Abstracts – Labour History No. 97

Anti-Union Employer Strategy and Australian
Labour History

Private Detectives, Blacklists and Company Unions: Anti-Union Employer Strategy and Australian Labour History
Rae Cooper and Greg Patmore
This article serves as an introduction to several others which investigate the critical issue of Australian employer anti-union strategies from an historical perspective. To place these studies in context, we examine how Australian labour historians have previously analysed employer anti-union strategies and we discuss the rise of ‘anti-labour history’. We conclude by commenting on the ways in which the contributions in this volume add to our understanding of anti-collective employer strategy in the Australian context.

Silicosis, Mechanisation and the Demise of Sydney’s Rockchoppers’ Union, 1908-18
Peter Sheldon
In 1908, Sydney’s rockchoppers won a spectacular victory against their employers and the New South Wales Government. The core of their grievances was the horrific danger of silicosis they faced in cutting sandstone for sewerage construction. In successive years, through their sectional union, they gained greater control of the labour market and used their power to reinforce unilateral regulation. Increasing costs, that flowed from labour shortages, work stoppages, and improvements these workers had made in their working hours and wages, created a crisis among public works contractors. The pro-contracting public sector authority responsible for sewerage construction – Sydney’s Water Board – developed a strategic response to the union which took advantage of the effects of the arbitration system on union representation among these workers. By shifting work away from contractors and the rockchoppers’ union and mechanising the most skilled work, the Board precipitated the demise of a militant union and its replacement by more tractable bodies.

Anti-Union or Pro-property? Worker Surveillance and Gold Theft in Western Australian Gold Mines, 1899-1920
Naomi Segal

Historically, both in Australia and elsewhere, employers often used blacklists to exclude unionists from their workforce. In Western Australia, workers in the first decades of the gold mining industry feared such an ‘organised system of victimisation’ as early as 1903. This paper is a first step in examining whether the umbrella body, the Chamber of Mines of Western Australia, in developing and operating a system for surveilling workers to prevent gold stealing, extended the surveillance also to workers it considered undesirable for political or industrial reasons, as workers feared. The paper investigates the emergence of the system of blacklisting ‘undesirable employees’ on the mines and the nature, the extent and intent of intelligence collecting and sharing by mine employers. However, as it was possible to access only a small fraction of the records pertaining to the surveillance operation (the remainder are still restricted), the paper’s conclusion are only tentative.

Employee Participation and Labour Representation: ICI Works Councils in
Australia 1942-75

Raymond Markey and Greg Patmore

There are union concerns that non-union forms of employee representation such as work councils may open up a second channel of communication between employees and management that would weaken union workplace representation. During World War II and the immediate post-war period, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in Australia followed its British parent firm’s practice of introducing works councils. It established its first works council at its Yarraville Factory in Melbourne in 1942. By 1959 there were works councils at 12 Australian factories, each with an equal number of management nominees, and representatives elected by employees. Although they could not deal with matters covered by agreements with unions, they could deal with issues such as accident prevention, factory efficiency and timekeeping. This article analyses the impact of these works councils on labour relations, particularly trade union representation, and the demise of the works councils.

CRA/Rio Tinto in the 1990s: A Decade of Deunionisation
Bruce Hearn Mackinnon

Given the scale of Rio Tinto’s battles with the Australian union movement during the roll out of its deunionisation program throughout its diverse mining and manufacturing operations, there is much to be learnt from examining how the company first introduced its ‘staff’ employment system at its Tiwai Point smelter in New Zealand in 1991, Hamersley Iron in 1993, and at its Comalco-run Bell Bay and Weipa operations during 1994-96. More importantly, however, it is worth knowing why the company was so successful in deunionising previously ‘soldered on’ union territory. Though no doubt assisted by sympathetic legal, political and economic environments, it was ultimately the demonstration of managerial strength and determination, coupled with a hesitant union leadership, which led to the success of the company’s deunionisation strategy. As the union movement makes tentative steps to attract workers back to the fold, there are valuable lessons to be gained from analysing these momentous events which constitute such a transformational period in the history of Australian industrial relations.

Other Articles

‘Harmony … between the Employer and Employed’: Employer Support for Union Formation in Brisbane, 1857-90
Bradley Bowden

While there has been much research on union formation there has been little analysis of the ways in which employers assisted this process. This paper contends that such support was a precondition for union success in Brisbane prior to the mid-1880s. Employers supported unionism for different reasons, with motives changing over time. Prior to the late 1870s the unions’ principal sponsors were the major employers in the trade each union organised. These employers supported unionism because industrial regulation suited their business interests. After 1879, the employers who assumed union leadership roles were largely driven by ideological sympathies rather than financial considerations. Under such leaders the union movement pursued an increasingly independent course.

Fremantle in Slow Motion: Winning Back the Melbourne Waterfront, 1919
Robert Bollard

A basic misconception regarding precisely what happened on the Melbourne waterfront in 1919 has coloured perceptions of the industrial performance of the Waterside Workers Federation between the defeat of 1917 and the lockout of 1928. Contrary to the prevailing perception of a fatally weakened and embattled organisation, plagued by mass scabbing, the wharfies won a major victory in 1919. The comparatively well-documented success in Fremantle, where a major riot in May 1919 cleared the port of scabs, was followed by a more prolonged, but ultimately successful campaign in Melbourne which has not been documented. Combining violence and intimidation (helped as in Fremantle by the presence of returned soldiers) with strike action, in conjunction with the seamen, the rank and file of the Melbourne wharfies defied both their officials and Justice Higgins to win the abolition of the Nation Service Bureau and reinstate preference for unionists.

The Australian Left’s Support for the Creation of the State of Israel, 1947-48
Philip Mendes
Historically, the international Left held a range of perspectives on Zionism ranging from mild sympathy to sharp ideological hostility. However, during the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli war, virtually the entire Left – whether communist or social democratic – supported the State of Israel. This paper examines the Australian Left’s pro-Zionist position in 1947-48 in the context of this international trend, with particular reference to the views expressed by the Communist Party of Australia and the Australian Labor Party government. This pro-Zionist-position is attributed to three factors: a humanitarian sympathy for the Jews following the Holocaust; a relative indifference to the aspirations and plight of the Palestinian Arabs; and the advocacy activities of Jewish groups including the key activism of the left-wing Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism and, conversely, the absence of any Palestinian or Arab lobbying activities.

The Cairns Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League and the Community of the Left
Sue Taffe

The Cairns Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League (CATSIAL) was a product of its place and time. Conditions in far north Queensland were conducive to the formation of such a body in the late 1950s. This article investigates these conditions, introduces key Cairns Aboriginal activists and explores the relationships between these activists and their non-Indigenous supporters. Drawing on the work of labour historians who have explored the concept of ‘community’ in labour studies it argues that a community of the Left existed within which the Cairns League could operate successfully. This community, while initially spatially based, broadened to become a community in which shared ideology overcame spatial separation so that the Cairns activists influenced national events despite their isolation from the centres of power.