Journal Abstracts No. 83

Trade Union Organising and Labour History
Rae Cooper and Greg Patmore

In recent years, in the context of declining density and power, Australian unions have engaged in a debate about their survival. This debate has hinged upon the concept of ‘organising’. This article highlights the contribution that labour historians can make to the present Australian debates concerning trade union decline and organising. Although labour historians have tended not to focus specifically upon union organising, by examining the rich contribution that labour historians have made to our understanding of Australian trade unions, we can find insights into this aspect of union strategy. There may be innovative approaches to organising that can be resuscitated from the past and modified for current circumstances. It is suggested that W.A. Howard’s ‘dependency thesis’ for Australian unions may be too simplistic in regard to organising. Preference clauses and right of entry for union organisers were not necessarily granted by the arbitration system to unions nor respected by management. The article also explores the role of employers in inhibiting, and peak councils in co-ordinating, union organising.

Explaining Union Mobilisation in the 1880s and Early 1900s
Ray Markey

The two great upsurges in Australian union mobilisation occurred in the 1880s and the first decade of the twentieth century. In both cases membership increased in scope and intensity: an expansion of the number of union organisations across a wider range of industries and occupations, as well as an increase of union density in industries and occupations where unions already existed. However, a major environmental difference between the two upsurges in mass unionism was the existence of a system of compulsory state arbitration, from 1901 in NSW and from 1904 in the Commonwealth. It has commonly been observed that the legislation was critical in assisting rapid trade union growth in the early 1900s. This article examines in more detail the factors common to both the 1880s and early 1900s which contributed to union mobilisation, and reviews the evidence for a major role for the arbitration system in the latter period. It concludes that the statistics have been misused and misunderstood by those previously relying on them to argue that the arbitration system was critical for the expansion of unionism in the early 1900s. Union growth in the early 1900s seems to have had a similar basis to that in the 1880s: strong localised communities, perceived threats to working conditions, and a strong coordinating role by peak union bodies, together with a broad consensus providing a public place for unions. The role of the state was a critical factor in the early 1900s in constructing this public place for unions, even if the operation of the arbitration system itself was not a major direct contributor to union growth.

‘To Organise Wherever the Necessity Exists’: The Activities of the Organising Committee of the Labor Council of NSW, 1900-10
Rae Cooper

We know surprisingly little about the organising activities of Australian unions. The conventional wisdom, in line with the ‘dependency thesis’, is that unions have received rather than shaped their growth. The research presented here challenges some of the central assumptions of the dependency thesis arguing that the extension of unionism in New South Wales in the first decade of the twentieth century owed greatly to the agency of trade unionists and particularly to the work of the Organising Committee of the Labor Council of NSW. This article outlines the Committee’s methods, motivations and significant achievements in forming and recruiting into existing unions in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Making the ‘Gibraltar of Unionism’: Union Organising and Peak Union Agency in Broken Hill, 1886-1930
Bradon Ellem and John Shields

Broken Hill’s reputation as a bastion of union organising and influence warrants close reconsideration since even here the pattern of union growth and development was anything but unilinear. During its first half century, the town experienced four distinct cycles of union growth, decline and renewal. Each phase of growth saw the local unions learn from organising experience, but each also involved new contexts, constraints and opportunities along with new ideological and spatial agendas of mobilisation. Each phase also involved the emergence and active agency of a local peak union body. Union development in Broken Hill was shaped by four key factors: firstly, the globalised scale and cyclical nature of the metal mining industry; secondly, the importance of labour migration and worker itinerancy; thirdly, the paradoxical agency of the state; fourthly, the occupational and spatial divisions between local workers themselves.

A ‘Cosy Relationship’ If You Had It: Queensland Labor’s Arbitration System and Union Organising Strategies in Rockhampton, 1916-57.
Barbara Webster

Critics of the progressive decline in membership in Australian unions attribute the predicament to a failure to develop independent organising strategies during decades of passive over-reliance on preference clauses under a compulsory industrial arbitration system. To test the historical validity of these accusations, this article examines six major unions in Rockhampton during 40 years under a state Labor arbitration system. Using a broad definition of organising – recruitment of members, fostering membership participation and creating union awareness and presence in the workplace – this paper reveals two fallacies about union ‘dependence’. Firstly, not all unions relied on arbitration for organising: denied the privilege of preference or by choice, some adopted mobilisational strategies. Secondly, rather than being passively dependent on preference clauses, arbitrationist unions actively exploited the system. Through an intimate relationship between compliant unions and Queensland Labor’s apparatus, arbitration facilitated organising for and empowered those unions.

Gender in Store: Salespeople’s Working Hours and Union Organisation in New Zealand and the United States, 1930-60
Evan Roberts

Explanations for the weakness of retail employees’ unions have often emphasised that a high proportion of salespeople were women with low attachment to the labour force and unions. Comparing the experience of salespeople’s unions in Wellington (New Zealand) and Saint Paul (Minnesota), this paper shows instead that perceptions of women as consumers shaped the political environment in which retail unions tried to control working hours. After 1930s legislation in both countries denied salespeople the 40 hour week other occupations had been granted, retail unions in Saint Paul and Wellington focussed their efforts on achieving a 40 hour, five-day week. While both unions were successful in gaining their 40 hour week, when that goal had been accomplished they lost the commitment of their members, revealing the structural limitations of craft-based unionism trying to organise workers in an industry which was organised on merchandise, not functional, principles.

Excellent Women and Troublesome Children: State Foster Care in Tasmania, 1896-1918
Caroline Evans

Tasmania’s Neglected Children’s Department was established in 1896, as a result of public anxiety engendered by the presence of numerous children in the streets during 1890s Depression. The Department employed foster mothers to look after the children who were defined as neglected and committed to its care. Extensive files of the children were kept, providing a unique opportunity to study the relationship between the state and the working class, in early twentieth century Tasmania. They demonstrate that foster mothers exercised agency in their negotiations with the Department and in so doing were contributors to the development of policy. Their actions challenge the implicit assumption of much welfare historiography that policy was driven solely by an elite.

Black, White … and Red? The Redfern All Blacks Rugby League Club in the Early 1960s.
Jackie Hartley

Can sport and sporting organisations be a tool of resistance for Indigenous people and communities? This article investigates the interplay between sport and politics through a case study of an all-Aboriginal Sydney football club, the Redfern All Blacks Rugby League Club. In the early 1960s, the Redfern All Blacks represented a highly political response by inner-city Indigenous people to life in Redfern, to the dominant racial discourse and to discriminatory acts, attitudes and legislation. For young Indigenous men, the re-formation of the Club in 1960 presented them with a means to challenge the depressed socio-economic conditions of Redfern through sport. On a community level, the All Blacks forged community links and articulated a distinctive Indigenous identity that defied the dominant discourse of assimilation. Finally, members of the All Blacks became involved in more direct forms of action, developing relationships with the Aboriginal-Australia Fellowship and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines that proved to be mutually beneficial in the fight against discrimination. Such relationships brought the All Blacks to the attention of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), who suspected communist infiltration. More than ‘just’ a sporting club, the All Blacks was a strong example of sport becoming a means of resistance.