Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Placing Peak Union Purpose and Power: The Origins, Dominance and Decline of the Barrier Industrial Council

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Placing Peak Union Purpose and Power: The Origins, Dominance and Decline of the Barrier Industrial Council

Article excerpt

Introduction

For all of their importance to organised labour in many countries, peak unions (or union federations) have, until recently, been subjected to surprisingly little empirical study and theoretical analysis. Perhaps this is because peak unions are such remarkably heterogeneous phenomena. Some have a national focus, others a state or regional focus, and still others are local in scope; some are strong, some weak; some have lives which are short and tempestuous, others have managed to outlive all but a few of their founding affiliates. Furthermore, some have remained mere debating forums for affiliate unions; others have grown beyond their founding brief, assuming considerable autonomy in the industrial and political spheres. A select few--like Broken Hill's famed Barrier Industrial Council (BIC)--have come close to being a state within a state, exercising enormous control over both affiliates and the social and political formations in which they are embedded.

These observations raise a number of intriguing questions about the nature of peak unions. Why is it that unions form peak bodies in the first instance? Why is it that some peak unions prosper while others wither away? Why do some peak unions become powerful? Why is that that peak union power ebbs as well as flows? These are extremely complex questions and their very complexity perhaps explains why students of labour economics, industrial relations and labour history have been loath to ask them, let alone answer them. We certainly do not pretend that we have all the answers here. What we want to offer are some insights which we believe do have the potential to enhance our understanding of the purpose and power of peak unions.

The BIC is one of the best known examples of a powerful union peak body in Australia. Upon its establishment in the early 1920s, it oversaw a particular form of working class mobilisation and, for many years, exercised something like a hegemony both for and over its affiliates. The BIC not only presided over a local system of collective bargaining largely outside the processes of compulsory conciliation and arbitration but also exercised a formidable control of local commodity exchange and consumption as well as social relations more broadly. This regime, which was consolidated in the Great Depression and lasted throughout the post-war boom, would stagnate and decline from the 1970s. How did the BIC come to exercise such power? And why has its power declined in the last generation?

In this article we argue that peak union power and purpose is multi-dimensional, historically contingent and spatially specific. Building upon existing studies which conceptualise union federations as agents of mobilisation and economic and political exchange, we suggest that a further dimension to peak union purpose is that of social regulation and, specifically, the regulation of labour and commodity markets. It is this third dimension which we believe to be most germane to local peak bodies. We do not suggest that it is only local peak bodies which are capable of wielding this sort of power but there are compelling reasons to think that they are more likely than national federations to do so. Far from being the aspatial or national phenomena which orthodox economists typically assume them to be, labour and commodity markets are lived locally and are locally regulated. If the power of national and state peak bodies can be explained largely in institutional terms, this cannot quite explain the power of local peak bodies. The vital difference underpinning the exercise of social regulation is its inherent spatiality. In the case of local peak bodies, the nature of labour markets, the proximity of employers and the presence of workers themselves are factors which shape the purpose and power of the institution. The BIC is an instance of social regulation par excellence.

Theorising Peak Union Purpose and Power

To date, explicit theorising about peak unions in Australia has been limited to considerations of the 'authority' of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). …

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