Abstracts – Labour History No. 88

Why Compare Labour in Australia and Britain?
Neville Kirk

This introduction to the thematic section explains the genesis and sets the methodological and historiographical contexts of the comparative Australian and British articles which appear in this issue of Labour History. Having made a case for comparative Australian and British labour history, the introduction then identifies the scarcity of research in this area and considers the ways in which the articles presented here can contribute towards filling gaps and further developing comparative and trans-national knowledge and understanding.

Comparative Labour History in Britain and Australia
Stefan Berger and Greg Patmore

The comparative method is a valuable tool for understanding labour history in Australia and the UK. This paper defines comparative labour history and examines the various benefits and problems of comparative research. The article then looks at the use of comparative labour history in Australia and UK. It argues that comparative analysis plays a marginal role in both labour historiographies due to a strong empiricist tradition. This tradition also mitigates against a sophisticated discussion of both concepts and comparative method. Where comparative method is used, there is a bias towards ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries partially due to limited non-English language skills. Among UK historians who focus on the UK, academic links with many parts of the former British Empire, including the USA, are stronger than they are with Europe. When Australian labour historians have adopted a comparative approach, it focuses on ‘settler societies’ such as Canada and the USA, where there is a common interest in general questions such as the ‘frontier’ and more specific issues such as scientific management and the Industrial Workers of the World. The article concludes by arguing that comparative labour history has to take into account the streams of cultural transfer between nationally constituted labour movements to produce better results.

Labour’s Memory : a Comparison of Labour History Archives in Australia, England, Wales and Scotland
Alan R. Bell, Janette Martin and Sigrid McCausland

The writing of labour history depends on the survival and preservation of source material. Labour history societies in Scotland, England and Australia have played a major role in efforts to preserve the records of the labour movement. This article traces the origins of labour history archives in those countries and compares their development over the last few decades. It outlines the locations and strengths of the main collections and the variety and importance of other repositories, including regional collections. The authors discuss how to approach the search for sources and consider several national and international collaborative projects designed to facilitate access to finding aids and catalogues. They also discuss issues affecting the accessibility of labour history archives today, including legislative considerations and the challenge of electronic records. The article illustrates how archivists and those working with labour history collections can assist historians in the quest to produce truly comparative history.

Managing Labour : UK and Australian Employers in Comparative Perspective, 1900-50
Arthur McIvor and Christopher Wright

The exceptionalism of Australian industrial relations has long been asserted. In particular, the Australian system of industrial arbitration has been argued to contrast markedly with other countries, such as Britain, which developed a more ‘voluntarist’ model of industrial regulation. However this distinction relies upon limited historical research of workplace-level developments. In this paper, we focus on a comparative analysis of employer practice in British and Australian workplaces during the first half of the twentieth century. While we find some differences in the nature and extent of management control between the British and Australian experience, what is more striking are the strong similarities in employer practice in work organisation, employment and industrial relations. While economic and institutional factors explain differences in employer practice, fundamental similarities appear to relate to the close economic and social linkages between British and Australian business.

No Lasting Peace? Labor, Communism and the Cominform: Australia and Great Britain, 1945-50
Phillip Deery and Neil Redfern

The formation of the Cominform in 1947 was a decisive moment in the Cold War. Although many rank-and-file activists in the Labor and Communist parties in Great Britain and Australia continued to cooperate with each other, the formal relationship between the two parties sharply deteriorated. In Britain, the formation of the Cominform shattered the Communist Party’s hopes of post-war class peace. Communists’ critical attitude to the Labour Party became openly hostile. However, no fundamental change to Communist Party policy occurred. In industry, the Party became more militant but, generally, continued to pursue an approach that involved collaboration more than confrontation. In Australia, the situation was different. Cominform perspectives significantly altered the position of the Communist Party, which shifted from conciliation to intransigence, from a desire to cooperate with the Labor Party to an intention to ‘liquidate’ reformism. Enmity was mutual: influenced by both the Cold War environment and the increasingly powerful anti-communist Industrial Groups, the hostility of Labor to communism became palpable. The article examines the post-war decline of both communist parties in the context of the interplay between Communist Party policy, Labor Party antagonism, and the international environment of the early Cold War.

Getting a Grip : the Roles of Friendly Societies in Australia and Britain Reappraised
Dan Weinbren and Bob James

Although of considerable political, economic and social significance throughout the Westernised world, ‘friendly societies’ have frequently been dismissed as legitimate objects of study, particularly since the rise of ‘the labour movement’ and of ‘Labour History’. The effects of this neglect will be considered. In both Britain and Australia, academic analyses of benefit-based societies have drawn on few of the available sources or intellectual frameworks and have rarely taken their religious or ritual aspects seriously. The societies have been variously but erroneously presented as primitive trade unions, embryonic insurance companies or poor men’s Masonic lodges. Recent research indicates that fraternal societies, including what we now see unproblematically as Friendly Societies, overlap with Freemasonry and Trade Unions in a range of functions and in a variety of ways. Definitional difficulties, which cannot be fully addressed in this introductory essay, abound, but the authors argue that acknowledgement of this longer and broader context will benefit scholars of working people on a number of fronts. The evolutionary paths of fraternalism in Britain and in Australia are compared and recent forays into class, gender, immigration and the administration of welfare issues, mainly by British scholars, are summarised.

The Labour Movement and Voluntary Action in the UK and Australia : a Comparative Perspective
Justin Davis Smith and Melanie Oppenheimer

Despite the increasing awareness of voluntary action in both countries in recent times, there has been little interest in exploring the historical relationship of voluntary action and labour. It is argued in this paper that the overall silence of the relationship between voluntary action and the labour movement has its origins in the emergence of a ‘myth’ of Labour hostility towards voluntary action. This ‘myth’ explains to some degree the invisibility of voluntary action in labour historiography, and misrepresents the labour movement’s relationship with voluntary action in the UK and Australia. Rather than being implacably hostile to voluntary action, there has always been a strand within labour thinking in the two countries that has seen voluntary action as an essential complement to the state, and as integral to the building of the modern welfare state.

Labour Parties and the State in Australia and the UK
Greg Patmore and David Coates

During the Hawke-Keating period of federal government in Australia and under Blair in the UK both Labor Parties reset traditional understandings about the role and capacity of the state. State power is now exercised in a cultural context in which neo-liberal axioms largely prevail over social democratic ones. What impact did this context have in shaping policy in areas such as the national economy, social structure and political system? This article maps continuity and discontinuities in the theory and practice of the state displayed by Labor Parties in both countries since the 1980s; and contrasts the novelty with the effectiveness of the `New Labour’ positions.

‘& so we are “Slave owners”!’: Employers and the NSW Aborigines Protection Board Trust Funds
Victoria Haskins

The issue of the ‘Stolen Wages’ – earnings withheld from Aboriginal workers throughout the twentieth century – has made prominent headlines in the last few years. The questions surrounding these disappearing monies will undoubtedly continue to be vexed, given the history of state control over Aboriginal labour, and the concomitant practice of governments withholding the wages of Aboriginal workers in trust funds. The following discussion of the trust fund system as it operated in New South Wales under the Aborigines Protection Board’s regime (1883-1940), is intended to illuminate the context and the complexities of the issue and its significance for racial interrelations then, and indeed now. By interrogating the role of white employers in particular, this article makes a contribution to a deeper comprehension of the white experience and involvement in this history of wage withholding, an understanding critical in achieving the support of non-Aboriginal Australians in the Aboriginal workers’ cause today.

A Failure of Voluntarism: Shop Assistants and the Struggle to Restrict Trading Hours in the Colony of Victoria 1850-85
Michael Quinlan, Margaret Gardner and Peter Akers

The struggle over shop trading hours is a significant but neglected component of the nineteenth century working-hours debate. This struggle involved a wide array of workers and their organisations, including journeymen bakers and butchers as well as shop assistants (such as drapers’ assistants and grocers’ assistants). For these workers, hours of labour were dictated by the trading hours of establishments they worked in, alternate sources of supply (in the case of self-employed meat, bread and milk carters) and the lowest common denominator of retailer competition. This study focuses on shop assistants, by far the largest group involved in the early-closing movement, in the colony of Victoria. The study highlights the failure of self-regulation or voluntarism advocated by the Early Closing Movement, the close intersection of commercial controls with social protection and divisions within capital/employers (especially between small and large firms). The repeated and conspicuous failure of the voluntary compliance or persuasion-based approach over 30 years set the scene for a campaign to regulate trading hours in the early 1880s. This campaign yielded success with the enactment of early-closing provisions within the Victorian Factories and Shops Act in 1885 – a pioneering piece of legislation within the British Empire.

Cleavage Within the Working Class? The Working-Class Vote for the Labour Party in New Zealand, 1911-51.
Miles Fairburn and Stephen Haslett

A convention in New Zealand historiography is that the electoral fortunes of the Labour Party in the first half of the twentieth century were tightly constrained by a particular structure of cleavage. Although by 1919 or 1922 Labour had won the support of the vast majority of urban working-class voters in the leading towns, it could not win office with their support alone. This was demonstrated in the 1930s when it gained electoral domination by winning over small farmers and the urban middle classes; and after the late 1930s when the support of non-manuals ebbed away and it lost office in 1949. This article tests the convention. It takes the ten largest provincial towns, determines the class composition of their streets in 11 general elections, estimates the distribution of the votes for each party in each street in each town for every year, and correlates the estimated percentages of Labour vote with percentage of working class. The results are the inverse of the trends claimed by the historiography. The article then examines the social geography of the towns and finds systematic evidence of an unexpected cleavage inside the working class: skilled workers had a much weaker tendency to vote Labour than the unskilled and no tendency at all to reside in the same residential areas as the unskilled.

Work in a Time of Plenty: Narratives of Men’s Work in Post-War Australia
John Murphy

The recollections of elderly men of work in a time of full employment are the focus of this paper. It is based on in-depth qualitative interviews with men who were young parents in the mid-1950s. Drawing on literature about masculinity, post-war Fordism and the constitution of self-identity through narrative, it explores their themes of how central security was to their identity as providers, and examines what satisfactions they got from working. The narrative bookends of their experience are strong memories of their parents in the Depression, and acute awareness of the contemporary insecurity of their children and grandchildren.