LABOUR RELATIONS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
From craft to corporation: unionism in Australia
, February 2, 2013
In my hall hangs a portrait of my great grandfather, Robert James Huxley. He is wearing the uniform of the commodore of the Princess Royal Yacht Club, which was one of the premier social institutions of Albany. Through this port on the southern coast of Western Australia, troopships embarked in convoys taking Australians to war.
Robert Huxley did not have an occupation to which we would ascribe a high social status today. He was a locomotive engineman — in other words, a train-driver. But in his day, locomotive enginemen formed an elite. Trains were high-tech, akin to jet aircraft today. He was an important man in Albany.
The union that had coverage of his occupation was the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen (AFULE). The union that became the Australian Railways Union (ARU) was formed by labourers in the 1880s.
In the railways, as elsewhere, unionism was craft-based — the plumbers had their union, the fitters had theirs, as did the electricians, and so on. The ARU became a “multigrade union”, but the AFULE did not amalgamate with the ARU until the 1990s. That was the strength of attachment to their craft. The ARU, at least initially, were the odds and sods. The elite were the skilled tradesmen and enginemen.
Union amalgamation has had a long history in Australia, dating back at least to the evolution of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) from the various colonial shearers’ unions in the 1880s.
The Australian unions, led by the AWU, resisted the campaign for “One Big Union” by the International Workers of the World (IWW) in the interwar era. The IWW, or “Wobblies”, saw the “One Big Union” as an instrument of syndicalist strategy for overthrowing capitalism.
The IWW, sometimes said to stand for “I Won’t Work”, burnt itself out.
The formation of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in 1927 was at least partially a reaction to the Wobblies. For many years the AWU stood apart from the ACTU, as it believed itself to be the sole legitimate One Big Union — and still does.
The apparently voracious appetite of some unions for expansion was never satisfied, leading more or less directly to the ACTU’s campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s to create 20 big unions and thereby bring about the corporatisation of the labour movement.
Let me give an example. The Boilermakers and Blacksmiths Society was the classic craft union. The “boilies”, as they were known, were highly skilled tradesmen with a real pride in their craft.
The union had a rule that the officials of the union should be paid no more than the top tradesmen in their locality. Now, it has come to light that some officials of the Health Services Union (HSU) are paid in excess of $300,000 annually — that is, 10 times what many of their members earn.
However, the transition from craft unionism to industrial unionism has not been without its hiccups. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), led by Laurie Carmichael and later Doug — now Senator — Cameron, showed an almost insatiable appetite for gobbling up smaller unions.
It has transformed itself from craft union to industrial union, and while it is still colloquially know as “the metalworkers”, it has spread its net so widely that it is hard to know who it represents anymore.
The ever-widening gulf separating union members on the shop floor from the union leadership is due, at least in part, to the corporatisation of Australian unionism.
Unionism in the United States is following a similar pattern. The Midwestern state of Michigan — heartland of American unionism and birthplace of the mighty United Auto Workers (UAW) union — has recently passed right-to-work laws, which effectively outlaw closed shops and union-hall hiring. So far, right-to-work laws have been mainly the province of the more conservative southern states.
Union membership in Australia has fallen to 13 per cent of the private sector workforce, and about 18 per cent overall. US union membership is just under 12 per cent of the workforce, according to official figures.
In the days when over half the Australian workforce was unionised, an industrial dispute could bring the nation to a halt.
In May 1969, Victorian tramway workers union secretary Clarrie O’Shea was fined for contempt of the Commonwealth Industrial Court by John Kerr (who years later, as governor-general, sacked the Whitlam Labor government).
O’Shea was a prominent member of the Beijing-aligned Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). In other words, he was a Maoist.
He refused to pay his fine and was jailed in Pentridge Prison. Sympathetic unions promptly called protest stoppages in all mainland states and brought Australia to its knees. Two days later, a Sydney lottery winner, Dudley Macdougall, paid O’Shea’s outstanding fine on his behalf, “to help the general public and the country”.
Although such “penal provisions” remained on the statute books, they were never enforced again.
Would this happen today? Most unlikely. Not only has the Soviet Union collapsed and China stopped exporting revolution, it’s hard to wage class warfare when many union members are earning $100,000 a year. Also, there are simply far fewer unionists around.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer. He has been a paid-up member of the Government Water, Sewerage and Drainage Employees’ Industrial Union of Workers; the Australian Workers Union; the Federated Clerks Union; and the Australian Education Union.