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December 2002   

Interview: Trade Secrets
Federal Labor�s trade spokesman Craig Emerson is on a mission to bring the shady world of trade talks into the open

Industrial: It�s About Overtime, Stupid
An overtime free-for-all is at the heart of Australia�s hours explosion and it's time to look at a cap on hours, reports Noel Hester from the ACTU�s Working Hours Summit.

Unions: Full Steam Ahead
After two weeks of rallies around the state, rural Rail Towns are making a stand for jobs and safety. Jim Marr reports.

Bad Boss: The BBQ Battle Axe
Manly restaurateur, David Diamond, is a shoo-in for this month�s Bad Boss nomination, leaving Workers Online looking for a good employer who can undo some of his damage.

Economics: Different Dimensions of Debt
Professor Frank Stilwell presented the big picture on debt policy at the Evatt Foundation�s Breakfast Seminar

History: Raking the Coals
Labour historians Rae Cooper and Greg Patmore explain why today�s organisers have much to learn from the lessons of the past.

History Special: Wherever the Necessity Exists
Rae Cooper tracks NSW union organising between 1900-1910 to argue that today�s activists should be looking closer to home for inspiration

History Special: Learning from the Past
Ray Markey looks at union membership growth in the 1880s & 1900s to argue that today�s unions must engage to grow.

History Special: A 'Cosy Relationship'
Barbara Webster looks at Rockhampton between 1916 � 1957 to debunk the �dependence� theory of trade union growth.

Politics: Regime Change for Saddam
Labour lawyer Jim Nolan looks at the challenge for the Left in the current geopolitical stand-off in the Middle East.

International: World War
Europe has suddenly come aflame with industrial action, Andrew Casey reports.

Corporate: Industrious Thinking
Neale Towart looks at the influence of German immigration on Australian industry policy in the post-war period.

Review: Jack High
Mick Molloy�s new flick Crackerjack tells the tale of a traditional bowling club struggling to stay afloat in an industry dominated by pokies, pokies and more pokies, writes Tara de Boehmler.

Culture: Duffy�s Song
Former Labor Council official Mark Duffy�s Sydney super band Sundial clocks in a bit of a corker.

Satire: A Nation of Sooks
The Strewth Institute's Tony Moore looks at the spate of defo suits and wonders if Australia has gone soft.

Poetry: Mr Flexibility
One of the key challenges facing unions, as the ACTU celebrates its 75th anniversary, is confronting the problems of increasing working hours and work intensity under the guise of "flexibility". Our resident bard, David Peetz, takes up that theme this week.


The Soapbox
Economic Migrants
A man - a worker - risks death by machine gun to escape what he is told is a 'workers' state'. He flees East Berlin through a tunnel, dug beneath a cemetery.

And the Winner Is �
It�s that time of the year when we honour the best. In the past week, both the IR Writers fraternity and ACTU have got in the act with more to come.

The Locker Room
More Post-Colonial Madness
Phil Doyle joins the fools and Englishmen out in the midday sun, and finds that it all comes at a price.

Call Waiting
The Howard Government backs off its plans to privatise the rest of Telstra under market pressure. But it�s nothing like the pressure that former HIH directors are under.

Month In Review
Way Down
As Elvis might have said, if he had had a longer-term perspective �ooh, what a month it was, it really was such a month ��


Lessons from History
History has a seemingly infinite capacity to create and debunk myths, as the latest offering from the Journal of Labour and Social History shows.


 And On the Seventh Day � Satan Joins Union

 Security Masks Political Bans

 Members Offered Spotters' Fee

 Casuals Written Out of the Script

 New Mining Bully On the Block

 ACTU Examines The Cap Option On Hours

 No Sweetener for Diabetic Workers

 Pressure Goes on Apartheid Employers

 ASIC Turns Blind Eye on Dodgy Boss

 Family Test Case a Priority Campaign

 Echoes of Prestige Hit Home

 Brutal Bashing Sparks Prison Strike

 Minister Challenged by Cleaners

 ABC Journos Off The Air

 Union Says RSCPA "Kills"...

 Guards Demand Campus Security

 Uni Backs Down On Regional Review

 Peace Returns to US Docks

 Activists Notebook

 Oh Bugger Me!
 State Based Organising
 Gino on the Gong
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History Special

Learning from the Past

Ray Markey looks at union membership growth in the 1880s & 1900s to argue that today�s unions must engage to grow.

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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