Labour History Makes a Comeback

Sarah Gregson

In early February, trade unionists and academics from a range of disciplines that cover aspects of working life came together for the 24th Association of Industrial Relations Academics of Australia and New Zealand (AIRAANZ) conference in Sydney’s magnificent Trades Hall building.

The organisers put together an eclectic and interesting program of papers in the belief that a cross fertilisation of ideas from a range of disciplines makes for the best atmosphere of learning and debate. The keynote speakers were Jamie Peck, an urban geographer, who spoke about the spatial organisation of labour markets in Chicago.Andrew Stewart and John Bray who discussed Labor’s Fair Work Act and Paul Thompson who gave a talk on his recent research on ‘financialised capitalism’. There was also a forum entitled Unions – Progress and Prospects: Moving Beyond Servicing and Organising where a panel made up of leading union officials and a ‘token’ academic discussed their views on what the future holds for ‘the labour movement.

But Hummer readers will be most pleased to hear that for the first time in many years the conference organisers saw the importance of having a designated labour history strand in the program.  The session was dedicated to the memory of labour historian, Bill Robbins, who died late last year after a long battle with cancer.  In many ways, Bill’s research interests spanned the gamut of the discipline in Australia – from the treatment of convicts Under Governor Macquarie to the 1890s strikes, the importance of the Harvester Judgement and the impact of  WorkChoices.

This year’s papers included Cathy Brigden’s study of the early years of the Female Confectioners Union, which examined the phenomena of separatist organising strategies, Julie Kimber’s research into the political fault lines engendered by the 1917 rail strike in Orange, Peter Love’s participant-observation of enterprise bargaining in a competitive, marketised environment at a higher education institution and my own paper on how we can analyse the ways in which workers have been memorialised.

It was a very enjoyable session and we hope that future AIRAANZ organisers will continue this important initiative.