved this success at the national level for the first time, relying on NSW seats to a significant extent. Since 1910 the ALP in NSW has been in government for 47 of 85 years, or 55 per cent of the time, including an unbroken quarter of a century of office from 1941 to 1965. Although the Labor Council lost direct control of the ALP at an early stage in the 1890s, it has maintained a close relationship with the ALP’s NSW branch. Since the early 1900s a high proportion of the Labor Council’s affiliates have been affiliated to the ALP, with union delegates usually accounting for 60 per cent of the total at state ALP conferences. Through the support that it could muster at conferences, the Labor Council has consistently enjoyed representation on the Party executive and a significant influence on Party policy, especially regarding industrial matters. From the 1940s the major mechanism for this influence was the ALP’s industrial committee, which essentially prepared the ALP’s legislative agendas. Labor Council officers traditionally dominated this committee, to such an extent in the 1950s and 1960s that newspaper reporters often failed to distinguish between it and the Council’s executive.6

This situation has provided the Labor Council with tremendous opportunities to influence industrial legislation, since under the federal constitution most industrial powers have resided with the states, rather than the Commonwealth. Improvements in industrial conditions through legislation, therefore, have usually been instigated by state ALP governments. The electoral success of the NSW branch of the ALP has given it the greatest opportunities in this way; opportunities which NSW governments of the ALP have usually grasped, under the influence of the Labor Council.

The best example of how this has worked to the benefit of all Australian workers has been with the general reduction in working hours. The first general legislative reduction, to a 44 hour week, was, introduced by the Storey ALP government in 1920. The gain was initially shortlived, because of repeal by a Nationalist government, and after its reintroduction by the Lang ALP government in 1925 it was repealed again. Lang permanently restored the 44 hour week in 1930. In 1947 the 40 hour week was also first introduced by an ALP government in NSW (followed soon afterwards by the Queensland ALP government). In both cases the state legislation provided an important base from which the ACTU was able to generalise reduced hours through the Commonwealth Arbitration Court (as it then was), with the NSW government intervening in that Court’s proceedings on behalf of the unions.7

A similar process was used to extend annual leave in Australia. In 1944 the NSW Labor government legislated to extend annual leave for workers under State awards from one to two weeks, and in December 1945 this flowed on to pace-setting printers and metal workers under federal awards, from whence it eventually spread further when the Commonwealth Arbitration Court adopted this as a general standard. The state government then legislated for three weeks annual leave in 1958, and the Commonwealth Commission (as the Court had become) extended the NSW gain to federal awards in 1963. Following this, the NSW Labor government granted four weeks annual leave to state employees in 1964, only four years after the Labor Council had originally endorsed this demand, but only three years after the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission had originally rejected three weeks leave, and ten years before four weeks annual leave was generalised throughout the rest of Australia by other ALP governments and finally, by the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission.8 Long service leave was also first introduced in NSW by legislation in 1951 and 1955. After further improvements in 1963, the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission granted long service leave in federal awards, again after intervention by the NSW Labor government in support of an ACTU submission.9

In all of these areas, the NSW labour movement, led by the Labor Council, became the pacesetter for industrial gains for the rest of Australia. These gains were some of the greatest on the industrial front in the history of the labour movement, and in many respects NSW labour led the world in its industrial achievements.

Theoretical and Methodological Framework
The project had three basic aims:

  • to provide an institutional record,
  • to offer a historical narrative,
  • to analyse the role of the Labor Council in the broader Australian labour movement and society generally.

The existing literature, in either labour history or industrial relations, in Australia or overseas, offered little assistance. To the limited extent that the role of peak union councils has been addressed in either branch of literature, it has been almost exclusively at the national level, and confined to the authority of peak councils. Much of the debate of the last 30 or more years concerning the authority of the ACTU has revolved around the yardsticks employed by Martin,even where his conclusions have been rejected.10 Martin’s yardsticks are equally useful for evaluating the authority and status of state labour councils, and I have adapted them in the foIlowing way:

  • membership of affiliates, in aggregate and as a proportion of all trade unionists and of the workforce;
  • the structural diffusion of power within the organisation, between the executive and the affiliates, including the governmental powers exercised over affiliates;
  • the industrial function of the peak body, in terms of its role in bargaining and/or arbitration, co-ordinating and controlling industrial action, and intervening in demarcation disputes between unions;
  • the political function and influence of the peak council.

On all of these counts, the Labor Council of NSW may be judged to have exercised a reasonably extensive level of authority, among unions and in the community as a whole, for most of its history.

However, I also sought to examine the role of the Labor Council more broadly than in terms of its authority. Consequently, I was attracted to Flanders’ distinction between ‘movement’ and ‘organisation’:

Movement, in the words of G.D.H. Cole, ‘implies a common end or at least a community of purpose which is real and influences men’s thoughts and actions, even if it is imperfectly apprehended and largely unconscious’. The members of a movement combine because, sharing in some measure the same sentiments and ideas, they want to achieve the same things. The bonds of organisation are different. An organisation must have effective means for ensuring that its members comply with its decisions. These means are its sanctions; the rewards it can offer and the penalties it can impose to uphold its internal discipline. On the strength of its sanctions, rather than the appeal of its objectives, the unity and power of an organisation depends.

However, even though movement had to be channelled and converted into organisation for the survival and growth of trade unions,they could not subsequently allow it to languish and disappear. Trade unions by their very nature have to be dynamic organisations. They must constantly renew their vigour by keeping the spirit of a movement alive in their ranks. In this respect they differ, for instance, trom business organisations. Many members may join who wish to play no active part in union affairs. who see their contribution. perhaps, as nothing more than payment for a service. Even so. every union must have at least a core of active members who feel some deeper loyalty. A trade union that has none of the characteristics of movement, which was thrown back entirely on the bonds of organisation, would be in a sorry state.11

It is not a large step to extend the same perspective to labour councils, or even working class political parties. The members of peak union councils are officially the affiliated unions rather than individual workers. However, peak councils attempt to represent the members of their affiliated unions. In this sense they represent a movement, more or less broadly based in the working class, depending upon historical circumstances, such as the level of affiliation and unionisation.

Labour, councils need organisation for their power and movement for their vitality. Between the two, however, there exists a tension. such that the achievement of one is partly at the expense of the other. Successful unions achieve a measure of balance between them, but it is an inherently unstable relationship, which characteristically produces an ongoing fluctuation between the two extremes over the long term.

In the history of the Labor Council of NSW, the tension between movement and organisation has been largely manifested in the contest for dominance between the supporters of laborism and its opponents on the left. As an ideology, laborism assumes that ‘the capitalist state could be managed to the advantage of the working class by a combination of a strong trade union movement with a Parliamentary

Labor Party’.12 The special relationship of the NSW Labor Council with the most electorally successful state branch of the ALP has made it one of the greatest exponents of laborism in Australia, as ideology and strategy. However, the Labor Council has also often been a forum for ideological challenges to laborism, in the form of revolutionary unionism or communism. Historically, the contest between laborism and its challengers has largely been between those who emphasised the organisational or institutional strategy of laborism, and those who emphasised the role of the Labor Council as the leader of a working class movement. These emphases are not necessarily incompatible. but in practice they usually entailed conflicting ideologies and strategies for the union movement.

The differing approaches to the system of compulsory state arbitration illustrate this contrast between two ideologies and between movement and organisation extremely well. Arbitration became the primary means for ensuring the unions’ organisational security. It was initially gained at the beginning of the twentieth century as a result of the Labor Party’s influence in association with liberal politicians. Thereafter, the unions relied on the ALP for maintaining and improving their organisational, or institutional, tramework of operation. This has not been without some costs to the unions, nor did they gain complete satisfaction from the ALP. But more than any other industrial legislation for which the ALP was responsible, arbitration epitomised laborism, and its characteristic relationship between unions and Party. It also decreased union reliance on the movement. to the extent that it protected them and encouraged specialised skills amongst officials, often operating in a virtual courtroom environment which did not necessarily require extensive interaction with trade union members. The opponents of laborism, therefore. have emphasised the value of direct action based on a class-conscious working class movement in opposition to the organisational advantages of arbitration and an ALP committed to that system.

The structure of the history has been determined by the theoretical and methodological framework described here. I have identified three main periods of Labor Council history, distinguished by different balances in the tension between movement and organisation, as identified in Table 1 below. Each of the three periods experienced a shift from one emphasis, as it was challenged, to a new synthesis at the end of the era. Within each period Martin’s yardsticks have been systematically applied, usually with the political role of the Council in a separate chapter.

Table 1
Periodisation of Labour Council History

Classical, 1871-1900organisation to movement
institutional consolidation to working class movement
Radical, 1901-1940organisation to movement institutional reconsolidation to working class movement
Neo-classical, 1941-1995movement to organisation working
class movement decline to
institutional pinnacle to institutional decline

Major Conclusions
There are three.

  1. For reasons which are mainly amplified at the beginning of this paper, the Labor Council ofNSW is an example of laborism par excellence, which has exerted great influence on the thinking and practices of the labour movement throughout Australia.
  2. The Labor Council has enjoyed an enigmatic relationship with the ACTU for most of its history. In part this has been based upon Sydney/Melboume rivalry, partly upon ideological differences and different policies (especially in relation to union amalgamation, in the 1920s and 1990s), in part upon the relative strength of the Labor Council because of its greater resources, and partly upon the opportunities provided to state labour organisations in a federal system of government. The Labor Council has never been in step with the political factional forces which have dominated the ACTU. During the 1920s and 1930s, when the Labor Council was dominated by the left, the ACTU’s leadership came from the right, and in the 1940s and post-1960s, when the ACTU was dominated by the centre-left, the right was entrenched in the Labor Council. Hence, the Labor Council has virtually never provided a president or secretary of the ACTU. (Cliff Dolan had been a Council delegate many years before becoming a short- term ACTU president). From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, the senior labour council secretary in the country did not hold the senior vice-presidency of the ACTU. However, the attraction of this situation for the Labor Council was that, since its officers were not bound by decisions reached by the ACTU’s inner circle of leadership, of which it was generally not part, its ability to operate independently was accordingly increased.
  3. Finally, as the national labour movement faces an unprecedented decline in union membership, even as it has enjoyed some of its greatest institutional achievements through the Accord process, it is salutary to remember Flanders’ argument that organisation without movement is insufficient to maintain viable unionism. It is precisely that sense of movement which saw unionism expand so rapidly under the leadership of the Labor Council in the 1880s and early 1900s, which is lacking today. Nor are many of the solutions based upon service delivery to members or institutional consolidation in super-unions likely in themselves to turn the decline around. It is indeed ironic that this decline has occurred when the ACTU has effectively adopted the Labor Council’s organisational, laborist model of operations, after it had served the Labor Council so well for so long.


  1. Accordingly, until 1883, it was called the Melbourne Trades Hall Committee. J. T. Sutcliffe, A History of Trade Unionism in Australia, Macmillan, Melbourne, (1921)1967, pp.63-4.
  2. H. Pelling, A History of British Trade Unionism, Penguin, Harmondsworth, (1963), 3rd edn. 1977, pp.54, 63.
  3. See D. Plowman, ‘Unions in Conflict: The Victorian Trades Hall Split, 1967-73’, Labour History, no. 36, May 1979, pp. 47-69.
  4. Calculated from Markey, In Case of Oppression, p. 401; S. Deery and D. Plowman, Australian Industrial Relations, 2nd edn., McGraw-Hill, Sydney, 1985, pp. 226-9; D. W. Rawson and S. Wrightson, Australion Unions 1984, Croom Helm, Sydney, 1985.
  5. Ibid p. 461.
  6. R. Markey, ‘A Century of Labour and Labor: NSW 1890-1990’, in M. Easson (cd.), The Foundation of Labor, Pluto, Sydney, 1990, pp. 51, 55; Hagan & Turner, History of the Labor Party in NSW, pp. 166-7.
  7. Commonwealth Labour Report, 1962/3, no. SO. pp. 74-5; Markey, In Case of Oppression, pp. 108,110,203-4,208-9,235,259,317,326,367-8.
  8. Commonwealth Labour Report, 1973, no. 58, pp. 130-1; Markey, In Case of Oppression, pp. 384-5,464-5,512.
  9. Commonwealth Labour Report, 1962/3, no. SO, pp. 136-41.
  10. R. Martin, ‘The Authority of Trade Union Centres: the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the British Trades Union Congress’, Journal of Indllstrial Relations, 4 (I), pp. 1-19. For a summary of the Australian literature since this article, see G. Griffin, ‘The Authority of the ACTU’, in R. Callus & M. Schumacher (eds.), Current Research in Industrial Relations. Proceedings of the 8th AIRAANZ Conference, Sydney, 1994, pp. 611-35
  11. A. Flanders, Management and Unions. The Theory and Reform of Industrial Relations, Faber, London, (1970) 1975, pp. 43-4.
  12. J. Hagan, The History of the ACTU, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1981, pAS.