Labour History in the New Century

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

Labour History in the New Century


Franks, Peter, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


Over 80 people--locals, visitors from out of state and a handful from outside Australia--attended the 11th National Labour History Conference of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History (ASSLH) which was held in Perth from 8 to 10 July. The Perth Branch's hard-working conference committee is to be congratulated for hosting a well-organised, stimulating and enjoyable event.

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The conference opened with a welcome to country by Kim Collard, a representative of the Nyungar people, the indigenous inhabitants of Perth. In the first of three plenary sessions, David Brody, Emeritus Professor at the University of California-Davis, presented a fascinating historical analysis of United States (US) labour law with comparison to Australia. (1) The three key elements of the US regime were the light-handed role of the state (there was little legislation on collective bargaining until the 1930s), the reliance on judge-made law which has been consistently hostile to unions, and the doctrine of free labour. This doctrine dated back to the 13th amendment to the US Constitution which abolished involuntary servitude along with slavery. The courts said that if workers had the absolute right to leave a job, employers had the absolute right to sack them.

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David said that although workers' rights to organise and to bargain have been steadily undermined by the courts, the idea of voluntary collective bargaining is still powerful in America. Union contracts provide significantly higher wages and benefits and 'do the work of social justice' for American workers. The brutal reality is that union density is only 7.5 per cent. One of the difficulties in campaigning for change in the United States was that there was no political narrative to describe the evolution of labour law. Unlike Australia there wasn't a series of public, contested legislative changes--just hundreds of anti-union court cases.

The Employee Free Choice Act has been promoted to restore workers' rights, for example by signing union authorisation cards as an alternative to employer-dominated elections. David and a number of other US historians have campaigned in support of the Act but he is pessimistic about its chances for success despite the Democrats' majority in Congress.

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David's address was followed by a panel discussion on work and family issues. ACTU president Sharan Burrow discussed the gains that have been made on working hours, family-friendly provisions and parental leave in the face of strong opposition. Jacquie Hutchinson analysed research into workers' experiences of working hours, forms of employment and workloads. James Pearson, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, put the employers' arguments for flexibility and against a rights-based approach. Simone McGurk, acting Secretary of Unions WA, responded with a strong attack on the Fair Pay Commission's decision (the previous day) to freeze the minimum wage.

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The third plenary session was an absorbing address by Ann Curthoys, ARC Professorial Fellow at the University of Sydney, about her research project on the visit to Australia and New Zealand in 1960 by the famous Afro-American actor, singer and communist, Paul Robeson. Although it took place during the Cold War, his tour was a resounding success. His concerts were well attended and his visit was a significant rallying event for the Communist Party of Australia, the peace movement, trade unions and the fledgling Aboriginal movement. Outside the commercial concert programme, Robeson and his wife Eslanda, a distinguished anthropologist, met unionists, peace activists and women's groups. Robeson gave impromptu performances at union meetings; Ann showed a short film clip of him singing for workers on the Sydney Opera house site. …

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