Abstracts – Labour History No. 112

Edited by Greg Patmore and Mark Westcott

The Labour Movement and Co-operatives
Nikola Balnave and Greg Patmore

The labour and co-operative movements are collective organisations that have similar roots and share a strong emphasis on democratic practices that seek to ensure the best for their community. There is both alignment and tensions in their relationship. Consumer co-operatives have supported unions and provided support to striking workers. However, co-operatives are also businesses that need to ensure financial survival. This has the potential to place co-operatives in conflict with organised labour particularly regarding labour costs. Workers may also have greater commitment to the organisation given that they are also part owners, particularly in the case of worker co-operatives. The co-operative ideal of “political neutrality” has also complicated the relationship between co-operatives and the labour movement. This paper will focus on some areas of alignment and tension between the labour movement and consumer retail and worker co-operatives drawing primarily on the Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, UK and US experience.

Industry Superannuation Funds: A New Kind of Mutual
Bernard Mees and Aron Paul

At the time of the founding of the industry superannuation funds, the Australian retirement-savings market was dominated by insurance mutuals. In the early 1980s, less than half the workforce was covered by occupational superannuation and unions saw the insurance mutuals, created in the nineteenth century, as part of the problem in this widespread market failure. When establishing industry-wide schemes, union leaders largely eschewed the language associated with the “old” mutuals that had become key pillars of the established financial sector. In framing their appeal to members, the trustees and managers of the industry funds appealed instead to new expressions, such as “all profit to members.” Industry funds also developed a model of 50/50 employer/employee trusteeship or “equal representation” not as an ideological prescription, but as a pragmatic way of dealing with opposition to the schemes by employers. The trustees and managers of industry superannuation funds contrasted rather than associated themselves with the “old mutuals” which, at the time, were not seen as reflecting the unions’ ideal of an industrial partnership. However, with the decline and demutualisation of the largest old insurance mutuals in the 1990s, the industry funds began to appropriate the language of mutualism. This appropriation took place within the context of a perceived need to maintain a collective identity and purpose in the changing superannuation marketplace.

Mutualism beyond the “Mutual”: The Collective Development of a New Zealand Single Industry Town Hospital
Fiona Hurd and Suzette Dyer

This paper discusses mutualism and its links to labourism. It is argued that rather than being contradictory, mutualism is incorporated into union activities in a range of ways beyond formal mutual and cooperative institutions, dependent on contextual differences in the labour movement. Using the case of mutual union and company involvement in the development of a public hospital in a single industry town in New Zealand during the 1960s and 1970s, we find evidence that the goals of management and the unions converged despite tensions at the site of production, and notions of cooperation for the benefit of workers and the wider community were brought to bear. As the workplace was an essential part of the town, the union’s interests were not limited to the workplace, but formed part of the social fabric of the town. Through this case, we see that engaging in mutualistic activities does not always demonstrate a weakening union agenda, but rather a method unions may employ towards improved worker welfare. Additionally, this example reminds us that union members are members of wider communities, families and societies, and that the boundaries between worker welfare in the workplace and those outside the workplace are not always easily drawn.

Mutualism and Labourism in the Experience of Westfund
Harry Knowles, Greg Patmore and Mark Westcott

This paper explores the dynamic by which “labourism” potentially undermines “mutualism” by examining the experience of Westfund under Australian Labour Party governments. The principle of self-help and the act of organising to provide mutual benefits have strong traditions in the labour movement. Westfund was a health fund established in 1953 by the Western District Branch of the Miners’ Federation in Lithgow New South Wales, largely to provide medical benefits to miners. Organised labour historically has also campaigned for state provision of welfare services. In Australia, the notion of “Labourism” refers to a particular approach adopted by organised labour whereby they represented their interests directly in the political sphere through the Australian Labor Party When the labour movement achieved its aim of a more universal health care system under the Whitlam ALP government, Westfund chose to work within the system in order to survive. Mutualism and labourism co-existed. The subsequent introduction of Medicare by the Hawke ALP government brought changes which created a more threatening business environment for health funds. In this instance to mitigate the danger it posed to their business, Westfund chose to oppose more aggressively aspects of the universal health system. Westfund weakened its institutional ties to the labour movement, and became more autonomous from its roots as a mutual.


The Australian Labor Party and its Relations with Business: The Case of the Margarine Industry
Malcolm Abbott

Given its relationship with the union movement, its formal commitment to public enterprise and its status as a party of the Centre-Left, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has often faced questions about the nature of its relationship with the business sector. This article explores the theme of party-business relations through a study of the long-term connection between the ALP and the margarine industry. In doing so, an evaluation is undertaken of the historical restrictions on margarine production in Australia, limits designed to assist the dairy industry, and the impact these had on the alliance built between the Labor Party and some margarine manufacturers. Despite periodic accusations that this was a corrupt relationship, the two partners cooperated primarily because of their shared interests, which in turn arose from the broader phenomenon of state intervention in Australian agriculture.

Voices of Sydney’s Chinese Furniture Factory Workers, 1890–1920
Peter Gibson

Chinese furniture factory workers were the focus of a heated debate that helped shape “White Australia.” Often considered a threat to the “European,” or “white,” working class, they were vigorously campaigned against by labour activists and staunchly defended by Chinese merchant elites, the outcome of this contest being the institution of a range of anti-Chinese legislation from the 1880s. While labour activists’ claims about Chinese furniture factory workers – and to a certain extent the counterclaims of Chinese elites – have been scrutinised in historical scholarship, workers’ own reflections on their lives have not been examined. Drawing for the most part on New South Wales bankruptcy files, this paper explores the world of Sydney’s Chinese furniture workers as they described it. It argues that their understandings of their activities were considerably more complex than the assertions made about them.

A Union Goes to War: The Victorian State Services Federation in the Great War
Robert Bollard

The Great War saw dramatic growth in the Victorian State Services Federation, the union that covered state public servants and a variety of other public sector workers. The economic and political crisis engendered by the war is revealed, not only in this growth, but in an internal argument (and split) within the Federation over the issue of the Federation’s support for Maurice Blackburn in the 1917 state election. The sectarian dimensions of this division are particularly revealing, especially in association with the formation of the Police Association, under the aegis of the Federation, also in 1917. For all that the Federation never resorted to industrial action, beneath the veneer of white collar respectability the radicalisation of a significant section of the working class by the crisis of the war is evident.

Employee Participation and Industrial Welfarism in Australia, 1890–1965
Nikola Balnave and Raymond Markey

Non-union forms of representative employee participation have a long history in Australia, notwithstanding the privileging of trade union representation by the conciliation and arbitration system. One common form of representative employee participation occurred in the administration of industrial welfare schemes when they spread through large Australian organisations, particularly during and after World War II. However, the employee participation literature has largely neglected this significant historical movement in management strategy. A conceptual framework derived from contemporary employee participation literature is used to evaluate the substance of employee participation in administration of Australia company welfare schemes during the period 1890–1965. Conclusions are twofold: management’s motivation to introduce industrial welfare schemes was a combination of social integration in periods of industrial conflict, as well as organisational efficiency; and whilst employees often influenced decisions in substantial ways in the administration of welfare schemes, the scope of this influence was very narrow.

The Interconnected Histories of Labour and Homelessness
Jessica Gerrard

This paper examines the interconnections between the history of homelessness and the history of labour in Australia. Taking a purposeful broad scope, focusing on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the paper explores the ways in which homelessness is central to the history of work and labour. Drawing on the mythology attached to the swag and swagmen in Australian popular culture as its starting point, this paper demonstrates the need to understand the diverse experiences and meanings of homelessness – across specific contexts and times – as connected to the shifting cultures and practices of work, and associated gender and race relations in Australia’s settler colonial context.

“A Miserable Sectarian Spirit”: Sectarianism and the Women’s Movement in Early Twentieth-Century New South Wales
Laura Rademaker

This article examines the sectarianism that divided feminist organisations in early twentieth-century NSW. In 1903, the Catholic feminist Annie Golding took legal action against the Protestant paper, The Watchman, accusing it of libel. Through an examination of the five leading women embroiled in the Golding affair, this article shows that women activists saw women’s political loyalties as potentially divided, not only by questions of labour or free trade but also by religion. Although the feminist organisations the Women’s Suffrage League (WSL) and Women’s Progressive Association (WPA) each claimed non-sectarian status, in the debates surrounding the Golding case, their leadership proved willing to appeal to sectarian prejudices. When religious presses claimed to find sectarian division among women’s organisations, leading feminist women themselves also quickly attributed their differences to religion and exploited what they considered women’s natural piety for political gain. These findings contribute to a growing scholarship on the religious dimensions of women’s public activism, revealing complex interactions between religion, politics, class and gender.