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
A 'Cosy Relationship'
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
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