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
Learning from the Past
In these difficult times for unions it is worth remembering that Australia enjoyed one of the highest levels of unionism in the world in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1927 total union membership reached 51 per cent after a quarter of a century of rapid growth. This was probably the highest degree of unionisation in the world at that time. In fact, that could already have been said of NSW and Victoria as early as 1890, when the level of unionisation reached about 22 per cent. It is worth looking at what made Australian workers so prone to becoming union members.
The earliest unions in the Australian colonies date from the 1840s and 1850s. They were mainly urban craft unions, concentrated in the building and metal trades, often branches of British unions. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers, a major component of today's AMWU, is a good example. During the 1870s Hunter River coalminers, seamen and wharf labourers also organised. However, during the 1880s there occurred a tremendous upsurge in union membership. Existing unions increased membership and a number of key new unions were formed. The Amalgamated Shearers', which became the AWU in 1894, was one of the more famous. Others included railway workers, transport workers, metalliferous miners in Victoria and at Broken Hill, gas stokers, clothing trades workers, and brewery employees. In 1891 a general Female Employees' Union appeared in Sydney.
Until 1890 the Australian colonies enjoyed an economic boom. Although this by no means meant prosperity was shared evenly, it did create a labour shortage which often favoured workers' organisation. Expansion of manufacturing and the scale of industry brought greater numbers of workers together, and produced substantial working class communities in the inner-city and mining towns, where collective habits of association saw the overlapping of work and social experience in friendly societies, sporting clubs and cooperatives, as well as unions. Craft workers' sense of 'calling', and the mysteries of their trade, bound them together even if they were geographically dispersed. Even shearers developed a strong group ethos as they travelled in larger groups between sheds and stayed together for longer periods.
These aspects of working class community have declined as a result of suburbanisation, new technologies, declining class consciousness and rising consumer affluence, although there may be new manifestations in youth culture today. The older working class communities were also largely masculinist, and excluded important groups on a racial or ethnic basis. For these reasons we can not really expect the same type of working class community to provide a strong basis for unionism any longer.
Nevertheless, we can take three important lessons from this period. Firstly, state and regional labour councils played a central organising role, devoting considerable resources to this. Secondly, unions developed strong political alliances with non-union progressive groups, even in the early days of the Labor Party. It is notable that these have been key US strategies recently for revival of unions.
Finally, unions by the 1880s were an accepted part of the body politic, in a way which is not the case today. In the nineteenth century unions laboured under a number of legal impediments, which sometimes even led to gaoling of striking unionists. However, state sanctions of this kind were not consistently applied, and in important ways the state and many employers recognised the role of unions in civic society. Symbolically, Sir Henry Parkes laid the foundation stone for Sydney Trades Hall in 1888. The acceptance of unions was withdrawn in the great depression and strikes of the 1890s, which led to union decimation as the state combined with employers to confront unions head-on. However, with the formation of the ALP and a strong middle class aversion to industrial strife, unions were accommodated again in the body politic in the early 1900s. The arbitration system was a major manifestation of this, although in itself the arbitration system was not very supportive in the recovery and
expansion of Australian unionism.
The critical factor for the revival of unionism today is not necessarily a return to the old arbitration system, but the creation of an environment in which unions are an integral part of civic society. This would be somewhat akin to Europe, where industrial relations policy is developed according to the principles of 'Social Partnership'. The state, and within its apparatus, the ALP, still have critical roles to play in reaching this objective.
Ray Markey is Associate Professor in Industrial Relations at the University of Wollongong
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