Anti-Union or Pro-Property? Worker Surveillance and Gold Theft in Western Australian Gold Mines, 1899-1920

By Segal, Naomi | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Anti-Union or Pro-Property? Worker Surveillance and Gold Theft in Western Australian Gold Mines, 1899-1920


Segal, Naomi, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


In the struggle over the distribution of power in the workplace, the practice of blacklisting workers can be a powerful anti-labour and anti-union weapon. Blacklisting in the context of the workplace is a method of disciplining labour available to management which has been most commonly understood as 'recording the names of known trade union activists by employers, employment agencies and business organizations in order to allow vetting of job applications and [exclusion of] union militants from employment'. (1) While historically employers have compiled blacklists to eliminate criminal or 'deviant' workers, blacklisting activities which were intended to eliminate unions from the workplace have been of greatest interest to historians. Anti-union blacklisting often involved labour espionage: paid agents introduced into the workplace to inform on union or other dissident worker activity.

Blacklisting has been reported to have been a significant weapon in the anti-labour and anti-union arsenal of employers in many countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil, and Australia. (2) There exists a rich historical literature concerned with labour espionage and union suppression, especially in the United States, but detailed analyses of the role and function of historical blacklists, in and of themselves, are less common. This is a somewhat surprising observation to have to make about United States historiography since labour spying in the United States 'was backed up by a massive blacklisting apparatus in many industries'. (3) That detailed analysis of blacklisting systems has the potential to lead to revisions of received historical wisdom is apparent from such studies as are available. For example, P.V. Black found that blacklisting on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad from 1860 to 1900, which amounted essentially to departments exchanging discharge lists, worked to control and discipline not only workers, but also 'lower management' ('local superintendents, master mechanics, trainmasters, roadmaters and foremen' (4)). It did so by allowing upper management (President, general manager, superintendents of the company) to monitor the quality of 'lower management's' decision-making when discharging employees. Similarly, Hyde, who examined early twentieth century reports by labour spies to the Quincy Mining Company, a copper mine in Michigan, observed that the spies' success in naming 'troublemakers' was unimpressive, that they were often ineffective because they failed to keep a permanent job at the mine, were exposed as spies, or suffered work injuries themselves. Their lack of language skills when monitoring a multicultural workforce also reduced their effectiveness as did the noisy and compartmentalised work environment. Instead of providing substantial information on labour agitators or pending industrial trouble, the spies constantly reminded the company of unsafe working conditions underground. Hyde concludes that the spies were more valuable to management in 'identifying dishonest, abusive, or incompetent company officials than in spotting labor agitators', (5) and more effective in highlighting poor safety conditions than in collating information on dissenting workers. (6)

In Australia, blacklisting has been reported in the steel, coal, wharf and pastoral industries and, most notoriously, against members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). (7) Again, however, there are no detailed analyses of the system of blacklisting, its operation and effect.

The potency of blacklisting grows when administered by employers collectively and efficiently within and across industries, in single industry locations, and in remote locations with limited employment opportunities. Several of these conditions applied to the often remote, single industry centres of Western Australia's goldfields at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Workers in the gold mining industry complained about an 'organised system of victimisation' (8) as early as 1903. …

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