Rae Cooper & Greg Patmore
"The critical role of active workplace organising in building the success of the Australian labour movement has become a neglected part of our history ... The[ese] papers take a fresh look at the simplistic notion that Australian trade union successes have depended upon the regulatory support provided by the arbitration system and Labor governments".
- Greg Combet, from Labour History, No. 82, Nov. 2002.
In recent years, in the context of declining density and power, Australian unions have engaged in a debate about their survival. This debate has hinged upon the concept of 'organising'. Advocates for change argue that unions need to dedicate significantly more resources to organising the unorganised and that they need to adopt new organising tactics based upon workplace mobilisation in order to turn the tide of membership decline. Without such changes, advocates of organising reform argue, unions will not survive.
Despite the enormity of the membership crisis and thus the urgency of this debate, we know surprisingly little about either contemporary strategies or historical patterns in union organising. Union formation, political strategies and industrial campaigns have been the subject of considerable comment by Australian labour historians. However, there has been no comprehensive discussion of how unions organise. The thematic section of the current issue of Labour History (published November 2002) goes some of the way toward remedying this situation, by presenting five historical studies of organising in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
This article overviews contemporary debates about union organising and then reviews the treatment of union organising by Australian labour historians. The first section presents an overview of research on the the contemporary decline in union membership, as well as the union strategies formulated to respond to this decline. The second section reviews Australian labour history research which provide some insight into the organising strategies of Australian unions.
Union membership, union organising and the contemporary organising debate
Australian unions have haemorrhaged members during the past two decades. In 1979 just over half the workforce was unionised; however in 2000 less than a quarter of Australian workers were union members. A density rate this low had not been experienced by Australian trade unions since the first decade of the twentieth century when unions were recovering from the crushing effects of the 'great strikes' and depression of the 1890s. Although density fell throughout the 1980s, it accelerated at an alarming rate in the early 1990s. Perhaps more worrying for the trade unions, from 1990 the absolute number of union members began to fall, a trend that continued until 2000. Density decline did not abate during the 1990s, deteriorating in almost every industry and occupational classification, across both private and public sectors, among full-time, part-time and casual employees, among all age groups and both males and females. The years 2000 and 2001 gave unions some cause for celebration as absolute union member numbers rose. However, even during these years density continued to decline.1
A range of factors, including changes in the economy and labour market, the legislative and regulatory environment, employer strategies, job characteristics and worker attitudes, has been privileged in examinations of these trends in union membership. The 'business cycle' approach, which argues that union growth is positively associated with economic upturn and negatively with downturn, has a long heritage. There are structural explanations which are more specific in focus. These tend to concentrate upon changes in the labour market which have had detrimental effects upon membership and strength in the union 'heartland' such as in manufacturing and, correspondingly, have seen growth in areas of union weakness, as in the services sector. There has also been considerable analysis of the impact on organising of changes in the nature of work. For example, the increases in forms of 'precarious' employment such as external contracting and casual labour have hampered union efforts to recruit new members.2
Much of the literature examining these kinds of changes in the labour market has linked the decline in union density to the differing 'propensity' of groups of workers to unionise. Usually the focus of research is upon a shift in employment away from areas of traditional union strength and toward areas where 'atypical unionists', demographic groups such as women and young people who have exhibited a historically lower propensity to unionise than others, are employed. A number of more recent studies, however, suggests that the lower unionisation rates of these demographic groups may be more strongly associated with the jobs and industries in which they work and indeed the barriers that unions themselves raise to participation, rather than intrinsic anti-union qualities. Related to the literature examining worker demographics and job type is that which assesses the impact of worker attitudes toward unions and the influence these have upon the chances of their joining. In this vein, some researchers suggest that particular groups of workers are more naturally inclined toward unionism because of their value systems and ideological positions. These differences have been used to explain cross-national variations in union membership, variations between communities and between individuals. Individuals' 'commitment' to trade unions has also been identified as a significant factor in deciding the likelihood, extent and nature of their engagement with trade unions.3
There is a substantial body of research examining the impact of regulatory regimes and of state and union relations upon union membership. In the international literature this has included studies of the impact of various industrial regimes and of nationally-specific legislation upon the ability of unions to organise or of employers to stymie such efforts. Similarly, Australian researchers have examined in qualitative and quantitative studies the impact of antiunion legislation upon unions' ability to attract and organise members.4 In Australia there has also been considerable debate as to the impact of the Prices and Incomes Accord between the ACTU and Federal Australian Labor Party in the period 1983-96 upon union membership. The 'received wisdom' here is that the arrangement had a deleterious impact upon membership. However, some researchers present a rosier picture of Accord period, suggesting that it offered unions in Australia shelter from the growing employer and conservative party antipathy to unionism. Nevertheless, the election of the conservative Coalition federal government in early 1996 ushered in legislation that would undermine the ability of unions to access workplaces, introduced an individual bargaining stream that explicitly excluded unions from involvement, and saw a growing encouragement by government of antiunion employer behaviour.5
The union avoidance and 'union busting' activities of employers designed to remove union influence from workplaces and thwart efforts to build membership have been well documented in international studies during the past two decades. Employer tactics include: the dismissal and harassment of union activists and members; relocation of operations; antiunion publicity campaigns in the workplace and community; the use of a range of sophisticated human resources management techniques to quell the desire for unionisation; as well as a range of union 'substitution' activities such as employee involvement schemes and the promotion of in-house unions. Variations in the antiunion activity of employers have been used to explain difference in organising successes between industries and sectors and in explaining aggregate membership loss in the United Kingdom and North America.6 In Australia, researchers have also identified a growth in employer antipathy toward unions, resulting in union busting and union avoidance tactics across industries ranging from mining and manufacturing to retail and sales.7 Peetz, the only Australian researcher who has attempted to gauge the impact of employer antiunion practice in Australia on membership levels, has suggested that it was at least as significant a contributor to aggregate membership decline as was structural change in the labour market. Combined with legislative changes that sought to weaken union influence and decollectivise employment relations, he argued that antiunion employer militancy amounted to a 'paradigm shift' in the determination of union membership in this country.8
Clearly, then, a large body of research has been produced examining the ways in which various factors have conditioned the growth or decline of union membership. What most of it has in common, apart from the desire to explain trends in union membership, is the emphasis, sometimes exclusively, upon structures and processes which form the environment in which unionism emerges, grows and declines. The implication is that the only role that unions play in the process of membership growth or decline is that they are the organisations that members move to and from. This has the effect of portraying 'workers (and unions) as primarily objects rather than agents of history'.9 The implication of such an analysis for unions in the current political and industrial environment is that they should await the election of more friendly governments, for more favourable labour market conditions to arise or for more welcoming employer policies to develop, before expecting membership fortunes to be reversed.
In recent times, research on trade unions has begun put union strategy back into the analysis of membership growth and decline and has sought to present trade unions as strategic agents with some ability to decide their futures. This research can be divided into two broad areas. The first is literature examining union tactics and their impact in organising campaigns. International analyses of membership levels and union activity make explicit reference to the impact of the 'agency' of unions upon levels and trends in membership. Indeed some writers suggest that the activities of unions during organising campaigns can be crucial, if not the most critical factor, in determining membership outcomes.10 The second area includes research addressing union responses to declining membership and the implications of this for other aspects of union activities such as member involvement and union structure.11
Throughout the 1990s, discussion of the revitalisation of unions increasingly focused upon the 'organising model' that developed in North America and later became influential in a number of union movements, including in Australia. Proponents of the 'organising model' argued that unions needed to reorient their operations to dedicate resources toward growth, build workplace activism and to reach out to, and engage with, the broader community in order to ensure a future for themselves. According to this model, member-officer relations needed to be restructured to ensure that members were active participants in unions. Thus the essential role of the official according to the model was to 'empower' workplace activists and build a culture of collective identity among work groups. As a result, union tactics were to be mobilisational and campaigns would draw upon themes of justice, dignity and respect. Adopting this model would allow unions to rediscover their 'movement' origins, make them more inclusive of members and more effective to boot.12
The organising model represents for advocates both a pattern for 'good' union behaviour and an escape route from contemporary union problems. Its opposite number, the 'servicing model', on the other hand represents all that is bad in unions. Indeed the servicing approach was identified as an active contributor to the malaise of unionism in the late twentieth century. 'Servicing' unionism viewed members as passive consumers of individual union services and benefits, who were little involved in decision-making or determining the strategic direction of unions. The relationship between union officials and union members was a transactional one where leaders and union officers took on the role of expert problem solvers and industrial specialists and took responsibility for managing the union. Within the servicing model, union tactics are held to be bureaucratic, remote from members, and legalistic in nature.13
This is the context that frames the organising effort of trade unions early in the twenty-first century. The following section of this article addresses the contribution that an historical approach can make to our understanding of contemporary union strategies and assesses the traditional apporach of historians to union organising in Australia. Australian labour history and union organising
How can research by Australian labour historians contribute to these debates? As a number of researchers have already argued, an historical approach can be helpful in understanding the present context in which unions operate in a number of ways.14 This section of the article reinforces the arguments concerning the importance of historical research for understanding organising strategies and the environment in which they are formulated and practiced. It then looks at how Australian labour historians have dealt with union organising and details their findings. While very few studies explicitly examining organising strategies have been produced by Australian scholars, several themes can be distilled from labour history literature nonetheless. These include the impact of the state, and in particular of compulsory arbitration, on union organising. Another key theme relates to the attempts by employers to frustrate organising and the ways in which unions tried to overcome this management opposition. Additionally, labour historians have highlighted the role that peak trade union councils and community groups can play in labour organising.
Labour historians have highlighted the importance of taking an historical approach for deepening our understanding of workplace issues and processes. An historical focus allows us to separate the rhetoric from the practices of the past and to draw lessons from the past for contemporary practices. This has particularly been the case with the work of historians who have examined management strategies during the past century. Here, a 'noise effect' has been identified. Ideas such as scientific management, welfarism, human relations and human resource management may have been widely discussed in employers' journals, academic papers and the press but, a number of historians have argued, they had only a minimal impact on practice in the workplace. H. Aitken, in a classic study of the impact of scientific management on the Watertown Arsenal in the US, warns of the tendency of management to exaggerate the benefits of change and belittle previous practices. Historians have also identified the problem of 'shelf-life' in relation to management strategy. This has meant that some ideas, such as employee participation, may have been introduced by management against the background of labour shortages and high labour turnover. However, such innovations may fall into disuse once they have served their immediate purpose. Researchers have suggested that management may mix ideas with conflicting messages, such as scientific management and employee participation, or only apply them to a small part of their operations for public relations purposes. They may also benefit from 'organisational amnesia' by re-introducing failed practices simply in different packaging. Union leaders and activists may also suffer from amnesia, where so-called new initiatives ignore similar innovations in the past. Historical research allows academics and unionists to explore why such innovations may have succeeded or failed in the past and to ask whether these tactics are applicable to the present.15
Since its origins, in the 1880s, Australian labour history has focused closely on trade unions. However, for labour historians, organising has been a marginal issue in most studies of union behaviour. There has been no comprehensive analysis of the methods unions utilised in relation to organising, of the factors that have shaped and constrained their choice of organising strategies or of the forces that have led to success, or otherwise, in organising campaigns. This is not to say that the membership building strategies of unions have never been addressed in the historical literature. However it is fair to argue that when union organising strategies are discussed this is usually as an aside to examinations of other union strategies or historical events. There may be several reasons for this. Some labour historians assume that joining a union is 'intrinsic' or natural for workers due to the 'habit of association' that arises at the workplace or due to a broader class-consciousness. As the discussion of the 'dependency thesis' highlights below, Australian labour historians may have assumed that the legislative regime of compulsory arbitration and the election of Labor Party governments, particularly at the state level, reduced the significance of union organising. Unions are thus seen as simply 'receiving' membership rather than engaging in purposive action to build themselves. They are not active agents in deciding their own destiny.16
Several labour historians have highlighted the significance of organising campaigns for increasing union membership. Greg Patmore, in a study of the origins of the National Union of Railwaymen, noted that the NSW Branch of the Australian Railways Union (ARU) almost doubled its membership between 1924 and 1928. The union appointed four full-time organisers by 1928, who travelled throughout the state enrolling non-unionists and members of the 'loyalist' unions that arose out of the 1917 General Strike. These organisers came into contact with isolated track maintenance workers and visited areas that had not seen an ARU organiser for many years. In a similar vein, Louise Thornthwaite noted that a union organising campaign by the Queensland Branch of the Australian Telephone and Phonogram Officers Association increased membership density from 65 per cent to 97 per cent between July 1972 and June 1978 despite rising unemployment, the absence of preference to unionists and the geographical dispersion of members.17
Labour historians have incidentally identified a wide variety of techniques used by unions to convince potential members to join. They have recognised from the earliest days of Australian trade unions there was a range of benefits for sickness, accident, death and unemployment, which in part acted as recruiting devices. Other authors have highlighted that unions targeted key groups of workers for recruitment so as to bolster broader recruitment efforts. For instance, John Hill argued that the Bank Officials Association in the 1920s recognised the 'manager-member effect' where the willingness of a bank employee to join the union was influenced by whether the bank manager was a member or not. The Union circularised all managers in Victoria requesting salary details and urging them to join the union. Other historians have shown that unions have used their sheer collective power to force unwilling conscripts into their organisations. For example, Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann noted that, in the wake of successful industrial action, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in Sydney launched a 'no ticket no start' campaign to ensure financial union membership in 1970, which had very quick results. Sydney and North Sydney building sites were fully unionised within a week. K.H. Kennedy found that unconventional methods have sometimes been used to attract interest in unionism. E.G. Theodore, later Premier of Queensland and federal Labor Treasurer, reportedly organised fistfights and games of two-up to bring potential members such as smelter employees into the Amalgamated Workers Association.18
Some authors have highlighted that union campaigns to organise marginalised workers have utilised quite different methods. W. Nichol noted that Rose Summerfield, the Organising Secretary for the Womens Division of the Australian Workers Union, tried to organise female workers through establishing an Australian Labour Bureau and organising social functions in the early 1890s. These efforts failed and the Bureau closed after three months because employers, arguing that it did not provide cheap enough labour, boycotted the Bureau, which functioned as an employment agency. The social functions were wound back because they were viewed by the union leadership as being both too expensive and also as having attracted the 'wrong class of men'.19
Other historians have incidentally highlighted the importance of union media, such as newspapers, banners, OK cards and technology in union recruitment efforts. For instance, Peter Sheldon argued that the Railway Workers and General Labourers Union successfully used the union's fortnightly paper, the Navvy, to increase the union's membership, especially in isolated construction camps, just prior to the First World War. Kate Muir claimed that union banners were partially designed to present a positive image of the union to potential members. Peter Cochrane noted that at the Port Kembla steelworks in the late 1930s unions also issued OK cards and badges to reinforce union membership in the workplace and place pressure on non-unionists. Mark Bray and Malcolm Rimmer noted in their history of the NSW Branch of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) that the Trolley and Draymens Union in Sydney after some debate shifted from organising with a horse and sulky to purchasing a motorcycle and car in the 1920s. They argue that this 'transformed the work of union organisers' by allowing them to reach quickly more potential members.20
Labour historians in broader studies of trade unionism have shown that there are limitations on union organising. These limitations related to: union size; geographic considerations; the state of the economy; factionalism; and competitive unionism. Obviously the size of a union may influence the extent and form of its organising. Richard Morris argued in his study of the NSW Ship Painters and Dockers that 'limited financial resources meant that small unions could not draw on reserve funds to support sustained industrial action or large scale recruitment drives'.21 The geographical dispersal of workers also seems to have posed problems for unions in their organising efforts. Warwick Eather noted that regional labour councils in NSW during the 1940s complained about the lack of rural organising by Sydney-based unions. Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann argued that spatial limitations also occurred in metropolitan areas with Sydney's urban sprawl of predominantly single home construction creating organising problems for the militant BLF in the 1970s. The economic climate has been identified as a further constraint. Mark Bray and Malcolm Rimmer noted that the Amalgamated Road Transport Workers Association began a major campaign in 1931 to organise private bus drivers in Sydney who were facing wage cuts and unemployment. While the campaign peaked with 119 new members in July, the campaign 'shuddered to a halt' in November 1931 due to the growing unemployment of the union's members as the 1930s Depression deepened.22
Factionalism and competitive unionism may have a negative impact on union organising. Some labour historians have noted that internal faction fighting within unions may divert resources away from organising. For instance, Bray and Rimmer have argued that factionalism within the NSW Branch of the TWU during the 1950s negatively impacted on organising. Competitive unionism has also been suggested as a diversion from the successful unionisation of unorganised workers. Unions have often diverted attention to 'poaching' union members from rival unions rather than organising non-unionists. This competitive recruitment has clearly been detrimental to the union movement by appealing to divisions within the working class. Greg Patmore argued that in the conflict between the ARU and NSW Government Permanent Way Association (PWA) some organisers used religious differences as tool for recruitment, with the ARU being Catholic and the PWA being Protestant. Bradley Bowden noted that the TWU even gained the assistance of military intelligence in its successful campaign to gain coverage of airport refuellers from the Communist-dominated Northern Australian Workers Union in the Northern Territory during the 1940s.23
A dominant theme in examinations of union strategy by labour historians is that unions simply did not organise for most of the twentieth century because of the protections afforded to them by a sympathetic state. Bill Howard developed the 'dependency thesis' of Australian unions, arguing that they were in many ways a product of the system of compulsory arbitration. Union organising, according to Howard, was less of an imperative for union officers once arbitration registration and thus recognition was secured. Under this system, unions were protected from rival unions. There was little need, according to the dependency thesis, for unions to organise aggressively as the arbitration system did away with the need for protracted strikes that had, to that point, proved a drain upon union finances. The unions also gained political leverage through the Labor Party to achieve their objectives.24
Some historians have supported the Howard thesis by claiming that compulsory arbitration and wages boards made a major contribution to the growth of Australian trade unions between 1900 and 1914. Econometric models of Australian trade union growth incorporated a dummy variable for compulsory arbitration to account partially for union growth between 1907 and 1913. Even though there was no provision for unionism in the wages board system, some labour historians such as J.T. Sutcliffe argued that unions grew because workers co-operated to lobby for wages boards, elect representatives, ensure uniform arguments and watch for breaches of awards.25
A number of historians have suggested that the dependency thesis provides, at best, a superficial explanation of patterns of membership growth during the early twentieth century. G. Withers has shown that countries without compulsory arbitration, such as Sweden, Germany and the UK also experienced spectacular rates of union growth between 1890 and 1913. Other authors suggest that the arbitration system did not guarantee unions the thorough institutional protections that Howard suggested. There is evidence that a number of unions collapsed under the strain of the costs associated with arbitration and, while in theory the new system protected unionists, it did not do away with the employer victimisation that had been a feature of the 1890s.26 Generally, as Rae Cooper has argued, Howard's thesis fails to adequately recognise the agency of trade union activists in building their working class organisations, portraying 'unions instead as mere products of their environment'.27
In regard to the impact of the state arbitration since World War I, labour historians have raised further doubts about the conclusions of Howard's 'dependency thesis' concerning union organising. While there are examples of arbitration tribunals assisting union organising, 28 labour historians in broader studies of trade unions have found unions that did not take advantage of the arbitration provisions assisting union organising or, if they did, often found them disappointing.28 The NSW Nurses Association in 1938 appointed their first organiser but did not obtain of a right entry permit provided for by the industrial legislation. Mary Dickenson argued that the union preferred the organiser to obtain the permission of medical superintendents and matrons before speaking to nurses. The union did not want to challenge the rigid discipline of the hospital hierarchy. Even when compulsory legislation existed in Queensland in the 1960s, Margo Beasley noted that the organisers for the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union (FMWU) found it still necessary to expend considerable resources enrolling new members. According to Richard Mitchell, many unions found that they were unable to take advantage of preference clauses in the federal arbitration jurisdiction before 1970. The Commonwealth Court was reluctant to interfere with managerial prerogative and would only do so if the union could prove there was some threat. At the Port Kembla and Newcastle Steelworks in the late 1930s both Peter Cochrane and Warwick Eather argued the preference to unionists clause in the industry award was not 'watertight' as the 'other things be equal' qualification was too subjective. BHP at Newcastle claimed that discrimination against unionists did not occur because the employment officer did not know who the unionists were.29 Nikola Balnave claimed generally that 'within the framework of compulsory conciliation and arbitration, unions have only achieved mild and ineffective forms of union security'.30
There have been examples of the arbitration system directly obstructing organising. Warwick Eather argued that Justice Cantor of the NSW Industrial Commission made it difficult during World War II for the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA) to organise the BHP steelworks at Newcastle. Following the outbreak of the War, Cantor denied FIA organisers access to any part of the Newcastle Steelworks where defence work was carried out due to concerns that the Communist leadership of the union may jeopardise national security. Cantor subsequently refused to compel BHP to adhere to the limited preference clause in the award at the Newcastle plant.31
Preference to unionists in awards did encourage employers to consider alternatives such as the check-off system. Gerry Griffin and John Hill noted that in 1971 the Federated Clerks Union (FCU) obtained a clause in their federal award for the oil industry that gave preference to unionists in the engagement, promotion and retention of employment. The FCU did not have the resources to guarantee employer compliance with the preference clause. Employers wanted to avoid preference clauses that could interfere with their deployment of labour so they offered a provision for the check-off, whereby employers deducted union subscriptions from employees' salaries and wages. Employers also made unionism a condition of employment for all new employees. These arrangements had a substantial impact on FCU membership, which increased by 20,000 between 1971 and 1974. Similar arrangements in the banking industry helped increase the union density rate from 64 per cent in 1973 to 86 per cent in 1975. Many non-unionists saw the arrangements as giving official sanction to union membership. Tom Bramble noted that the Vehicle Builders Employees Federation (VBEF) also obtained the check-off in the automobile industry in 1974. Despite favourable decisions for preference to clerks in the oil industry, however, Griffin argued that the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission refused to extend these provisions to other workers such as municipal officers and professional engineers on the Melbourne City Council.32 Further, while Hill argued that the check-off assists recruiting 'by eliminating the organizer's need to press for subscriptions at the same time as trying to sign up a new member', 33 Bramble claimed that 'management were now in a stronger negotiating position, since they could threaten to withhold dues collections in the event of industrial action'.3334
While there is a debate over whether the state indirectly impacted on organising through compulsory arbitration, labour historians have argued that the direct intervention by sympathetic governments aided in the recruitment of members, particularly in the public sector. Peter Sheldon argued that E.W. O'Sullivan, the NSW Minister for Public Works from 1899 to 1904, not only specified union wage rates on day labour jobs and contract work, but also instituted a hiring system for day labour that favoured union members. Stonemasons, for example, had a rotation hiring system that operated through the union's membership list. Mark Hearn and Greg Patmore noted that the NSW Lang Labor government in March 1932 issued instructions that all railway employees should become and remain members of a 'bona fide' union. The directive helped the ARU increase its membership by 2414 members in 1932-33, while the rival loyalist Railway Service Association (RSA) gained approximately 1500 new members. This is remarkable because the RSA was deemed not to be a 'bona fide' union. It benefited from its lower fee structure and policy of no levies. With the dismissal of Lang by the NSW Governor in May 1932, the incoming United Australia Party government annulled the directive. The NSW McKell Labor government, elected in 1941, reintroduced the policy that all public employees be members of their relevant union, which Mary Dickenson and Mark Hearn have argued assisted the nurses' union and the railway unions.35
Australian labour historians have found that union avoidance and 'union busting' activities of employers designed to remove union influence from workplaces and thwart efforts to build membership are not just a recent phenomenon. Historically, employers have impacted upon union organising in complex and changing ways. A number of historians have pointed to the victimisation and dismissal of union activists. Chris Wright noted that employers circulated blacklists of union activists in the pastoral and steel industries and even employed individuals to spy on the union activities of fellow workers. John Merritt found that organisers for the Amalgamated Shearers Union in the late 1880s and early 1890s faced legal prosecution for trespass. Peter Cochrane noted that, at the Port Kembla Steelworks in the late 1930s, management carefully watched visits by union officials to the plant and followed them up with detailed written reports.36 Even during the prosperity of the post-war decades, Wright argued that 'in spite of legal limitations, management victimisation of union representatives remained an enduring feature of workplace industrial relations even in larger establishments such as the paper and steel companies'.37
Employers have also engaged in counter-organising by setting up company unions or by encouraging more conservative unions to cover their workplaces to prevent a militant union gaining a foothold. Greg Patmore argued that management at the federal government's Small Arms Factory at Lithgow encouraged the formation of a union to prevent the FIA organising the plant. Patmore also found that the NSW Railway Commissioners during the 1917 General Strike paid organisers to form loyalist unions. Approximately Â£400 was spent on the payment of wages and allowances to certain organisers, and Â£230 on passes. The time sheets of these men showed them performing their ordinary duties, thus providing no indication that they were engaged in organising unions. Several labour historians found similar unions appeared, following the 1917 General Strike, in other companies including BHP, Arnott's Biscuits and Schweppes Mineral Waters. Automotive companies in the 1950s gave preferential treatment to the VBEF over more radical rival unions such as the Amalgamated Engineering Union. Robert Tierney found that supervisors intimidated the shop stewards of the rival unions by following them around the workplace and restricting stewards from collecting union subscriptions.38
Some unions tried to get around employer harassment by meeting outside the workplace or sending union organisers 'undercover'. Bradley Bowden noted that the Australian Federation of Labour in Queensland sent its best organiser, who shaved of his distinctive moustache, to work in the pits and organise the miners at Ipswich. The organiser established the West Moreton Coal Miners Union, which by February 1891 claimed 846 financial members. Robert Murray and Kate White in their history of the FIA found that an organiser refused entry to the BHP Newcastle Steelworks in the early 1920s wore wigs, caps and even false moustaches to get past the guards and organise inside the plant without being detected.39
A number of historians have suggested that peak councils have played a valuable role in supporting the recruitment efforts of affiliated unions and sometimes they were involved in this recruitment directly. Several labour historians have examined the organising activities of the Sydney Trades and Labor Council, which set up an Organising Committee in August 1890. The committee claimed to have organised 16 new unions in 1891. Cooper found that this committee assisted the establishment of the only specifically female unions in NSW at the time, the Barmaids and Waitresses Union, Laundresses Union, Female Employees Society and the Tailoresses Union. The Labor Council's activism interacted with a favourable economic climate and class awareness heightened by the 1890 Maritime Strike. Unfortunately, these new unions collapsed during the 1890s depression and the organising committee collapsed in early 1894. Regional labour councils have also assisted union organising. Bradon Ellem and John Shields argued that in Broken Hill during the 1920s and 1930s the Barrier Industrial Council extended union membership through union badges and the boycotting of stores that did not display 'Union Labor Only' cards. Peter Cochrane noted that during the late 1930s the Illawarra Trades and Labour Council assisted the FIA in organising the Port Kembla steelworks by ensuring that employees, including those working for contractors, had a union ticket.40
What role can the community play in labour organising? While there is recognition that broad labour-community coalitions that include capitalists may emerge in particular localities to protect local interests against external threats such as retrenchment, it is unlikely that such coalitions would form to promote union memberships. Ellem and Shields have highlighted that the interests of local workers and town sector employers in Broken Hill during the 1920s and 1930s were diametrically opposed on the issue of unionisation. Local unions increased their membership by fracturing rather than co-opting the power of local entrepreneurs.41
Community is not only based on particular locality but can also be constructed from workers' ethnic and faith organisations and identities. Michael Quinlan found that in the postwar period immigrant worker welfare groups such as the Greek Welfare Workers Association in Victoria and the Federation of Italian Labourers and their Families encouraged workers to approach and join unions. These organisations allowed unions to establish contact with immigrant networks. Margot Beasley noted that the FMWU employed an Aboriginal organiser, Des McKenzie, in the Northern Territory in 1991-92 to work with local Aboriginal communities to promote knowledge of trade union practice and recruit members. This included meetings with tribal elders and special pamphlets relating trade unions to local interests such as football.42
Overall this article highlights the contribution that labour historians can make to the present Australian debates concerning trade union decline and organising. Although labour historians have tended not to focus specifically upon union organising, by examining the rich contribution that labour historians have made to our understanding of Australian trade unions we find can find insights into this aspect of union strategy. Contemporary debates about labour organising raise important questions about the past for historians to pursue and contribute another dimension to current theory and practice. A dialogue between contemporary researchers and labour historians is essential to provide the best possible framework for organising workers today and in the future. While trade union growth theory highlights a range of exogenous factors to explain fluctuations in membership, there is a need to for both contemporary researchers and labour historians to recognise that trade unions are active agents in shaping their own destiny.
There may be innovative approaches to organising that could be resuscitated from the past and modified for current circumstances. Community-based approaches may be more effective when targeting specific groups such as immigrants and indigenous workers. Unions might also draw upon the Bank Official's Association strategy of targeting key non-unionists as a part of their campaigns to organise unorganised workplaces. History tells us that there are a number of factors that impede effective union organising such faction-fighting and competitive organising. Australian labour historians have indirectly contributed to the contemporary debate over impact of regulatory regimes upon union membership and organising. It is suggested that Howard's 'dependency thesis' may be too simplistic in regard to organising. Preference clauses and right of entry for union organisers were not necessarily granted by the arbitration system to unions nor respected by management. Indeed where these protections were granted they did not ensure organising success. Labour historians provide further insights into employers' tactics by highlighting a rich tradition of Australian management's efforts to frustrate union organising. They also emphasise that peak union councils at various levels of the labour movement have an important role to play in coordinating organising.
The articles in the current issue of Labour History deepen our understanding of the history of trade union organising in Australia. Ray Markey argues that the emphasis on arbitration as an explanation for union growth in the early 1900s was based on a misreading of the statistical data. He sees strong similarities between the 1880s and 1900s in terms of union growth. Growth was based on strong local communities and perceived threats to working conditions. Peak union councils played a major co-ordinating role in union growth in both periods. There was a broad social consensus for finding a public place for unions in both periods with the state generally rather than arbitration specifically being a critical factor in the early 1900s. Rae Cooper reinforces Markey's argument concerning the role of peak councils by focusing on the work of the Organising Committee of the Labor Council in the first decade of the twentieth century. She emphasises the role of trade union agency and questions those who rely on the 'dependency thesis' to explain union growth in the period for which the argument would, in many accounts, have the most validity. Cooper also addresses the role of Labor Council organisers in organising women workers into unions.
The articles on Broken Hill and Rockhampton provide insights into the organising activities of unions in regional Australia. Bradon Ellem and John Shields examine four cycles of union growth, decline and renewal in the mining town of Broken Hill in the period from 1886-1930. They highlight four key factors that explain these cycles: the globalised scale and cyclical nature of the political economy of the metal mining industry; the importance of labour migration and worker itinerancy; the paradoxical role of the state; and the occupational and spatial divisions among Broken Hill workers. They warn against oversimplifying the impact of the state on trade union growth noting that it was both supportive and hostile. Ellem and Shields note that mobilisation of labour requires more than organising practices such as union badges, it also needs 'an ethic of collectivism'. Barbara Webster in her study of Rockhampton raises further concerns about the 'dependency thesis' arguing that not all unions relied on the arbitration system for organising. By choice or through denial of preference to unionists, some unions adopted mobilisational strategies such as an active and vigilant union delegate system. Furthermore, unions were not passive recipients of preference. Rather they exploited the system to increase membership through their close relationship with the Australian Labor Party, which dominated Queensland politics during the period Webster studies.
Evan Roberts reminds us of the benefits of comparative labour history in understanding issues such as union organisation. His study of retail employees' unions in Wellington (New Zealand) and St. Paul (Minnesota, US) highlights the problems of building organising around a particular issue and not sustaining a long-term commitment to unionism or 'ethic of collectivism'. While these unions were successful in gaining their members a 40-hour week, their failure to broaden their focus to include the wider range of retail employees lost them members in the long term.
Rae Cooper teaches industrial relations in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney and is a Vice-President of the Evatt Foundation. Greg Patmore is a chair of the Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney and is the editor of Labour History, the journal of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. This paper is the introduction to the November 2002 special edition of Labour History, which examines labour movement organising and mobilisation and was co-edited by Rae Cooper. To purchase a copy of the edition or to subscribe to Labour History, please email Labour History's editorial assistant Margaret Walters, or phone her on (02) 93513786.
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