Abstracts – Labour History No. 103

Economic Wealth and Political Power in Australia, 1788-2010
Georgina Murray and Jenny Chesters

Although Australia is sometimes regarded as an egalitarian society, evidence shows that inequalities in the distribution of wealth are pronounced. We note in the historiography of this economic inequality that it has it featured so little in Australian social history. Our argument is that economic historians should detail the relationship between economic wealth and political power within Australia to tease out the implications of inequality over the ability of the Australian state to govern from the beginning of European settlement. Drawing on various sources of data, we examine who the wealthy are and how they generate, accumulate and maintain their wealth to provide an insight into the political power associated with economic wealth.

Figures in the Landscape: The Experience of the Least Visible Workers on a New England Pastoral Station, 1850-1900
Margaret Rodwell

Until recent decades, the contribution made by women and children, Chinese males and Indigenous people to the development of rural Australia in the colonial period remained largely unacknowledged. This study contributes to the redress by examining the experiences of members of this hitherto ‘hidden’ workforce who lived and worked on Ollera Station, near Guyra in northern NSW, between 1850 and 1900. Careful analysis of the wages paid to their male ‘breadwinners’ reveals the operation of a flourishing ‘family economy’ system on the station, which permitted the wives and children of European shepherds and labourers to make an important financial contribution to their families’ living standards. Though more fragmentary, the wage records of Chinese and Indigenous employees offer additional evidence, particularly regarding the length, duration and nature of the work undertaken by these workers. This evidence, when combined with the wealth of material contained in the almost complete run of station diaries between 1862 and the 1890s, provides valuable insights into the lives of both ‘masters’ and ‘men’ on the still isolated run. In doing so, it confirms the active and very positive contribution these ‘hidden’ workers made to the station’s economic success.

Company Boats, Sailing Dinghies and Passenger Fish: Fathoming Torres Strait Islander Participation in the Maritime Economy
Steve Mullins

While research has been conducted into Torres Strait’s Queensland government controlled lugger-based company boat system, which operated from about 1904 until the late 1960s, another significant Torres Strait Islander mode of production, the gathering of marine product using shore-based sailing dinghies, has been largely overlooked. This article traces the emergence of this small-scale, yet substantial, pervasive and persistent form of enterprise and makes some preliminary observations about the patterns of activity. It suggests that a more detailed analysis of sailing dinghy work might offer fresh insights into Torres Strait Islander engagement with colonialism and further complicate the social control interpretive model.

‘Nothing but Rebels’: Union Sisters at the Sydney Rubber Works, 1918-42
John Tully

Based on primary sources, this article provides an account of the forgotten struggles of women workers at the Sydney Rubber Works in the years from 1918 to 1942. Like almost all female workers of the interwar period, these women received 54 percent of male earnings. Yet they refused to accept their lot as victims of the industrial system and the patriarchy and were lambasted as ‘nothing but rebels’ by the establishment for doing so. In 1939, they struck for seven weeks in protest against the Bedaux system of labour management. In January 1942, they again went on strike, this time demanding equal pay for equal work. Virtually nothing has been written to date about the union or its members, who worked primarily in the suburb of Drummoyne. This study draws on the hitherto unexploited files of the Federated Rubber and Allied Workers Union of Australia (FRAW), along with other archival sources.

Australian POW Labour in Germany in World War II
Peter Monteath

Accounts of Australian prisoners of war in Japanese captivity typically focus on the centrality of the labour experience. In contrast, the literature of the POW experience in Europe largely avoids the topic of labour. Popular culture, too, offers an image of German captivity dominated by boredom and inactivity, with the exception of accounts of escape. This article focuses on the work experiences of Australian POWs in Germany. It draws on official sources as well as first-hand accounts to establish the extent and conditions of Australian POW labour. It argues that it was an essentially ambivalent experience, on the one hand offering those required to work relief from prolonged inactivity and increased opportunities to escape, but on the other labour was perceived as a contribution to the enemy’s war effort, and conditions were in many cases so harsh as to cause injury and longer term physical consequences.

Doing Without the Boss: Workers’ Control Experiments in Australia in the 1970s
Verity Burgmann, Ray Jureidini and Meredith Burgmann

Experiments with workers’ control occurred in many countries during the late post-war boom period in circumstances of heightened industrial militancy and a crisis in employer and state authority. They are again popular under different conditions, especially in Argentina and Venezuela. Such episodes demonstrate that labour can exist without capital, whereas capital is always dependent on labour. This essential autonomy of labour from capital is a notion elaborated most cogently by ‘autonomist’ Marxists, especially Antonio Negri. His concepts of autonomy, self-valorisation and political crisis are used to describe and analyse Australian workers’ control experiments during the 1970s, focusing especially on the Sydney Opera House work-in of April-May 1972, the Whyalla Glove Factory occupation of November 1972 and formation of a workers’ co-operative that lasted until September 1973, and the Nymboida mine work-in and takeover under workers’ and union control from February 1975 to August 1979.

Marxism for Beginner Nations: Radical Nationalist Historians and the Great War
Carolyn Holbrook

In 1965 Ken Inglis published a provocative article in Meanjin, in which he challenged historians to give greater consideration to World War I and, in particular, the work of its official historian, Charles Bean. Inglis suggested that his Marxist colleagues were uncomfortable with Great War history because the imperial loyalty of the diggers was contrary to their assumptions about the radicalism of the working class. There was, however, one element of Great War history from which radical historians drew ideological comfort: Inglis believed that historians of the Left had portrayed the conscription debate inaccurately as a battle between an anti-war and anti-British proletariat and a militarist bourgeoisie. This article tests the veracity of Inglis’ claims by examining the work of four historians commonly associated with the radical nationalist movement: Brian Fitzpatrick, Russel Ward, Ian Turner and Geoffrey Serle. It considers how the Great Depression, the rise of the popular front against fascism and (in the case of the last three) service in World War II shaped these men’s approaches to memorialising war and writing history. The paper shows how the radical historians came increasingly to view World War I as the wrecking ball of their socialist dream.

‘Conscription is Not Abhorrent to Laborites and Socialists’: Revisiting the Australian Labour Movement’s Attitude towards Military Conscription during World War I
Nick Dyrenfurth

Historical accounts of the 1916-17 conscription referendums have tended to portray the Australian labour movement’s anti-conscriptionism as a natural phenomenon. Prime Minister Billy Hughes and other Laborite pro-conscriptionists were ‘rats’ who had acted against the anti-militaristic creed of the working class and its major political representative, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) . By contrast, this article builds upon recent work in the field to suggest that labour movement opposition to conscription was not some fait accomplit. Drawing upon contemporary labour movement newspaper writings, union and ALP conference proceedings and, in particular, the views of the Victorian-based federal Labor MP, Frank Anstey, it argues that the labour movement was not in theory opposed to conscription. Rather the movement objected to a form of conscription which applied to human life but excluded the nation’s wealth. In turn, the article questions the inevitability of the disastrous Labor split which followed the holding of the first referendum.

The Mobilisation of Capital behind ‘the Battle for Freedom’: The Sydney Banks, the Institute of Public Affairs (NSW) and Opposition to the Australian Labor Party 1944-49
Warwick Eather and Drew Cottle

During 1944-49 the Sydney Banks and the Institute of Public Affairs (NSW) waged a covert war against the Australian Labor Party, particularly the federal Labor governments led by John Curtin (1941-45) and Ben Chifley (1945-49). The Sydney Banks and the IPA opposed federal Labor’s legislative programme, especially its regulation of the banking sector, and its vision for post-war Australia. Instead of openly leading the public fight against the government, the Sydney Banks and the IPA founded and/or funded a number of front organisations to fight their fights. These front organisations campaigned against Labor in the federal referendums held in 1944, 1946 and 1948, the 1946 and 1949 federal elections, and against the government’s 1945 Banking Legislation and the decision, made in 1947, to nationalise the private trading banks. Little was left to chance. No expense was spared.

The Apostasy of Allan Fraser: The ALP and Civil Liberties in 1955
Andrew Moore

A landmark event in Australian political, legal and constitutional history, the parliamentary privilege case of 1955, whereby two men, Raymond Fitzpatrick and Frank Browne, were sent to gaol on a vote of the Commonwealth House of Representatives is normally understood to have been driven more by the vindictive machinations of Prime Minister R.G. Menzies than by their ‘crime’ of contempt of Parliament. This article examines the extent to which Dr Evatt and ALP members were also responsible for the fate of Fitzpatrick and Browne and highlights the principled stand of one ALP parliamentarian, Allan Fraser MHR, in opposing the gaolings and seeking to have a travesty of justice set right.

A Middle-Class Diversion from Working-Class Struggle? The New Zealand New Left from the Mid-1950s to the Mid-1970s
Toby Boraman

Internationally, the New Left is frequently regarded as an archetypal middle-class movement that had little concern with the working class. Yet in New Zealand, the New Left’s most prominent organisations were working-class youth groups or joint worker-student groups. Furthermore, when a major upturn in workplace antagonism occurred during the late 1960s and the 1970s, many New Leftists attempted to form links with these recalcitrant workers. New Leftists not only supported workplace disputes, but also organised in working-class inner-city suburbs. Significantly, some New Leftists attempted to come to grips with the changing class composition of the time. They usefully broadened class analysis to include many white-collar workers, although much of their analysis was inconclusive. However, other New Leftists dismissed the working class, narrowly defined as manual workers, as backward and reactionary. Moreover, the New Left tended to perceive workers’ struggles as peripheral in importance, as it primarily focussed on protesting against the Vietnam War, the nuclear threat, US military installations and apartheid. Overall, the New Left had an ambiguous and complex relationship with class-struggle.

From Defeat to Catastrophe: The Labor Party in Rural New South Wales, 1988-2011
Bradley Bowden

While Labor’s defeat in the 2011 New South Wales (NSW) election has received much comment an overlooked outcome is the ‘ghettoisation’ of its vote. Labor did not capture a single rural booth outside of the seat of Monaro. This article argues that this outcome stemmed not from recent organisational and policy failings but rather from trends now decades old. After 1988 few country people voted Labor. For almost 20 years, however, Labor’s plight was disguised by the Coalition’s discomfiture in the face of Independents and minor parties. Nevertheless, by 2007 NSW Labor’s alienation from rural voters was clearly contributing to the party’s problems.