Journal Abstracts No. 79

An Overview

Grant Michelson

The concept of culture has long been of interest to social scientists. However, the fragmentary way in which the concept has been treated both within and across different disciplines as well as the ambiguity surrounding the definition and status of culture itself, has tended to obstruct rather than illuminate the study of culture. This proposition does not exclude labour history where culture has often been assumed as a theoretical category but rarely articulated as such; reference to culture is far more implicit than explicit. This article seeks to invigorate debate about the nature and function of culture within labour history. It does so by first identifying the different themes or perspectives that surround working-class culture. It then briefly explores how the concept has been treated in the field of labour history and, in particular, suggests why culture has received relatively limited treatment to date. Third, the paper sets out to define culture arguing that a sufficiently broad interpretation is required. Finally, the other papers contained in the collection are outlined.

‘Pumping the Life-Blood into Politics and Place’: Labour Culture and the Eveleigh Railway Workshops Lucy Taksa

This article examines interconnections between workplace, culture and politics at the New South Wales Government’s Eveleigh railway workshops and in the predominantly working class communities that surrounded it between the 1880s and the 1930s. It begins by considering the nature of culture and its political and spatial dimensions. On this basis it identifies the cultural building blocks that existed in the workshops and also beyond their boundaries and the way they were connected to the institutions of the labour movement and the activities of its leaders. By focusing on industrial and political meetings that were held in the local streets, halls and hotels, as well as in the workshops and on their boundaries, the article shows how such working class cultural practices enabled workers to protect their working conditions and also enabled them and their families, neighbours and Labor leaders, to articulate and communicate shared values and aspirations. These practices, I argue, created an impression of a common class identity that drew on, co-existed with and at times subsumed, other sources of identity. It was through them that working class people politicised their grievances and pursued a better quality of life. For this reason, they provide an insight into the roots of labour’s political culture in a specific urban context.

Blue Singlets and Broccoli : Culture in the Service of Union Struggle

Janis Bailey

This article analyses the so-called ‘Third Wave’ campaign in Western Australia in 1997 in order to study the dynamics of union culture as a ‘lived practice’. The research uses a mixed methods approach, drawing on a variety of data collected during the campaign as part of the recording of a ‘people’s history’ of the campaign for the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History (Perth Branch). The analysis takes as its starting point the need to hold in tension Raymond Williams’ notion of culture as a ‘whole way of life’ and E.P. Thompson’s notion of it as a ‘whole way of struggle’. Four themes are examined: the eclecticism of the unions’ cultural strategies, the nature of the union cultural strategy as at one and the same time ‘manufactured’ and spontaneous, the ideological content of union cultural practices as well as the use of ‘the politics of pleasure’, and the role of culture in both maintaining and transforming ‘old orders’, both internally and in the wider society. What emerges from the study is a picture of the ways in which union culture can be used strategically by unions for campaigning purposes. This study reveals a complex, multi-stranded view of union culture(s) that can be contrasted to the hegemonic, uni-dimensional view of union culture fostered by governments, employers and the media.

Opera of the Proletariat : Rugby League, the Labour Movement and Working-Class Culture in New South Wales and Queensland

Andrew Moore

Australian labour historians have rarely examined the social history of sport. The world of work has proved more engaging than patterns of popular culture and studies of the working class at play. The following article examines the history of a variant of rugby, rugby league, which, in two states of Australia and in the north of England became the ‘people’s game’. It reveals another side to the political lives of major labour movement figures and an important cultural dimension of the working-class experience. Contemporary events in the history of rugby league – principally the Super League ‘war’ of 1995 and its sequel, are placed in the context of the changing allegiances of Labor politics and the dismantlement of links between community and class. These shed light on why, despite rugby league’s historical links with a powerful labour movement, the code proved vulnerable to corporate piracy.

Performance Poetry and Counter-Public Spheres : Geoff Goodfellow and Working-Class Voices

Mark Morrisson

This article explores the role of poetry in working-class counter-public spheres by examining the work of South Australian working-class performance poet Geoff Goodfellow. Goodfellow’s performances at venues like construction sites, maximum security prisons, and pubs create a public space for groups of people usually seen as excluded from literary culture and from the institutions of the dominant public sphere. Goodfellow’s readings allow for communal self-reflection and deliberation on such subjects as domestic violence, labour issues, racial questions, and other topics significant to the changing nature of working-class life and identity, and they have had an impact upon corporate and governmental policy in areas like prison reform and labour disputes. His performances suggest the need for working-class studies not only to examine literature by working-class writers, but also to explore issues of reception and performance, and to ask how this literature functions in the social contexts of its production.

Feminism and Representations of Union Identity in Australian Union Banners of the 1980s and early 1990s

Kathie Muir

The revived production of one well-known working-class cultural icon – trade union banners – in Australia in the 1980s came about for several historical reasons. This article examines this resurgence, in the process identifying a number of key features. First, the banners produced differ substantially from traditional historical union banners in their media, their form and the image of unions and the memberships they depict. Second, a significant number of the new banners were produced by artists whose designs were informed by feminist critiques of the representation of women and other marginalised workers within unions and by feminist desires for the reformulation of the meanings of unionism. In this way this collection of new banners illuminates the changing and contested cultural practices of Australian unionism in the 1980s and 1990s.

Left Singing

Bernard Carney

For twenty five years it has been my privilege to earn a living by allegedly entertaining people with guitar and song, firstly with standards, then my own songs about the human condition, woven from a north of England upbringing, a healthy sense of humour and a contempt for palpable injustice towards the ordinary person. My game plan was to make the point I wanted to make but approach it from the angle that would make people laugh. I learned well from the likes of Tom Lehrer and Flanders and Swan and all the great musical satirists. This led to an involvement with ABC Radio in Perth and ABC TV in Brisbane, turning out the weekly song about the news, and extracting the ridicule from the life and times of our dear politicians. There was much to extract.

‘It Shall Not Look Like A Funeral’

Lockie McDonald

It’s Friday night. Two unmarked cars sit across the road from the suburban hall we are using as a makeshift theatre. As people leave the show there are a series of flashes from surveillance cameras, from the unmarked cars. Throughout the suburb crude homemade posters, tackily glued to bus stops, underpasses, lampposts, betray the identity of a special squad officer. At night people flinch in their houses, at the sound of V-8 engines, for fear it is a carload of uniforms and dogs arriving for a raid. Often under the pretext of searching for drugs, the covert motive is wholly political.

Labour History and Culture – A Postscript

Eileen Janes Yeo

As a response to the articles in the thematic section of Labour History and Culture, this invited postscript summarises the major findings and sets these in the framework of the history of the concept of culture and shows what positive contributions labour historians can make to the development of cultural studies.

Striking Out for Independence : Moves Towards Self-Determination and Self-Sufficiency on the Southern Monaro Property of Bibbenluke, 1861-84

Barbara (Chambers) Dawson

This article looks at the changing relationship between workers and manager on the southern Monaro property of Bibbenluke, after the introduction of the Robertson Land Acts on 1 January 1862. The Morris & Ranken Report, set up in 1883 to assess the success or failure of these Acts, reported widespread abuse and evasion of the law by landholders, particularly in outlying regions of New South Wales. The Bibbenluke-Bombala district lies between two regions chosen for specific investigation: the tableland region near Cooma and the coastal area of Bega. Close investigation of Bibbenluke property records reveal that the manager conformed to the stereotype of the defensive (or ‘aggressive’) squatter, determined to repel selectors. The day-to-day analysis also revealed another trend. From the mid-1860s, workers began to express a need for independence and self-sufficiency: seasonal workers demanded better working conditions and permanent positions became difficult to fill. Some dummy selectors used their blocks for their own monetary gain; others were difficult to shift. At the same time, loyal dummy selectors were learning the skills gained from farming their own plots and, in the 1870s, struck out on a path of independence, applying their knowledge to the working of their own selections. Some maintained either part-time or permanent employment on Bibbenluke; others achieved complete independence. Thus society changed from early Victorian English paternalism with its strict, hierarchical and static working environment to one which allowed a blurring of the rural classes.

The Lumber Yards: a Case Study in the Management of Convict Labour 1788-1832

W.M. Robbins

This is a study of the management of convict labour at Australia’s first large-scale manufacturing enterprises, the Sydney and Parramatta Lumber Yards, 1788-1832. It is clear that these were much more complex workplaces than popular perceptions of the terror of the convict system would suggest because of the sophistication of labour- management policies, objectives and strategies as well as the existence of covert convict resistance. To gain greater insight into these organisations, use is made of Edwards’ Simple, Technical and Bureaucratic Models of the control of the labour process. It is concluded that the management of the labour process at the Lumber Yards relied upon a sophisticated and complex bureaucratic system of control.

Ideology or Expediency? The Abolition of the Queensland Legislative Council 1915-22

Justin Harding

At one time or another, every state branch of the Australian Labor Party has been committed to abolishing its parliamentary upper house. The party universally – and correctly – regarded these chambers as having been deliberately created by Imperial officials to inhibit the growth of genuine democracy in the colonies. Queensland alone succeeded in eradicating its Legislative Council in 1921. But its achievement was no triumph of democratic socialism. Rather, Labor attained the constitutional means to abolish well before acquiring the political will to proceed. In all probability, abolition occurred only when it became apparent that retention – even with a Labor majority – was potentially disruptive of the party’s internal workings.

New Theatre and the state: The ban on Till the day I die, 1936-1941

Robert Darby

The banning of Clifford Odets’ play Till the day I die in 1936 is one of the emblematic events of the 1930s. It ranks with the censorship of imported books, the Kisch affair, Mr Menzies’ favourable references to Nazi Germany and the Dalfram incident as a milestone on Australia’s road to fascism (as the Left saw it) or as reassuring evidence of the authorities’ vigilance against a liberal-communist conspiracy to undermine the British way of life (as the Right believed). Although the controversy has come down to us as damning proof of the pro-appeasement line of the Lyons’ government and of its determination to persecute what have been described as premature anti-fascists, recollections of the drama are neither consistent nor accurate, and modern accounts of it are confused about the identity of the main players and many other details. There is no complete narrative of the affair and few attempts to place it in the context of the politics of the 1930s. Here I will attempt to tell the story in detail, from the imposition of the ban by the New South Wales Chief Secretary in July 1936 until its removal by his Labor successor in August 1941; and to show, contrary to popular memory, that the leading actors in this drama were neither Lyons (who had only a cameo role) nor Menzies (who played no part in it at all), but two unsung heroes of inter-war conservatism: Colonels W.R. Hodgson, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, and H.E. Jones, Director of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch. I will also suggest that the ban they organised on Till the day I die was not the result of the desire to stifle criticism of Nazi Germany but was primarily intended to curb the activities of the New Theatre League and more generally to advance the Australian government’s domestic anti-communist agenda.


‘The Rise of the Modern Labour Technocrat’: Response
I Tom Bramble
IITerry Irving and Sean Scalmer : Reply to Tom Bramble


Working Life & Federation, 1890-1914
Frank Bongiorno

The ACTU Congress of 2000
Ross Martin