Abstracts – Labour History No. 100

Celebrating 100 Issues of Labour History

Australian Labour History: Contexts, Trends and Influences
Frank Bongiorno

From their inception, the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History and its Bulletin (later Labour History) represented a claim to recognition for labour history within Australian academia. At the same time, they expressed the fellowship of the activist and scholar. This article will suggest that labour history has been shaped by the evolving professional imperatives associated with university-based research, publication and teaching of Australian history in an increasingly globalised academic culture. Yet labour history has also continued to derive distinctiveness from a longer history of identification with the labour movement’s struggle for social justice; its roots in what I call ‘activist popular history’, ‘critical objective history’ and ‘academic history’; and a healthy scepticism concerning the illusion of disinterested scholarship.


Historical Interpretations of the Labour Process: Retrospect and Future Research Directions
Christopher Wright

Labour process research has had a profound impact on the study of work by highlighting the central role of management in controlling labour cost and application. It is also an approach that is strongly grounded in a historical and empirical methodology. This paper reviews the contribution of labour process theory and research over the last forty years to the study of Australian labour and business history. While interest in the labour process from an historical perspective has declined in recent years, this paper identifies four areas where recent research may offer conceptual inspiration, specifically: questions of managerial and professional identity; organisational change and management innovation; the nature and control of service work; and globalisation and comparative labour process analysis.


The ‘Knotted Hands that Set Us High’: Labour History and the Study of Convict Australia
David Andrew Roberts

Although labour and economic perspectives now seem integral to the study of convict Australia, for much of the twentieth century labour historians seemed to find the subject distinctly unprofitable and inappropriate. Most histories tended towards a reductive view of convict work as inherently brutal and exploitative, while the key questions revolved around the moral character of the convicts and the possible cultural legacies of the convict era. Labour history perspectives were more effectively applied to the subject once the field had become shaped and inspired by the new social and cultural history, the result being a richer and more multifaceted picture of the management and experience of convict work, and of the plight of convicts as working people.


The Rise and Decline of Australian Unionism: A History of Industrial Labour from the 1820s to 2010
Bradley Bowden

In exploring the factors that contributed to the rise and decline of industrial labour in Australia, this article argues that support for unionism initially emerged from a working class that was a product of the country’s unusual economic history. In the twentieth century the implementation of systems of compulsory arbitration, devised to mediate industrial conflict, reinforced support for unionism. In 1948, however, support for unionism peaked and a long process of decline began as the working class constituency that had provided its social anchor disintegrated as a result of structural changes in the economy. The dismantling of arbitration after 1986 exacerbated this established pattern of decline, as did a growth in precarious employment and employer anti-union strategies.


The State, Labour and the Writing of Australian Labour History
Peter Sheldon and Louise Thornthwaite

A critical literature review of the influence of the twentieth century state in Australia on labour produces a number of findings. First, the disaggregated nature of that state – with its national, state and local levels each including various state ‘arms’ – has generated a multiplicity of outcomes and a diverse literature. Second, the field largely operates within a range of perspectives – pluralist, elite and class-based – that accepts and legitimates unions and state regulation that limits employer behaviour. Third, the neighbouring fields of economic history, political science, labour law and public administration have played crucial roles in shaping what we know about particular, important topic trends. For example, labour law has most to say on the matter of individual legal rights while public administration has contributed substantially on trends in public sector employment. Crucially important too has been the field of industrial relations where sustained – often longitudinal – institutional analysis and a greater propensity to theorising contribute greater breadth, consistency and sophistication. It is really on the topic of collective labour rights – most notably the roles and behaviours of arbitration tribunals and unions – that mainstream labour history, together with historically-sensitive industrial relations, have made major contributions. This reflects that compulsory arbitration – through award-making on the terms and conditions of employment – was undoubtedly the most visible, pervasive and influential mechanism through which the state in Australia affected labour.


Labour and Politics
Nick Dyrenfurth

Labour-in-politics was once the most privileged genre of Australian labour history. Studies of the Australian Labor Party, together with biographies of the party’s leading lights, dominated much of the old Left-influenced scholarship until the late 1960s. From the 1970s onwards, however, the rise of social history and the highly-charged attacks of the new Left challenged such party-political dominance. Such histories were increasingly written by political scientists or outside of academe altogether. At the twentieth century’s turn, labour-in-politics appeared to be in terminal decline; an interpretation that persists to this day. By contrast, this historiographical article contends that politically-themed labour history is in rude health; close attention to culture and discourse, combined with a well-contextualised sensitivity to the role of gender and race, has enlivened rather than superseded the genre. Similarly, studies of localism and the trend towards transnational and comparative history are increasingly fleshing out themes of native exceptionalism.


Representative Lives? Biography and Labour History
Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles

Labour biography is an exercise in shaping meaning from the unruly experience of a life immersed in activism. The biographer facilitates the evolution of a labour tradition with lessons of solidarity and social justice, resistance and betrayal. The complex dynamics of leadership and activism have compelled labour biographers from H.V. Evatt’s study of William Holman, to the recently published first volume of Jenny Hocking’s biography of Gough Whitlam. Outstanding biography is prompted not only by the qualities of the subject but also by a tension between leadership and the tests of war and economic depression, post-war reconstruction, and above all the progressive renewal of Australian society that characterises the historic mission of the labour movement. The article also explores how women’s ‘distinctive class subjectivity’ might be drawn into recasting the terms of not only describing the role of women in the labour movement, but also recasting our wider understanding of Australian labour history.


The Politics of Consumption and Labour History
Nikola Balnave and Greg Patmore

Australian labour historians have generally concentrated on exploring the politics of production rather than of consumption. The behaviour, actions and perspectives of consumers, however, are just as important to our understanding of society as are those of producers. This article undertakes a general review of historical debates in the Australian literature concerning the concept of consumption. It then provides an overview of the Australian experience based on primary and secondary research. Two issues are of particular interest. The first is the collective response of workers and other groups to the issues associated with consumption including the prices and the quality of goods and services. The article will primarily focus on co-operatives as the collective response. The second issue is the way in which employers attempt to control consumption through a range of strategies including company stores and canteens.


The Australian Place in Comparative Labour History
Raymond Markey

The conceptualisation of labour history has traditionally focused on national working classes and organised labour movements, although its Australian variants have always been implicitly informed by a comparative perspective based on notions of the ‘Workingman’s Paradise’. In the past three or more decades explicitly comparative labour history in Australia has undergone significant expansion, led by Labour History. Although there are numerous comparative approaches, national institutional comparisons of a small number of similar – Anglo Saxon, settler societies – countries dominate these efforts. This approach has by no means exhausted its possibilities, but comparative endeavours also need to expand beyond it to realise the comparative potential. There have been beginnings with comparisons of social trends and themes, such as racism, gender, and urbanisation to name just some. Perhaps the greatest potential for breaking free from the shackles of ‘methodological nationalism’ lies in transnational historiographical approaches, focusing on shared experiences and processes beyond national boundaries.