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  Issue No 108 Official Organ of LaborNet 24 August 2001  




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Race and Australian Labour.

By Neale Towart

Australian unionists have long been questioning notions of a "White Australia", even before the colonies united with it as the central feature.


Race & Unions

A White Australia Policy was the centerpiece of Australian policy for three-quarters of last century. Trade unions and the ALP were seen as major forces getting it implemented as a protection for the Australian worker and manufacturing.

A new generation of labour historians has been having a fresh look at unions and "non-white" labour and finding that there is more to this story. A number of papers presented at the National Labour History Conference in Canberra (Easter this year) showed the way.

Jerome Small went back to 1873 in Clunes on the Victorian goldfields. He took another look at what seemed to be a classic case of anti-Chinese feeling and found that the "riots" were pretty much caused by employer and middle class agitation in Clunes, and the actions by the workers opposing the import of Chinese miners was actually possibly supported by Chinese miners in nearby Ballarat and Creswick.

The Clunes workers acted to prevent the mine owners bringing in Chinese workers to break their strike (one of the first of its kind and a step to establishing the Miners Union) by forcing coaches bringing the workers into Clunes to turn around.

The mine owners were Melbourne Club material, and no Chinese workers were actually in Clunes, in contrast to Ballarat and Creswick.

The owners tried to get the miners to accept a new contract with longer hours and more shifts, in the poor air of the Clunes mine.

The strikers formed a Miners' Assn and got the town Mayor, Mr Blanchard to be the President. Blanchard had been a miner but was now a fruit shop owner and was at the time setting up a new venture with the mine manager!!

The strike continued for some time until the attempt to bring in the workers. The miners got a tip off that the police were going to escort the Chinese workers in the early hours. Meetings were held and resolved to stop the coaches.

The major speakers and movers at the meeting, which generated a lot of anti-Chinese rhetoric, turn out to have been Blanchard, a municipal rates collector and a Member of the Legislative Assembly. No striking miners spoke although they were the ones who have been painted as being most opposed to Chinese workers and Chinese people in particular.

That Chinese and European miners did work together is evidenced from records and illustrations showing the same at Ballarat, and that probably some Chinese people were the ones to let the Clunes strikers know of the approach of the strikebreakers.

Small concludes that the Government, the police, the press, colonial politicians, capitalists and small town shopkeepers fostered division between European and Chinese miners. The miners shared a social landscape that built bonds of solidarity, a threat to the middle and ruling classes in the areas.

Small studied the micro-scale to emphasis class conflict in a small context. Phil Griffiths took a broader look by studying the colonial presses but largely confirmed the points made. He pointed out that a look at documents of the era show that the move for anti-Chinese laws came from ruling class politicians and rich newspaper proprietors. In the move towards an Australian nationalism the White Australia idea was a neat ideological framework that helped preserve Empire links and structures against the rising tide of class warfare that would link workers from different ethnic backgrounds.

Julia Martinez, this years' winner of the Labour History essay prize for this year (co-sponsored by the Labor Council) also squarely addresses this issue. She has looked hard at work done in Darwin from 1911 to 1937. Martinez shows how the relationship between the North Australian Workers' Union and 'coloured' waterside workers was altered and improved by left-wing ideology and by personal experiences within the local multi-ethnic community.

Unions and the ALP clearly supported and championed the White Australia policy, as writers such as McQueen and Markus have shown. Unions pushed the re-elected Fisher government to re-institute bans on Japanese workers in 1914, for example, at a time when war hysteria was on. However, she notes that Quinlan and Lever-Tracy argue that the hysteria in labour ranks was challenged from within. Individual unionists questioned white Australia on moral grounds. The left saw the notion of a 'common humanity' as the proper basis for a new nation, not a 'pure white' fortress.

The AWU in Darwin is the focus of Martinez's research, and the switch in attitudes by workers to coloured labour, largely brought about by IWW campaigning and agitation. This got off to a bad start when an IWW supporter actually organized some Chinese and 'coloured' workers to work on the wharves when the AWU had decided to fight against Asiatics landing cargo at Port Darwin.

The executive kicked the waterside worker members of the AWU out of that union after these members went on strike. Then the IWW stepped in and organised the workers and got AWU wages for them. Tom Barker, secretary of the IWW, disagreed with the Darwin action, but he did get a pretty garbled version of the story.

Throughout the war there was much hatred in Darwin AWU ranks for "foreign workers", seen as competition for the Brits and Australians.

Martinez shows that there was support from other Darwin residents for Chinese workers, despite the ongoing union prejudice against them.

By 1917, cracks in the union views were showing, as TAFF's poetry and its change of tone showed. His early gem included the lines:

Some people are determined

The N.T. shall be black,

And would, if they were able,

Give all white men the sack.

Such men deserve a flogging,

They're enemies to their race.

I wonder how in wartime

They dare to show their face.

By 1917 he was writing:

'Shake hands,' he said, and smiled at me,

Who'd drive all colour out -

But this dear child has caused me to

Turn to the right about.

To kick myself I felt inclined

For what I'd done and said.

Equality for all we want -

All bitterness is dead.

Martinez suggests that the reason why the apparently deepest racism was broken down was because White Australia did not provide any guide to how to live in an already multicultural society. Individual experience of living alongside people from different cultures was the best guide to showing the lie of the "filth and disease" so often ascribed to non-white people. The Communist members of the North Australian Workers Union (formed in 1927 and the AWU itself refused to have anything to do with it) were key people in the opposition to White Australia. The AWU itself changed its attitude considerably and its original organizer, Harold Nelson, after moving into politics as the ALP member for the Northern Territory, lobbied for rights for "half-castes" and for the rights of long term Chinese and Malay residents.

Small's account of the Victorian goldfields of the 1870s makes the same point. Working alongside and living alongside Chinese employees of corporate miners ensured deep bonds of class solidarity, which employers tried to weaken by appealing to racial prejudices. Self education work in Darwin over a sustained period enabled workers to overcome this antagonism.

Official union and ALP policies, developed in Sydney and Melbourne far removed from workers on the ground, were strongly anti-Chinese in particular (but also anti anyone not British). Workers on the ground soon developed a different point of view.

The change in Darwin between 1911 and 1937 saw moderate Laborites swing behind IWW and Communist views, with an emphasis on inclusion. This was in marked contrast to the days of 1896 when a Chinese Workers Union was refused affiliation to the Victorian Trades Hall Council. Even this was not clear-cut as the Furniture Trades Union did support the Chinese workers.

As Raymond Evans has expressed it "white employers seized upon the racism of exploitation for their own advantage" but unfortunately "white workers echoed the racism of exclusion, largely to their ultimate detriment."

Not all white workers fit this pattern. Racism was constructed, and blanket condemnation of unions and unionists deprives them of any agency in their individual circumstances.

Further Reading

Julia Martinez. Questioning 'White Australia'" Unionism and 'Coloured Labour, 1911-37; in; Labour History, no. 76, May 1999

Raymond Evans. Keeping Australia Clean White; in; A Most Valuable Acquisition: a People's History of Australia since 1788 edited by Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee. (Fitzroy: McPhee Gribble, 1988)

Humphrey McQueen. A New Britannia: an argument concerning the social origins of Australian radicalism and nationalism. Revised edition. (Ringwood: Penguin, 1986)

Jerome Small. Unions and anti-Chinese agitation on the Victorian goldfields: The Clunes riot of 1873; paper presented at the seventh national Labour History Conference at ANU, April 19-21 2001

Phil Griffiths. The Ruling Class and Chinese Exclusion, 1875-1888; Paper to the seventh national Labour History Conference at ANU, April 19-21, 2001

Several other papers presented at the conference covered similar themes including Sarah Gregson's on anti-unionism in Broken Hill (attempts by the RSL and the Nationalist Party to break union domination of the town by exploiting racial differences; Julia Martinez on Internationalism and the Indian Seamen's Union and Drew Cottle on the temporary rapprochement between the Chinese Seamen's Union and the Seamen's Union of Australia.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 108 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: The Man from Manusafe
Manusafe chief Andrew Whiley explains why employers have nothing to fear from the entitlements trust fund.
*  E-Change: 2.4 The Skeptic’s Response
In this round-table discussion, Noel Hester leads the charge against the argument that globalisation and change are inevitable.
*  Politics: No Hand Idle
Whitlam Institute director Peter Botsman finds much to agree with in John Howard's social coalition for welfare delivery.
*  Unions: Slavery and Struggle
A battle with all the elements of the infamous waterfront dispute is being played out in Charleston, South Carolina:
*  International: Postcard from Santiago
The CFMEU's Phil Davey meets up with Communist Party cadres in Chile who led the underground resistance to Pinochet.
*  History: Race and Australian Labour.
Australian unionists have long been questioning notions of a “White Australia”, even before the colonies united with it as the central feature.
*  Economics: Global Regulation
Public sector unions from around the globe are taking the first steps to work internationally against the deregulation agenda.
*  Satire: Niche Identified in Left-Wing Publications Market
A marxist-feminist activist has discovered a gaping hole in the lucrative left-wing publications market.
*  Review: The Fight for Equal Pay
In this extract from her new book, Zelda D'Aprano looks at the contribution Kath Williams made to the struggle for equality.

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»  Australians Work Too Much, Too Long
»  Activists Notebook

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