As Hummer readers would be aware, conflict between the industrial and parliamentary wings of the Australian labour movement is as old as the Labor Party itself.
This year that conflict has reared its ugly head again in relation to the Federal Rudd Labor government’s industrial relations policies, in particular its dismantling of the previous Howard government’s hated Work Choices laws and the phasing out of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Last year of course the NSW labour movement was rocked by the issue of electricity privatisation, eventually leading to the downfall of Premier Morris Iemma and his Treasurer Michael Costa.
Two pieces in this edition of Hummer focus on this issue. Terry Irving traces the historical roots of this struggle by considering the work of famed archaeologist, advisor to NSW Labor Premier John Storey and labour movement historian, Vere Gordon Childe. In the second article Paul Pearce, NSW Labor MP for Coogee, provides an insider’s account of the electricity privatisation battle. Both writers make a passionate case for retaining the ALP’s distinctive democratic organisational model and highlight the risks of the parliamentary wing ignoring the legitimate concerns of the trade union movement.
This issue also contains two obituaries of labour movement luminaries: former NSW Transport Minister Peter Cox (Damien Stapleton) and labour activist and former Sydney Branch ASSLH committee member, Marin Alagich (John Shields). In addition there is a short biographical note on the first Labor Mayor of Lithgow, Robert Pillans (Greg Patmore). The lives of these three diverse men exemplify the rich tapestry of the labour movement.
The Sydney Branch hosted a guest speaker at its meeting on Wednesday, 15 July, 2009 when Sarah Gregson spoke on the topic: ‘Philanthropy and Social Control: the administration of Titanic relief in Southampton, 1912-1959’. The paper examined the surviving records pertaining to the disaster fund in Southampton for glimpses of working class lives. These records call into question the dominant Titanic mythology of shared grief and social unity; middle-class administrators, imbued with welfarist and gendered attitudes, managed the fund upon a guiding principle that the public’s donations should not be wasted. On a ‘case by case’ basis, these administrators determined the worthiness of each relief applicant and claim, underpinned by moralistic judgments about the habits and lifestyles of Titanic dependants.
The next Branch event will occur on 16 September at Unions NSW, when Dr Geoff Robinson (Deakin University) will be talking about the historical origins of the current economic crisis engulfing the globe. Geoff has recently published his first book, a study of the NSW Lang Labor government. Entitled When the Labor Party Dreams, it is available now from Australian Scholarly Press. At the same gathering, Luke Foley, current Assistant Secretary of the NSW ALP will also address the branch on the current economic crisis and consider what lessons the past offers the labour movement.
The May 2009 edition of the federal Society’s journal Labour History is available. The November 2009 edition will feature a special thematic on ‘Anti-union employer strategy.’ For details see: www.asslh.org.au.