EJANZH: Oliver Reviews Hearn and Knowles

Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles, One Big Union. A History of the Australian Workers Union 1886-1994. Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1996, Pp xiii+ 377. Illustrated, Appendix, Index, $29.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Bobbie Oliver.

‘One Big Union’ is an apt title for the history of a union that has dominated both the industrial and political arms of the Australian Labor movement for much of the past century. This study, laudably, commences with a chapter on ideas – not only the ideas which motivated W.G. Spence, the union’s founder, but of historians who have written about him and the times in which he lived. The authors also use this introductory chapter to attempt to define this unique organisation. They point out that, like other ‘new unions’ that arose late in the nineteenth century, the AWU enrolled workers excluded from the craft unions, but that there is dispute as to whether it was a ‘general union’ or whether it was a shearers’ union which retained a ‘craft’ identity after merging with the General Workers Union (pp. 6-7). Unlike the new ‘industrial’ general unions, the AWU did not maintain a tradition of socialist militancy. Indeed, the AWU became increasingly identified with the conservative side of the Labor movement.

One of the problems associated with any ‘centenary’ history is the apportionment of space to the various periods and events that have occurred. The authors have done well in this regard, except for the fact that a mere 30 pages (out of 339) have been allotted to the last 14 years of the history (1979-1994) – but writing very recent history has its own special difficulties, not the least being the sensitivity which often surrounds the publication of recent correspondence and other such papers. The early chapters are certainly among the book’s strengths, giving a detailed description of the struggles to establish and shearers’ and rural workers’ union in spite of strong hostility from pastoralists and other employers. This is a competent and interesting account of the background to, and the outcomes of, the 1890s strikes, which the current reviewer would have found very useful when teaching this period of history over a decade ago. Every good academic history is written at least partially in response to teaching needs and I anticipate that One Big Union will be a useful text for teachers in such disciples as history, politics and industrial relations.

The book’s central chapters are devoted to the challenges presented by the One Big Union (OBU) Movement, an attempt by industrial militants to amalgamate all unions in one organisation, and by the loss of membership caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The AWU clearly saw itself as the ‘one big union’ and resisted the militant Workers Industrial Union of Australia (WIUA) which quickly became its rival in the move to absorb the smaller unions (p. 128). The cartoon on p. 129, showing the AWU as the ship bearing the OBU sail, nicely encapsulates the role which the AWU defined for itself as leader of the union movement, whereas others, such as Jock Garden, planned that its activity should not extend beyond rural workers (p. 131). The AWU’s lack of cooperation finally put the nails in the coffin of the WIUA and its successor, the Australasian Workers Union. When a new industrial organisation, the ACTU, was founded in 1928, the AWU refused to join (p. 142). During the Depression, Hearn and Knowles state that the Union sustained considerable membership losses, with Victoria-Riverina, for example dropping from 14 400 in 1930 to 4845 by mid 1932. On the other hand, they do not mention that a deal with the Labor Government in Western Australia enabled the AWU to monopolise workers employed on relief projects, a move with angered a number of industrial unions such as the railway and waterside workers.

Throught the book, one finds descriptions of the working conditions endured by AWU members in a range of jobs, for example (on pp. 160 ff) the health hazards encountered by miners. Lead poisoning, silicosis got from inhaling dust in poorly ventilated shafts, and rheumatism from working in cold and damp conditions, together with the dangers of working with explosives and unguarded machines, made mining Australia’s most hazardous occupation. As late as the 1960s, Pat Mackie found that conditions at Mount Isa were worse than in a ship’s stokehold.

After half an hour of breathing in the vaporous air and the oily exhaust from my machine I was gasping for breath. I felt I was drowning. The noise and the heat were so intense my whole body was throbbing, my head bursting. The weight of my sodden trousers, the heavy belt and light battery dragging low down on my waist added to my misery (quoted p. 271).

Fruit pickers endured low wages, poor accommodation and the inconveniences of an itinerant lifestyle, especially for families. Many workers were afraid to belong to a union because they feared victimisation (p. 165). Shearers will still enduring primitive living and working conditions and poor pay in the 1980s (p. 313).

Much of the book’s middle and later chapters are taken up with events in Queensland where the union became dominated by powerful and notorious leaders which dramatic titles such as ‘the Red Terror’ – Clarrie Fallon (pp 180-210) – and ‘Midnight Joe’ Bukowski whose nickname was attributed to his habit of ‘visiting recalcitrant agitators in the night and dispensing summary justice with his fists’ (p. 250). The link between the ALP and the AWU is well illustrated in the episode surrounding Queensland Labor Premier Vince Gair’s expulsion from the Party, when Bukowski was ALP State President. As Gair’s Deputy, Duggan, acknowledged, ‘any Labor Government which imagined it could get along without the cordiality, assistance and power of the AWU was only trying to have wool pulled over its eyes’ (quoted p. 254).

There are some surprising omissions, one being the lack of any discussion regsarding the impact of Prime Minister W.M. Hughes’ ‘National Workers’ unions which operated in a number of Australian industries, most notably on the waterfront and in some rural and mining districts from the 1917 general strike until they were finally disbanded in the early 1920s. On the Western Australian goldfields, as Hearn and Knowles acknowledge (p. 179), the AWU had its own 6,000-strong Mining Branch, an amalgamation several mining unions with the AWU between 1915 and 1917. In 1919, the National Workers attempted to re-register one of these defunct organisations – the Coolgardie (or Federated) Miners Union – as a rival of the AWU Mining Branch. The AWU miners staged a demonstration which became known as the riot at Fimiston (near Boulder), resulting in a number of arrests. The trial finally was thrown out of the Supreme Court, but cost the union thousands of pounds – which was yet another reason (beyond the high unemployment mentioned on p. 158) why the union was financially weakened. It was, in fact, unable to pay its dues to the ALP’s Eastern District Council and was threatened with disaffiliation from the Party. A further difficulty, which the book does not cover, was the disastrous 1921 shearers’ strike which occurred because the powerful WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association refused to pay the AWU award – and they were still refusing in 1925.

While the extent of the union’s political clout is discussed in detail in the Queensland context and to some extent in relation to NSW Labor (especially during the period of Lang’s Premiership), a similar situation in Western Australia is given only the briefest mention. Some unique features of the AWU’s dominance in the west, such as its ownership, during most of the half of the century, of the State’s only Labor paper, the Westralian Worker, deserve a much fuller coverage – especially as many of the relevant papers are available in Canberra’s Noel Butlin Archives. The inclusion of so little Western Australian material is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the book’s gravest weakness. Like Queensland, Western Australia was largely dependent on rural industries and lacked big concentrations of industrial workers until the 1950s. Yet, the unique structure of the ALP (WA Branch) ensured that the AWU had an even greater influence on the State Parliamentary Labor Party than in the other states. (The political and industrial wings were concentrated in one movement – there being no independent Trades and Labor Council until 1963.) In 1935, for example, the AWU controlled over one-fifth of the votes at the State ALP’s General Council.

In addition to the above, I have a few other criticisms. The AWU was undoubtedly a male union with initially very few female workers; consequently, one would expect the history to concentrate on the male membership. Indeed, deciding to avoid the ‘pitfall’ of ‘simply adding women’ (to cite Marilyn Lake, p. 10), the authors have wisely signalled that this history will be pretty well ‘womanless’. Even so, I would argue that the section on women workers (pp. 310 ff) is vastly inadequate in its treatment of women’s struggles for equality within the union. There is evidence from as far back as 1919 that women were unsatisfied with the AWU because it did not address their concerns. The inference on p. 164, that the fruit picking industry was not ‘male dominated’ because ‘one in six workers were women’ needs reconsidering, too. Perhaps the point is that despite being outnumbered five to one, the women workers are more prevalent in the fruit picking industry than in most industries covered by the AWU. But what about those working in canneries and other food processing industries? Surely they also rate a mention?

There are some irritating typographical errors which one would not expect to find in a publication of this quality, for example: ‘leader’s’ instead of ‘leaders” (p. 39), and the mis-spelling of ‘fledgling’ (p. 43). At times, too, the generally clear and well written prose is marred by long and overly-complex sentences, such as:

James McInerney, the Goulburn Branch secretary and no friend of the neighbouring Wagga leadership, asked Wagga secretary Walter Head who had authorised the branch to spend money on a newspaper, the Hummer, established by the Wagga Branch in October 1891 and which provided robust and unwelcome competition to the Shearers’ Record, the privately run journal which the ASU had adopted as its official mouthpiece (p. 59)

Another oversight occurs on p. 149. Hughes never led a Government in Canberra, because the Federal Parliament did not move there until 1927, whereas Hughes was replaced as National Party leader by Stanley Bruce in 1923. Even Bruce spent most of his political career operating from Parliament in Melbourne, as his lost his seat the 1929 election.

Despite these criticisms, this is definitely one of the better union histories, and it will be a useful addition to the library of any serious Labor scholar.

Bobbie Oliver is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Cultural Heritage, Curtin University. She can be contracted at:

Research Institute for Cultural Heritage Curtin University of Technology GPO Box U1987 PERTH WA 6845

Phone 08 9266 3215 Fax: 08 9266 3836