The Precarious Working Life of Muriel Heagney, Labour Activist
Jackie Dickenson and Rosemary Francis

Muriel Heagney’s activism for equal pay for the sexes has been well documented. Heagney (1885–1974) is an important actor in the key works on the history of the struggle for equal pay and improved opportunities and conditions for women workers in Australia. But what about her own pay and conditions, during her more than 50 years as a labour activist? As an unmarried, working-class woman, how did she support herself and her activism? This article reconstructs Heagney’s working life across the first half of the twentieth century, seeking to explain its significant opportunities and major constraints. It finds two influences on Heagney’s unstable working life: her reluctance to compromise and resistance to factional allegiance, and the impact of the system she worked to overturn, in which as a woman she was paid less than a man for the same or similar work and struggled to secure long term employment. Sustained by an authentic commitment to securing equal pay, Heagney weathered long periods of uncertain prospects and financial insecurity, experiences that resonate strongly with those of the so-called gigariat today.


The Novelist as Labour Force Manager: Nevil Shute
Malcolm Abbott and Jill Bamforth

Nevil Shute was a best-selling novelist, aeronautical engineer and Managing Director of an important aircraft manufacturer in Britain in the 1930s. This paper looks at his role and the attitudes he had toward labour force management, while working as the Managing Director of Airspeed Limited. In this role his actions and attitudes to work relations were influenced greatly by the market, labour force composition, and technological aspects of the industry. These in turn influenced the nature of the way he presented work relations in his literature.


Cultivating the “Proletarian Outlook”: Towards a History of the Left in Central Australia, 1920–75
Jason Gibson

This article presents a history of left-wing ideas and activities in central Australia from the 1920s through to the 1970s. Although the central Australian region, and the Alice Springs district in particular, is now often associated with various Aboriginal rights struggles and other protest movements, little is known about the presence of left-wing influences prior to the 1970s. Working from archival sources, this paper begins to build up a picture of how leftists and in particularly those associated with the Communist Party of Australia struggled to make their presence felt in a predominantly conservative socio-economic milieu. The intent of this paper is to sketch out the various historical figures, events and ideological contests that came to influence the political identity of Australia’s most isolated and scantily populated heartland over a number of decades. These vignettes also reveal how leftist politics did, and did not, have an effect on the Aboriginal rights campaigns that followed in the 1970s and onwards.


How to Solve a Crisis? The 1977 Metal Unions Seminar on the Role of the Industries Assistance Commission
Brett Heino

In June 1977, metal unions convened a seminar on the Future of Australian Manufacturing, bringing together over 1,200 delegates from unions, business and politics. The event is best conceived as an early episode of institutional searching, whereby the state, capital and labour engage in a contradictory and contested process of discovering ways through the crisis of the extant antipodean Fordist model of development. Whereas some prescriptions tended to reinforce the structure and logic of antipodean Fordism, others cut across its grain and evinced radically new modalities of regulating capitalism. Other contributions reflected confusion and an inability to formulate concrete proposals for reform. This article will demonstrate the utility of seeing the 1977 Seminar in this way, by focusing on the session dedicated to exploring the role of the Industries Assistance Commission. The analysis will reveal that, whereas the union and employer advocates remained within the ambit of the antipodean Fordist system, the Commission representative delivered proposals fundamentally at odds with its dynamics.


Australian Union Transformation and the Challenge for Labour Historians
Bradley Bowden

The purpose of this article is two-fold. First, it confronts misconceptions that explain union decline in Australia; misconceptions that are entrenched in labour history and industrial relations scholarship. We are told that decline “commenced in the early 1980s,” when in fact it began in 1948; that union decline primarily results from attacks by conservative governments “bent on their destruction,” when the rate of decline has often been steepest under Labor governments; that unions invariably redress the plight of society’s poorest, when union agreements negotiated in retail and hospitality routinely leave workers in a worse position than those employed under relevant awards. The article’s second purpose is to trace the sociological consequence of union decline. While unions claim to speak for society’s battlers, more than 40% of unionists today are managers and professionals. In terms of wage cohorts, the propensity to join increases with wealth. Although unions retain representation rights for society’s battlers, and publicly advocate their cause, the fact remains: society’s poorest members are no longer found in much number in union ranks. In part, at least, the unwillingness of labour historians to confront harsh realities stems from an understandable desire to defend labour’s cause, rather than serve primarily dispassionate academic observers.