|Issue No 79||24 November 2000|
What Goes Around Comes Around
Research by Neale Towart
Labor Council's Mark Lennon argues that while trade unions - and labour history - might be unfashionable, there's life left in both of them.
Early Australian unions were basically trade groupings or friendly societies. Indeed some historians such as Bob James have been struggling to encourage our interest in Lodges as an important aspect of labour history, too long ignored by labour historians. James may have a point, but its hard to argue that the development of unions by workers to resist bosses and hostile governments, and to claim improvements in working conditions, especially since the 1850s, has not been the motor for working class organisation in Australia.
. Why else would the current government, and the Workplace Relations minister and the Prime Minister in particular, seek to destroy the role of unions in the workplace if they didn't see them as the voice and force for the workers. What is labour history but the history of working people struggling to be able to work, and to work in decent conditions for decent pay. Unions surely are the motor that drives this struggle.
Unions are not monolithic institutions and those early trades people were individuals who came together for a purpose. This doesn't "just happen". These individuals get organised by the force of actions of all, but some in particular are recognised in labour history, by Labour Historians, as prime movers in getting unions started, and as activists in union activities. I'll talk about a few of those individuals now, to show how they and their unions have made and continue to make labour history. They come from different political motivations, and may well have been violently opposed to one another (another rich vein for the labour historians to fossick in). But as Laurie Short commented on some of his ideological opponents, eg Jack Mundey and Laurie Carmichael, he respected and admired them as they were genuine in their commitment to the workers' cause.
Mateship is seen by most as the key to the success of one of the first non-trades based unions, and the poetry and stories of Henry Lawson played a big role in developing a sense of solidarity and mateship amongst shearers and rural labourers in NSW in the 1890s. Mark Hearn says that the AWU ethos reflected an attempt by mates, armed only with their mutual dependence, to construct an agreed social order in the context of hard economic times, and governments and employers who refused to recognise their legitimate grievances.
This was a culture of exclusion - of women, blacks, Asians, islanders - but the essential elements of sticking together if you want to have any chance is the kind of mateship that was crucial to the survival and development of unions and the ALP. The efforts of the big daddy of the AWU, William Guthrie Spence, were central to achieving this goal.
Despair at the prospects for unions is current in much IR literature, but labour historians are aware of the precedents for union declines and revival. Spence did not despair, even in the darkest period of the 1890s, as he watched the union he and a few others built from the 1880s shrink under the assault from employers and government.
"We have the power to utterly change these conditions." He said at the time. "We have control over the circumstances under which we live more than any other animal, therefore we are responsible for the conditions under which we live." Under the general unions and through democratic political reform, unionists would achieve political and social reform. A quiet revolution was what he was about.
Spence seems to have seen unionism as a logical outcome of Darwinism. His ideal was to see unionism as a legitimate part of colonial society. Hardly a radical notion, and Spence himself by 1894 was the essence of the colonial gentleman. He was no revolutionary, and most of the ASU/AWU weren't either, but the response of employers and governments to the idea that the labouring classes should claim any rights made it appear that the union was advocating the overthrow of the social system.
Spence was one of the first members of the ALP, whose aim was the establishment of political rights of workers. Labour history being made today seems to be about and perhaps has always been about, asserting that right.
Maybe the mateship of those workers of the 1890s was racist and male, but the basic notion that they had to stick together, and be mates through thick and thin informs all union actions, including calls for international solidarity - which is an important element of trade union action today. After the apparent racism of the opposition Chinese workers and Kanakas in the 1890s, unions in Australia campaigned strongly for rights of workers in Fiji in 1987 and this year for example. The TCFUA and the CFMEU, for example are making great effort to organise workers from non-English speaking backgrounds today.
The MUA has strong international links - their members were, after all, the first working class internationalists. They saw first had the plight of workers abroad and played integral roles in many freedom struggles - such as that for Indonesian independence in the 1960s, and continues today with MUA's strong stand on the Ships of Shame issues, supporting workers in the often appalling conditions on ships. This has been repaid in times of difficulty at home, particularly with the decisive support from the International Transport Federation during Patrick dispute.
John Coombs, recently retired secretary of the MUA, could be seen as a 'gentleman' as was Spence - given his hobby farm. This doesn't stop him standing for the same ideals that Spence fought for in his battles with governments and employers - defending the rights of his members to work and be paid against a conspiracy of those who deny unions and workers any more rights than is absolutely necessary for their survival.
At the moment most things written about the Patrick dispute are in the IR and politics pages. We would see it, as would you as labour historians as a continuation of the struggle of workers for the right to organise, which is what labour history is. The history of workers struggles to organise, or, as a nineteenth century historian, philosopher and activist put, the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.
Another wharfie who perhaps did have the aim of overthrowing the existing social order was Jim Healy. He led the wharfies from bankruptcy to organising success, and took on Menzies in the heyday of his red baiting and won. He and his union colleagues played out the class struggle in a real way, banning pig iron to Japan, supporting Indonesian independence.
The government was directly interfering in the docks, as Reith and co did, and the unions were warned of the attempts about to be made to break down there solidarity. The army and navy were to be called in. Sounds familiar. Perhaps Peter Reith had been reading his labour history too when he aided the lockouts. Reith's legislation certainly had paved the way for what looked like being a smooth victory. He misjudged the amount of support unions had and the shape of his own courts. Menzies did similarly. The press were on side with Menzies, as they were with Reith to begin with and the wharfies picketed them too. The press remained on side for what they claimed were Reith's and Corrigan's main aims, to make the waterfront more efficient, conveniently ignoring the real agenda. Reith and Corrigan's mistake was to be a bit public in their bullying. It seems the wharfies have lost many jobs, but they didn't lose the right to act collectively, which was the aim of their antagonists. They also tapped into the notion of a fair go, and whilst the media image of them as bludgers had sunk in, the Australian people said that the government was not being fair. Unions are about fairness.
The wharfies of today have had to face more antagonistic legislation than Healy did, but have survived to fight another day. Industrial restructuring and new technologies has changed their bargaining power, but not the hostility to them from owners and govt.
The current federal government seems to believe that unions are not a legitimate part of the social system, and only stand in the way of what is legitimate, that is the right of owners to make money.
The actions of unionist today is the research fodder of labour historians tomorrow, and the precedents for the actions of unionists is in the rich histories of struggle against the state and employers. The unionists could be bent on the overthrow of the employers and the state, as the IWW perhaps most exemplified, or they could be like Spence, seeking to keep unions and workers to the wheel, without being chained to it.
Laurie Short was initially on the same side of the political divide as Healy, but split with the Trots and developed the FIA into a strong well, organised union able to take on employers on their own terms. Short's ideas covered the "responsibilities of union leaders, productivity negotiations, collective bargaining. In the 1990s these notions became a mantra for union leaders and for an ACTU ostensibly dominated by "the left". Again making labour history today is a challenge for unions to assert these rights to negotiate at any level for unions faced with a political ideology that gives them no standing or legitimacy.
The Labor Council itself has been a part of the history of unions and thus labour history for the whole of this century, and has played a big part in shaping workers struggles in NSW, as well as shaping the way the ALP in NSW and thus Australia has developed. People such as Jock Garden, Jack Beasley, Lloyd Ross have been integral to the way these struggles have developed, Ross a particularly interesting figure from the left and then the right and then sort of the left again. Stephen Holt has done an excellent job in tracking his intellectual moves. The veritable dynamo was concerned with labour history as well as education generally for the labour movement. Always with a broad social democratic outlook, whatever his ideological opponents on either side might say, he was not very forgiving of academic leftism, but concentred with active educational leftism, in the field and through the WEA, the Victorian Labor College, Fabian style discussion groups of the 1940s. He wanted the organisations to be "vanguard movements" - ginger groups stirring the pot of accepted notions and ways of doing things.
Another Labor Council figures who were concerned with this educational, research and communication aspect was Emile Voigt, the driving force behind 2KY, just celebrating its 75th birthday. Before getting it started, as one of the first radio stations in Sydney, he started a Labour Research Bureau at Trades Hall, to keep unions abreast of industrial trends and informed on labour activities in as many areas as possible. The basis of 2KY was to establish an alternative media voice for workers, outside the mainstream press. These vices had been around in newspaper form for many years, but here was the labour movement leaping on board new technology, seeing its potential for members.
The Labor Council today in its use of the internet to provide a daily alternative media voice, follows this tradition. Also the social justice aspect of enabling all to access the media was a prime concern of Voigt's with him making sure the transmission facilities for 2KY would enable all those who only had access to the most basic of crystal sets would be able to receive the signal. 2KY wasn't always horses and dogs (although they have been on air since the 1940s), but did play an active role in broadcasting union views. Similarly Labor Council now has established a deal with computer and internet service providers so that union members can access high quality computers and internet connections at reasonable prices.
Other aspects of labour history have now so moved away from their union origins to be general community events. Eight Hour day carnivals, be they processions or sports days are now basically community events. Union parades began probably in England as far back as the 17th century, with trades groups such as woolcombers, carpenters having their own parades usually asociated with a Saint or chuch figure. EP Thompson includes an illustration of a very early "union membership" card with Bishop Blaise the patron Saint of the Woolcombers illustrated on it, in his Customs in Common, where he highlights these parades and the way they faded because of opposition from the new industrialists in the 19th century. In Australia small community sports carnivals, shows etc had their origins in union days, with the eight hour day a focal point.
The point of including them here is that they showed that unions were the heart of many communities, and the carnivals were at there strongest often in mining towns. Workers through unions work together to make decent lives and decent communities in Australia. The sense of solidarity that the wharfies displayed and which others responded to, the solidarity of miners in Broken Hill in the 1890s and at Weipa, Gunnedah and in the Hunter Valley in the 1990s shows that community spirit and solidarity is carried by workers through their unions.
And looking at the issues confronting contemporary workers - I don't think tis time to write off either trade unions - or the evolving story of labour history -quite yet.
This speech was presented to the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History Annual Dinner on November 26
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