Abstracts – Labour History No. 110

Completing the Order’s History Down Under: The Knights of Labor in Australia
Steven Parfitt

The rise and fall of an American movement, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, in the Australian colonies between the 1880s and the 1900s is a neglected chapter in labour history. This unusual movement, at once a fraternal order, trade union, political grouping and co-operative enterprise, became the first truly national organisation of American workers. The Knights also became a global movement with branches in England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, Belgium, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Scholars have explored the parameters of the Order’s North American history in great detail. They have not given anywhere near the same level of scrutiny to the Order’s history in other parts of the world, however, and this discrepancy is particularly striking when it comes to their branches in Australia. Australian labour historians have never neglected the American ideas, individuals and institutions that helped to shape the early history of the Australian labour movement. Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Laurence Gronlund, Daniel De Leon and the Industrial Workers of the World, amongst others, all have major studies devoted to their activities and influence in Australia. The Australian Knights of Labor, by contrast, have been the subject of only several pages in a small selection of books and articles. This article provides their future historian with the necessary material to fill this gap in the scholarship and mount a proper study of their history. It provides a narrative of their activities in the various Australian colonies, so far as we can ascertain them, and draws attention to the many holes and unclear parts of that narrative. It then provides a series of questions to inform future research into the Australian Knights, compares with them with the histories of Knights in other non-American countries, and connects them to wider fields of historical scholarship, including imperial and global labour history. This article is, in other words, the first sustained study of the Australian Knights of Labor; it also provides the foundation from which a larger study might hopefully come.

An Ambivalent Relationship: Thomas Caddy, the Drapers’ Association and the Sydney Trades and Labor Council’s Forgotten Cooperation over Early Closing
Peter Bastian and Victor Quayle

Attempts by retail workers to limit their hours of employment through campaigns for the early closing of shops have received only limited attention. Yet, Sydney’s drapery community played a longstanding and prominent role in this movement. In the 1880s, Thomas Caddy helped foster an alliance, now completely forgotten, between the Drapers’ Association and the Sydney Trades and Labor Council to campaign for early closing by moral suasion. These moves ended in failure and revealed the problems associated with using moral suasion tactics, the fluidity of early worker affiliations, the strengths and limitations of early peak union councils and the changing status of workers within the drapery trade.

Professionalism or Inter-Union Solidarity? Organising Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers, 1955–75
Sarah Gregson, Michael Quinlan and Ian Hampson

In a recent examination of modern-day “worker voice,” Peter Ackers argued that declining membership density should impel trade unions to disavow outdated radicalism, embracing instead more “responsible” relations with employers, the state and the public. In professionalism, he maintained, trade unions might find greater public legitimacy and increased membership, by focussing upon “bread and butter” issues and occupational identity. In this historical case study, licensed aircraft maintenance engineers (LAMEs) did just this. They built an industrial strategy around the workplace power embodied in their licences and their regulatory oversight role within the maintenance labour process, claiming their technical expertise warranted greater professional recognition from operators. Rebuffing these overtures, some employers lobbied for regulatory changes that amounted to ill-disguised deskilling, in order to undermine growing industrial cohesion and confidence among engineers. Although the LAMEs’ campaign against the changes was mostly successful, we suggest that their focus on professional status ultimately weakened their industrial position by emphasising their distinctiveness at the expense of solidarity with other aviation unions. We posit this interpretation as a contributing factor in the industrial disunity that plagues contemporary aviation unions.

Pursuing Trade Union Internationalism: Australia’s Waterside Workers and the International Transport Workers Federation, c. 1950–70
Diane Kirkby and Dmytro Ostapenko

When the Australian Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) decided in 1971 to join the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) it overturned decades of antipathy to the ITF. We ask why union officials held this view and why the union now changed its mind at this particular moment. We argue that while union power was strong in the immediate post-war decades, the WWF was able to pursue its economic goals locally and join international actions for reasons of solidarity. In the following decade, however, union archives reveal that a confluence of technological change and diminishing union strength under a conservative government made international organising a logical and necessary strategy. Under the guidance of General Secretary Charlie Fitzgibbon, the WWF overcame its opposition to the ITF, by then an organisation representing millions of workers worldwide. We concentrate on Fitzgibbon’s leadership as a crucial factor in the timing of this historic change.

“There’s No Flies at Noonkanbah but the Scabs Are on the Way”: Trade Union Support for Aboriginal Rights during the Noonkanbah Dispute, 1979–80
Alexis Vassiley

In the late 1970s the Noonkanbah Aboriginal community in the Kimberley region of Western Australia took a determined stand against oil exploration on their land. The exploration was to be carried out by a US-based multinational, and had been approved by the Liberal government of Charles Court. The campaign found many allies, including the trade union movement. Trade union support included an official Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Trades and Labor Council of Western Australia (TLC) ban placed on drilling for oil which was actively supported by members of the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) and Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), who refused to transport cargo and drill for oil respectively. This case study of union industrial action taken in support Aboriginal rights has not been adequately documented or analysed. The evidence shows that important pre-conditions for this labour movement contribution were a high level of industrial militancy and confidence among unions, and political leadership from some activists within the movement who supported a broader agenda of social change.

Adopted Apprentices: Juvenile Recruitment in Australian Circus, 1847–1942
Mark St Leon

Recent studies on the history of circus in Australia draw attention to the practise of recruiting male and female juveniles as trainee performers to augment a circus family or circus troupe. In oral recollections, circus people loosely described these juveniles as “apprenticed” or “adopted.” Although several nefarious examples of recruitment have been previously described in detail, historians have not explained the wider contexts in which such recruitment took place. The constant need for circus proprietors to embellish their programs drove the demand for these juveniles. This article explores the factors influencing the supply of juvenile circus labour, focussing on the evolving social, legislative and economic contexts within which juveniles were recruited into circus between 1847 (the foundation year of circus in Australia) and 1942 (when most circus companies temporarily ceased operations owing to wartime restrictions and by which time juvenile recruitment was largely extinguished). The study highlights the worth of deeper scholarly enquiry into this previously neglected group of young workers. It also demonstrates the complexity of labour practises in theatrical entertainments, generally, and in itinerant entertainments such as circus in particular. In doing so, the study suggests the need to reconsider the distinction between the margins and mainstream of Australian labour and social history.

Denis Murphy, the University of Queensland and Labour History, 1966–83: A Reassessment
Bradley Bowden

This paper explores the flowering of labour history at the University of Queensland between 1966 and 1983; a blossoming that not only laid foundations for the discipline in Queensland but which also provided an interpretation at odds with the then dominant “Old Left” historiography. It is argued that, in addition to Denis Murphy’s efforts, there were four complex and unstable factors behind this flowering: initial support from Queensland Labor, senior mentors (notably Roger Joyce and Colin Hughes), a favourably inclined University of Queensland Press manager and a reservoir of labour history theses. While these factors underpinned publications between 1966 and 1983, by the latter date their impetus was largely exhausted. Subsequent advances occurred in less propitious circumstances.

The Genesis and Performance of an Australian Wage-Fixing System in Papua New Guinea
Benedict Y. Imbun

The functioning of inherited institutions in former colonised countries is embedded with their character and history. This is particularly the case for institutions such as wage boards which shape polices aimed at maintaining and restoring equity considerations for both workers and employers. Yet post-colonial institutions’ performances and progress have not attracted much interest in academic discourse. This article examines the establishment and performance of an Australian-styled minimum wage fixing system in Papua New Guinea (PNG). It attempts to fill the void in understanding the performance of inherited institutions in post-independence circumstances. The article does it through discussing several aspects of the wage fixation system. First, it explains the development and functioning of the MWB in pre-and post-independence period. Second, the article highlights the MWB’s salient characteristics, its aims, membership composition, and the various wage determinations for the country. It argues that the proper functioning of such institutions contribute to the achievement and economic and social development goals. In the case of PNG, the article raises three main questions pertaining to: how and why the country embraced an Australian-style wage fixation system, how it function in the post-independence era, and what did the 2000 MWB determination and subsequent events suggest about the development of this system. Above all, the article provides valuable insight into understanding and explanation of the reasons and circumstances characterising a developing country’s embracement of an imposed wage fixation system and its operations in the post-colonial period.