Interview: Trade Secrets
Industrial: It’s About Overtime, Stupid
Unions: Full Steam Ahead
Bad Boss: The BBQ Battle Axe
Economics: Different Dimensions of Debt
History: Raking the Coals
History Special: Wherever the Necessity Exists
History Special: Learning from the Past
History Special: A 'Cosy Relationship'
Politics: Regime Change for Saddam
International: World War
Corporate: Industrious Thinking
Review: Jack High
Culture: Duffy’s Song
Satire: A Nation of Sooks
Poetry: Mr Flexibility
The Locker Room
Month In Review
Lessons from History
State Based Organising
Gino on the Gong
Raking the Coals
Interview with Peter Lewis
The labor movement has got a rich history. Do you think that this history is a help or a hindrance for an organisation that's trying to modernise and stay alive in a constantly changing world
Greg: Two answers; the educational aspect is you're learning from the past all the time anyway, not necessarily carrying the baggage of the past like the things in the past we don't really want to talk about like racism, sexism and all sorts of issues. But I think there's certainly an education role about essential values that is quite important. The second thing I think is there are tactical lessons from the past too; what we did and what mistakes we made in the past.
Rae: In terms of organising I don't think we actually have looked at the history of organizing in Australia as much as we have in perhaps other areas. We've been more likely to actually look to North America for inspiration about what we're meant to do rather than actually looking at the types of tactics that have worked in the past.
Give me your favourite story of union organising from the past that we could learn from
Greg: I suppose when we talk about the way to organise we could look at the way banking industry managers were targeted earlier in the century. They would target particular key workers who are going to have influence over the other workers and when you bring that person over and then you bring the rest with you.
Rae: Mine actually comes from the Organising Committee of the Labor Council of NSW. This committee was basically made up of volunteers who had real jobs during the day and did all their organising of a night and on weekends, This didn't stop them from forming a great proportion of the NSW unions that registered between 1900 and 1910. Some of the most fabulous and fantastic union names I've ever heard in my life like the Bone Crushers and Fat Extractors Union and the Darling Point Sewer Miners Union and a whole range of unions organising women workers such as the Domestic Workers Unions, the White Workers and Shirt Makers Union - who were shirt and underpants makers. The people who formed these unions were basically volunteers working off the smell of an oily rag but they successfully recruited members into unions and mobilized workers in their workplaces.
Another part of union mythology that has at least superficial appeal today is the idea of One Big Union. What does history tell us of that idea?
Greg: Well it has certainly been around for a long time. I think we've got to look at the issues of occupational identity and the very debate about forms of one big union. The thing about one big unionism is that it's almost a very static view of unions - that structure is the only aspect. That said, we've certainly talked about it. Even back to the Australasian Labor Federation in the 1890's the idea was unity, bringing the union movement together.
Rae: For me, I'm not that obsessed with either occupational or industry structure but I think the key point that we can learn is that what unions need to be, whatever form they take on, is they need to be relevant for workers in their particular workplace. Occupational identity is essential so people can organise themselves in ways that are relevant to them.
What about the role of peak Councils at a time when the ACTU is having is 75th Anniversary this week? What can we learn by looking back on the useful ways that Peak Council's have connected with broader movement in the past?
Rae: Some of the research I've done suggests that particularly, this Labor Council has played historically a very important role in resourcing and providing leadership in organising campaigns for unions. The Labor Council actually provided a resource and a leadership role in helping unions organize outside the Sydney metropolitan area and in areas where unions had too few resources to organise effectively.
Greg: I've just been in the last couple of days going through the Labor Council minutes in the 1890's, you know you find some incredible stories of support and assistance that the Labor Council provided. My favourite one is a place called Sunny Corner a rather nice little place north of Lithgow. The minutes for the Labor Council echo the solidarity and support for that group of miners in the 1890's when they formed their own union of 100 maybe 200 members at most. The Labor Council was there providing assistance in setting it up, when they were locked-out providing financial assistance and raising awareness of the needs of this group of workers. You actually get letters from individual workers to the Labor Council saying I'd like to form a union can you help me and the Labor Council would send up an organiser and provide back up and help the union get off the ground.
Rae: And at the moment we all know that lots of unions are struggling financially, I think that actually really makes it more important that the state Labor Councils and the ACTU actually provide these sorts of resources to unions.
You guys both work in the University, is there a thirst for knowledge about trade unions by young students coming through?
Greg: I tend to suspect there's a core group of students who remain interested and they're a pretty substantial group of students. A recent survey we conducted showed some of our students have aspirations to become trade unionists, but far more were interested in the corporate sector. The trouble with universities is it's a distorted sample, with most students coming from a fairly affluent background.
Rae: I've been teaching at Sydney Uni for three and half years and during most of that time I've been pretty depressed about the level of interest in trade unionism from my students. But this year for the first time we put on a course called Unions at Work, which is the first time Sydney Uni has ever taught a trade union subject, and we got 150 students enrolled in it and they are the brightest, most motivated students I've actually ever taught. So things are looking up.
So if there are Workers Online readers who are interested in Labor History who aren't at University anymore what can they do?
Greg: Well there's a number of levels. The Journal of Labour History is published by the Labor History Society. There's also a range of different societies, local branches in most major cities that have talks and discussion groups and all sorts of things. It's fairly active so if your readers ever want to find out about membership or how to get involved they should contact me at Sydney University on mailto:[email protected]
To subscribe to Labour History or to order the special edition on union organising email Margaret Walters on mailto:[email protected]
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