Abstracts Labour History No. 90

‘Prove first you’re a male’: A Farmhand’s Claim for Wages in 1929 Australia
Ruth Ford

‘Prove first you’re a male’ considers the case of a farmhand’s claim for wages through the civil legal system in 1929 Australia, in which the claimant, William Smith, was exposed to be ‘female’. The article examines the court case and the press coverage, and considers the treatment of William Smith by the legal system, the press, the medical profession and rural communities. Smith’s gender-crossing challenged a legal, wages and arbitration system based on divisions between male and female. Once defined as biologically female, Smith posed the threat of trespassing on the domain of male labour and receiving male wages. The article analyses why Smith was glorified in the press as an Australian rural battler and heroine, when other ‘men-women’ at this time faced severe condemnation. The article contends that rural nationalism and settler colonialism enabled Smith to be recast into a national legend which glorified hard work, courage and refusing convention.

Class and Labour: The British Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party Compared
Leighton James and Raymond Markey

The class nature and political trajectory of the British Labour Party (BLP) and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) have been remarkably similar. The greatest manifestations of this similarity have been in terms of each party being the main representative working class political party; the structural significance of trade unions within both parties; and each party being characterised by a dominant ideology of ‘labourism’. However, there have also been significant differences. The ALP succeeded in consolidating as an electoral force much earlier, and has enjoyed somewhat more electoral success ever since. Furthermore, the programmatic expression of labourism differed in some important respects. This article first aims to explain the early electoral success of the ALP through the consideration of four factors: the timing of political consolidation, the structure of the Australian and British states, the political environment, class structure and party membership. Secondly, it examines the trajectories of the BLP and ALP in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the prism of labourism, which has itself been affected by changes in class structure and party membership.

Arbitration and the Workplace: A Case Study of Metters’ Stovemakers, 1902-22
Sandra Cockfield

An analysis of regulatory structures and work practices at Metters’ Sydney stove works in the early decades of the twentieth century suggests the relationship between arbitration and workplace industrial relations was complex and contradictory. Awards of the New South Wales arbitral system simultaneously supported management prerogative and collective workplace organisation and bargaining at Metters. The actual impact of arbitration was shaped by the interaction of management, unions and rank and file workers. The article explores the influence of the NSW arbitration system on work organisation and management strategy, workplace union organisation and rank and file militancy. It is argued that arbitration did not determine or dominant workplace industrial relations at Metters but neither was it irrelevant. While on the surface it appears that various arbitral awards assisted worker control, a closer examination reveals the importance of workplace militancy, often independent of the union, in achieving this control.

‘Good-bye the state’s progress’: State Enterprise and Labor’s Plan for a North Queensland Steel Industry, 1915-20
Shawn Sherlock

The Ryan and Theodore Queensland Labor governments of 1915-20 have been presented as trailblazers in the development of policies of state ownership, but also as examples of the practical limits of Labor’s approach. While most previous work has focused on the enterprises that were successfully established, such as the butcher’s shops and the state hotel, this article examines the ultimately unfulfilled plans to build a state iron and steel works in northern Queensland. It sets the plans to establish a nationalised iron and steel industry in Queensland in its specific local and regional context, and acknowledges the influence of a broader regional development agenda. It is argued that while the nationalisation issue has traditionally been seen in ‘big picture’ terms, regional and local factors need to be considered in more detail.

‘The Active Chorus’: The Great Strike of 1917 in Victoria
Robert Bollard

Of the 97,000 workers who struck during the Great Strike of 1917 nearly 13 per cent were Victorian. The lack of attention that historians have paid to the Great Strike has been particularly alarming with regards to these Victorian strikers. The hope of this article is to begin to redress this balance, as part of the project of reshaping our understanding of what was, arguably, the greatest period of working-class radicalisation in Australian history. It does so from a perspective inspired by E.P. Thompson’s concept of ‘history from below’. This involves more than simply giving voice to those previously hidden from history; it demonstrates the role of the working class as an agent of history.

Working at Sunshine: A Case Study of the Recruitment, Retention and Management of Labour in a Melbourne Manufacturing Enterprise, 1946-63
Charles Fahey and John Lack

In the 1950s unemployment in Australia fell to record low levels. Official records record the low levels of unemployment but tell little about the way workers and employers reacted to this new environment. The personnel records of Massey-Ferguson at Sunshine are a window into the world of manufacturing work in the 1950s. Through a sample drawn from individual employee records we explore how workers at a major manufacturing firm reacted to a full-employment labour market. Through these records we explore such questions as labour turnover, the development of internal labour markets, the recruitment of migrant workers and the extent of over award payments. We also explore how the company attempted to cope with a highly mobile labour force.

Labor and Vietnam: a Reappraisal
Ashley Lavelle

Arguing from a Marxist perspective, this paper maintains that the shift in the Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) Vietnam War policy in favour of withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam was largely brought about by pressure from the Anti-Vietnam War Movement (AVWM) and changing public opinion, rather than being a response to a similar shift by the United States government, as some have argued. The impact of the AVWM on Labor is often understated. This impact is indicated not just by the policy shifts, but also the anti-war rhetoric and the willingness of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP) members to support direct action. The latter is a particularly neglected aspect of commentary on Labor and Vietnam. Labor’s actions here are consistent with its historic susceptibility to the influence of radical social movements, particularly when in opposition. In this case, by making concessions to the AVWM, Labor stood to gain electorally, and was better placed to control the movement.

The Fox Inquiry: Public Policy Making in Open Forum
Les Dalton

The Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry was commissioned under the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act, 1974. The Act, designed by Moss Cass, Minister for Environment in the Whitlam Labor Government, was intended to promote public participation in environment policy making especially on new high-impact technologies. The Presiding Commissioner, Justice Russell Fox, interpreted his terms of reference very broadly and invited the public in to take part along with the experts in his wide-ranging inquiry. Activists from the environment and labour movements took up the challenge.

The Eclipse of Mateship: The ‘Wide Comb Dispute’ 1979-85
Rory O’Malley

In the early-1980s the Australian shearing industry was torn apart by the ‘wide comb dispute’. This occupied the Arbitration Commission for over four years, while intimidation of ‘scabs’ and woolshed arson ensured it caught the urban public’s imagination. The rich mythology of the 1890s and the mystery of why shearing equipment aroused such passions seemed related. An intriguing dimension was that the offending combs had been introduced by New Zealanders. The deeper cultural issue was the New Zealanders’ weak unionism. The core dispute, however, was between the newly formed National Farmers Federation, energised by new ideas of how Australian society should be organised, and the Australian Workers Union (AWU). The traditional clash between woolgrowers and the AWU over shearing rates and conditions was camouflage for a much more profound ideological shift in society. ‘New Right’ ideas challenged the ‘Federation settlement’ and the concepts of ‘labourism’ which was the core of the AWU’s raison d’etre.

Rethinking Labor Tradition: Synthesising Discourse and Experience
Nick Dyrenfurth

The argument seeks to contribute to the ongoing theoretical discourse surrounding the role of class and language within the practice of labour and social history. A series of inclusive (often denoted as ‘bottom-up’) studies has added undoubted richness to the fabric of such histories. Yet such scholarly developments have, arguably, histories of institutions, for our purposes the Australian Labor Party, which are unfairly disconnected from processes of class formation and identity construction. I am proposing one way forward that seeks to explicitly confront and mediate post-structuralist claims within the field of cultural materialism. Specifically, the historical concept of a Labour(ist) tradition can be revealed more fully via a theoretical approach that synthesises discourse with experience; emphasising its role in representing but also shaping social and political identities. Beyond theoretics, this synthesis has a clear political purpose, for re-conceptualising Labor’s past provides practical clues as regards Labor’s present malaise and possible regeneration.