The Official Organ of LaborNET
click here to view the latest edition of Workers Online
The Official Organ of LaborNET
Free home delivery
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
About Workers Online
Latest Issue
Print Latest Issue
Previous Issues
Advanced Search

other LaborNET sites

Labor Council of NSW
Vic Trades Hall Council
IT Workers Alliance
Unions on LaborNET
Evatt Foundation

Labor for Refugees


History Special

A 'Cosy Relationship'

Barbara Webster looks at Rockhampton between 1916 � 1957 to debunk the �dependence� theory of trade union growth.


The present decline in union density is often blamed on unions' historical dependence on guaranteed recruitment through preference in arbitration awards. This, it is argued, led to a failure to develop active organising strategies crucial for today's deregulated workplace. While organising extends beyond simple amassing of members, as the full version of this paper in Labour History discusses, even for that basic function, historical evidence disputes such a broad-sweeping statement. The generalisation also disguises a vibrant and colourful past to union organising--perhaps more colourful than some commentators wish to acknowledge in today's industrial relations environment.

As a study of unions in the Central Queensland city of Rockhampton between 1916 and 1957 demonstrates, some major unions employed independent organising strategies through choice or necessity. Even among those that did reap the benefits of preference in what constituted a 'cosy relationship' between certain unions and the arbitration bureaucracy, some actively exploited the system to facilitate organising rather than being passively reliant on it. In those decades--the golden age of Queensland arbitration--a string of Labor governments maintained a system unashamedly biased towards workers, unless the government itself was the employer! At the time, Rockhampton had a population of 40,000, the main blue-collar worksites being the (recently closed amid controversy) Lakes Creek meatworks, the railway workshops, wharves and the warehouse precinct.

For the Australasian Meat Industry Employees' Union (AMIEU), more than 1,000 export workers were recruited into the union even before obtaining work by the award granting not only preference but also the right to supply labour to 'The Creek'--no ticket; no pick by the secretary at the line-up at Trades Hall. However, the AMIEU also utilised social pressure to mobilise meatworkers in the close family context and neighbourhood of the abattoir, creating a strong union-and-community culture with annual picnics, recreational clubs, welfare benefits, brass band, strike support, charity work and representation in local associations. Whenever the union lost preference, especially for several years after the 16 week strike in 1946, the negative side of social pressure proved effective in ridding the plant of 'scabs' and rebuilding union strength. The official policy of ostracism inside and outside working hours proved effective in the tight-knit community but even more so was the publicly denied but tacitly approved strategy of 'persuasiveness' through bashings, 'accidents', destruction of personal property and other unsavoury practices.

The Waterside Workers' Federation (WWF), by contrast, had no automatic membership device until granted labour-supply rights by the Stevedoring Industry Commission during World War II. The federal award contained no preference clause and, even when under a state award from 1921 to 1928, employers could cite another clause allowing the rejection of unionists considered incompetent or not working to the employer's satisfaction. The WWF therefore coerced employers into choosing union-only labour by refusing to work with a non-unionist or limiting the hours of work. Those strategies were particularly effective during around-the-clock boat loading during the meat export season. Like the AMIEU, the WWF developed a strong union culture in the intimate wharfie community with a club house and sporting groups, welfare benefits and an active women's auxiliary. It also resorted occasionally to ostracism and 'accidents' to persuade recalcitrant workers to join the union.

The largest two of the railway bodies, the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) and Australian Railways Union (ARU), suffered the dual problems of all railway unions: the absence of preference in awards, insisted on by the Commissioner to maintain power over unions following the 1925 strike, and duplicate registrations for the one calling, allowed under the Queensland system. The AEU attracted members by appealing to the elitism and 'brotherhood' of metal tradesmen, offering welfare benefits, holding periodic fraternal socials and influencing apprentices. Its arch-enemy, the ARU, was an all-grade, no-frills, fighting union which drew its membership from labourers excluded from craft and sectional unions and by 'white-anting' and 'body-snatching', as the AEU branded the ARU's personal approaches to and promises of better representation for members of other unions. According to the ARU, the AEU consistently spread 'poisonous propaganda' about punitive transfers and demotions for joining a militant union. The AEU also played on the ARU's leftist leadership as 'commie-dominated' even though communism never found a strong footing in the traditional Labor bastion of Rockhampton.

The Transport Workers' Union (TWU), a staunch arbitration supporter, enjoyed preference under the award and used it effectively to bolster its numbers. Each new employee had 14 days to join the union or face dismissal and the secretary routinely patrolled the city checking tickets. He closely observed other workers whose tasks included driving and working family members who, under the award, required a union ticket. In cases of refusal to take out TWU membership, the secretary summoned the long-serving Industrial Inspector who, records show, was a former member of the union. The TWU also increased its numerical strength by actively competing for preference in new awards as occupations and technology changed. Originally only covering goods hauling, the union successfully laid claim in 1926 to drivers in passenger transportation who belonged to the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen's Association. It claimed further members when the municipal steam trams were replaced by diesel buses in 1939.

The Australian Workers' Union (AWU) covered a diverse group of semi-skilled and unskilled workers employed under several awards in public authorities and small business. Preference and payroll deduction of dues inserted in awards assured the AWU of automatic recruitment. In Queensland, the AWU held special power in the arbitration system from 1925 to 1952 through long-term dominance of the ALP and, consequently, the virtually permanent presence of a union appointee on industrial tribunals. Like the TWU, the AWU used preference to expand, sometimes by intimidation and deception. The periodic attempts of the AWU to steal from the TWU well illustrate this. In 1939, an AWU organiser bullied owner-drivers working for the Main Roads Department into joining his union. He claimed preference under a certain award even though it was shared with the TWU. The latter union successfully reclaimed the men by citing a 1927 case in which the bench ruled that the work fell under the carting award in which only the TWU had preference. On several further occasions with the TWU, the AWU tried the same strategy and no doubt succeeded with less vigilant unions.

As the organising strategies of these Rockhampton unions demonstrate, claims of dependence on preference clauses are fallacious for several major unions. Deprived of that condition, the WWF, ARU and railway section of the AEU had to look to their own devices while the AMIEU enjoyed supply rights but used its own initiatives as and when required. On the other hand, the AWU and TWU could rely on preference but actively exploited it and other privileges extended to Labor-supporting unions in what, for them, constituted a 'cosy relationship' with the arbitration system.

Barbara Wheeler is an Associate Lecturer at Central Queensland University, Rockhampton where she teaches Australian history and foreign releations


email workers to a friend printer-friendly version latest breaking news from labornet

Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue

© 1999-2002 Workers Online
Workers Online is a resource for the Labour movement
provided by the Labor Council of NSW
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005

Powered by APT Solutions
Labor Council of NSW Workers Online