Abstracts – Labour History No. 93

Sifting the Evidence: Labour History and the Transcripts of Industrial Arbitration Proceedings
Mark Hearn

Coinciding with the centenary of the Harvester judgement handed down by Justice Henry Bournes Higgins on 8 November 1907, this thematic section highlights the rich history of Australian working class experience as revealed in the transcripts of Commonwealth and State industrial arbitration proceedings. The transcripts record the intensively unfolding and changing patterns of work and enterprise, and provide a powerful record of the immediacy of human experience, not least in working class demands for recognition and justice. The thematic articles illustrate how arbitration transcripts may contribute to a richer appreciation of the development of Australian working class life, business enterprise and the labour process. Articles also focus on how the transcripts may be brought to bear on the history of Australian liberalism, and labour movement relations with the liberal state. In recognition of the Harvester centenary, this introduction reflects on the meanings that may be yielded from the transcripts by reference to Higgins’ practice as president of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in the period 1907-21.

Reconciliation & Conciliation: The Irreconcilable Dilemma of the 1965 ‘Equal’ Wage Case for Aboriginal Station Workers
Thalia Anthony

The Commonwealth Arbitration and Reconciliation Commission in 1965 presided over a landmark case concerning the inclusion of Indigenous workers in the Cattle Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951. The success of the Australian beef industry during the previous hundred years, especially in the Northern Territory, depended almost entirely upon the work of Indigenous cattle workers but they had rarely been paid. The Commission decided to include Indigenous people under the Award, but its characterisation as an Equal Wage Case is a misnomer. The arguments in the proceedings fuelled a decision that compromised the principle behind Award wages. First, the Commission relied on arguments regarding the lower work value of Indigenous workers to allow individuals to be categorised as ‘slow workers’ on below-Award wages. Second, the Commission referred to evidence on the Commonwealth’s assimilation policy to advocate the removal of workers from ‘tribal’ camps on stations. The transcripts reveal racial biases of the Commission that undermined the granting of Award wages.

Mobilising at the Workplace: State Regulation and Collective Action in Three Workplaces, 1900 to the 1920s
Sandra Cockfield

The belief that arbitration and similar forms of state labour market regulation in Australia have limited the collective mobilisation of workers at the workplace is examined in this article. Using John Kelly’s mobilisation framework, the article explores the impact of state regulation on workplace regulation and the implications for the capacity of workers to mobilise for collective action. While state regulation spread throughout the Australian states in the early years of federation, the systems varied. The Victorian wages board system was much more restricted in scope than the arbitral system established in New South Wales. The article examines the implications of this for worker mobilisation through three workplace case studies in the early decades of the twentieth century; one in Victoria and two in New South Wales. While wage boards in Victoria neither constrained nor supported collective mobilisation, in New South Wales the picture is more complicated. The article demonstrates that the impact of arbitration was uneven and contradictory, both assisting and constraining collective mobilisation and action.

Making Liberal Citizens: Justice Higgins and His Witnesses
Mark Hearn

In the Commonwealth Arbitration Court’s treatment of women workers the contradictions and tensions of liberal citizenship in post-federation Australia are sharply manifest. A meaningful sense of citizenship required economic rights and economic independence as a basis for participation in the public sphere, a civic participation offered to men but denied to women. The Commonwealth and state industrial tribunals played a key role in defining the gendered spheres of citizenship: transforming citizenship from a vague concept of rights and duties to an active relationship between liberal subject and state required specific interventions to promote self-government, and within discrete systems of governance. The specific interventions under consideration here are two cases that established the Commonwealth Arbitration Court’s discrimination against women in the payment of wages, as the Court’s president, Justice Henry Bournes Higgins, grappled with the ‘problem’ of female labour: in the 1912 Fruitpickers’ case, where the witnesses called before Higgins, told him that discriminating against women in the payment of wages was unjust and could undermine the stable nation-building that Higgins’ living wage was intended to promote; and the 1919 Clothing Trades or Archer case, as Higgins struggled to impose his conception of citizenship on women workers, whose needs and rights challenged Higgins, and confronted him with successful invaders of his new province for law and order.

‘The skilful unskilled labourer’: The Decline of Artisanal Discourses of Skill in the NSW Arbitration Court, 1905-15
Ben Maddison

For several centuries artisanal meanings dominated Anglophone discourse on skill. By the start of the twentieth century this dominance was being eroded. The records of the New South Wales Arbitration Court show that older artisanal meanings were losing the credibility that they used to have and were being contested by new understandings of skill more attuned to the commodified labour regime of industrial capitalism. Heydon’s apparent oxymoron reflected his position as a mediator of these changes, trying to balance the historical stability presented by artisanal classifications, with the taxonomy that was developing to describe new and more-intensively commodified industrial realities.

A Theatre of Words and Wages: Reading the Script of the Harvester Hearing
W.M. Robbins and Ian Harriss

The transcript of the proceedings of the Harvester case heard in October 1907 presents a stark contrast with the Decision ultimately handed down by Justice Higgins, President of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. A reading of the transcript reveals the discourse presented during the case in the form of argument, evidence and witness testimony did not greatly support the notion of a ‘living’ minimum wage for unskilled males. This was not, for example, a union objective in the case. Using the transcript this article outlines the details put by both the employer and union advocates and identifies the highly interactive role of Higgins in this landmark case. In doing this the article explains why the judgment made by Higgins was so different to the substance of the arguments presented to him. It is concluded that it was Higgins’ complex notion of nation-building which steered him away from the advocates’ arguments and towards his own objectives.

‘War conducted under certain rules, but nonetheless war’: Arbitration, Capital and Labour in the Western Australian Gold Mining Industry, 1901-14
Naomi Segal

Between 1900 and 1914 state arbitration in the mining industry in Western Australia, was driven more by the mining employers and less so by organised labour. The process and outcome of centralised wage fixing reflected the different logics of the protagonists’ collective actions, which arose from the inequality of their resources, both strategic and material, and from the differences in the nature and difficulty of their organisational tasks. Collective relations changed from arbitrated to unmediated conflict as the organisational, market and political power of labour grew. Arbitration, rather than resolving conflict, became the focus of disputes. Wider and more intense conflicts centering on the Awards of the Court were only averted by global considerations of overseas controllers of the mines for whom the declining Western Australian mines were only marginal. At the end of the period studied, Western Australian mining employers, while continuing to demonstrate cohesion and capacity for action superior to labour’s, began forming and supporting new forms of industrial and political organisation with which to maintain their advantage over labour.

The Dirtiest of Jobs: Maintaining Sydney’s Sewers 1890-1910
Peter Sheldon

Public health crises followed as provision of water supply and sewage disposal failed to keep pace with Sydney’s rapid, mid-nineteenth century growth. Construction of necessary infrastructure and the creation of the Water Board, in 1888, to administer it proved to be the solution. This article tells of those who laboured to maintain Sydney’s sewers and thereby helped guarantee the public health of that metropolis. It is a story of grindingly heavy, dangerous and nauseatingly foul work but also of the workers who willingly took that work on. This willingness drew from life experiences and working histories in an era marked by major depression and persistent employment insecurity for the formally unskilled. Under a paternalist Board, they found employment security, generous employment conditions and wide autonomy in carrying out their work. This convinced them to choose the protected backwater of house unionism rather than more militant union tendencies evident among labourers outside the Board.

Other Articles

The Lost Labour Force: Working-Class Approaches Towards Military Service During the Great War
Nathan Wise

Of the 330 000 Australian men who embarked with the Australian Imperial Force during the Great War, over two-thirds were from Australia’s working classes. Amongst these were many men who approached military service as a job of work; they enlisted for employment, for the pay, or for the benefits they believed they would receive upon discharge. Yet the traditional approach towards ‘histories of the military’ has largely passed by the daily work of these men in favour of combat related studies, whilst on the other hand labour historians have had a distaste for studies of the military in general. This article seeks to bring attention to the importance of labour history approaches to the military by focusing upon these working-class attitudes towards military service in the Australian Imperial Force during the Great War as a job of work.

‘Bucking the machine’: Clarrie Martin and the NSW Socialisation Units 1929-35
Nick Martin

The Socialisation Unit’s campaign of the early 1930s remains an intriguing and under-explored part of the NSW Labor Party’s history. This article will provide further information on this campaign by looking at the role of one of the prominent leaders in the campaign, C.E. ‘Clarrie’ Martin. By examining Martin’s diaries for the period, we are able to provide further explanation on the background to the campaign, its aims and its methods. From this vantage point we can make further conclusions about the nature of the campaign and the reasons for its eventual failure.

‘Sindicalistas Australianos’: A Case Study of International Trade Unionism
Ann Jones

In March 1974 a delegation of Australian trade unionists travelled to Chile to investigate the situation under the newly installed military government. Labour historians have largely ignored this episode. This article will examine the events both leading up to and including the delegation, and restore them to their rightful place in the historical record. It will also frame the delegation as an example of internationalism in progress rather than an illustration of any one model of internationalism.