Margo Beasley, The Missos: A History of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union

Bradon Ellem

Margo Beasley: The Missos: A History of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union, Allen & Unwin, 1996. pp. ix + 227. $39.95 (hardback).

The Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union, now the bigger part of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, was in many ways a prototype for the super unions of the 1990s, although almost certainly a more cohesive and, time may show, more successful version.

Many Hummer readers will be familiar with the outline of the remarkable development of the Miscellaneous Workers Union. At first it struggled to organise and defend watchmen, caretakers and cleaners in the inter-war years only to become a practically moribund organisation by the 1940s with a leadership ranging from the merely incompetent to the thoroughly corrupt. Then, under Ray Gietzelt, the union was transformed in the crucible of the 1950s labour movement Split from an ineffective body purporting to represent 18,000 members into a union boasting 130,000 members on the eve of its amalgamation with the Liquor Trades. In the meantime, it had come to police over 500 awards and determinations, organise thousands of workers who had fallen between the lines of craft and industry, become the single largest union in some states and to exercised enormous influence in the structures and policies of both the ALP and the ACTU.

Margo Beasley has written a thoroughly readable and, indeed, compelling account of all this – and of the men and women who were instrumental in re-defining and invigorating the Missos. Those who want to know about the origins for, and the nature of, these campaigns – and these seem like pressing issues for unionists today will gain much by reading this book. Others, for whom this union may seem both mysterious and anonymous, will read with reward of a union in which industrial, organisational and political strategies were spelled out and tied to each other a long time before such practices received catchy titles from. organisational writers and ‘strategic planners’ .

The shape and purpose of the book owe much to its being commissioned by the union itself. Hence it was to be ‘accessible’ (it certainly is) and to acquaint current members with their union’s past (it certainly deserves to). Beasley decided that this brief required the history to be simplified and freed from excessive detail. In this, it is important to acknowledge, as Beasley freely does, that part of her work draws upon previous detailed research, in this case the innovative (and unfortunately unpublished) doctoral thesis by Chris Sheil. In terms of its stated purpose, breadth and intended audience, the book must be judged a success. The Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union, now the bigger part of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, was in many ways a prototype for the super unions of the 1990s, although almost certainly a more cohesive and, time may show, more successful version.

The book is not, though, a simple chronicle of ‘what the union did next’. As I have indicated, its accounts of the development of the union from 1955 and of the role of individuals, strategy and political alignment are quite fascinating and full of implications for current debates about trade unionism. That these implications remain undeveloped is understandable given the overall aims of the book, but a little disappointing nonetheless.

The book does not address the wide theoretical and historiographical literature on trade unions and their histories (as a more academic account would – or should), but it stands as its own answer, or contribution, to those debates by its very nature. It seems that Beasley sees history as both shaping the present and being in the present; she sees unions as forces capable of, and necessary to, both industrial and political change. Perhaps these themes could have been made more explicit, not least because the role of the general (or super) union is now as controversial as it is important to the future. I wondered about the role of general unions as such: about the similarities as well as obvious differences with the A WU, not least in the political influence which each exercised. What do they – and the rise of the ‘super unions’ denote for the future? I wondered, too, about the consistency of the left-ALP position since 1955, about democracy and participation in the new super LHMWU and about how this union will cope with the challenges of increasing casualisation and outright anti-unionism affecting it already disparate membership. The union’s leaders seem hopeful, as does the tone of the book itself.

My only real concern in terms of an explanatory account of the FMWU was that the book is a little short on context – and this is important because without it the union becomes master of its own fate more so than it was. This might have been examined more fully by some brief comparison with the trajectory of a similar union, like the A WU (or other rivals). We might also have learnt how and why key activists and officials decided when to settle and when to advance, how they decided what was possible as well as what was desirable. Equally, the unintended outcomes and the ironies of history escape us. Some brief examples may explain what I mean: Beasley shows how much energy and skill the union devoted to getting Bob Hawke up as the left candidate for ACTU leadership. Was Hawke to be all that they had hoped? Similarly, there is no analysis of recent key strategies like the Accord. Was that all that they had hoped for? Was a union like the Missos more likely than others to support such a strategy? If so, how and why? The book also reminds us how long is the shadow cast by the 1950s and by the consequent factionalism and how victories in one period might not turn out so well later (again suggesting the limits to what it is that unions can do). For the FMWU was instrumental in ousting Brian Harradine, the suspected National Civic Council supporter, from the ALP. In a savage twist, of course, he has ended up as a seemingly permanent feature of the Senate as a vital ‘number’ in deciding the outcome of every element of party politics.

But these are questions and themes for another place and for other authors. Beasley’s answer to the questions about for whom and how trade union history might be written are inseparable from the process of the commissioning of such a work. The union is fortunate to have received such an admirably written (and beautifully produced) book. We can only hope that there will be more accounts which like this one are not simply of the institution itself but of those who made it and how it chan~ed their work and their lives.