Comparative Labour History: Australia and Canada

By Kealey, Gregory S.; Patmore, Greg | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Comparative Labour History: Australia and Canada


Kealey, Gregory S., Patmore, Greg, Labour/Le Travail


THIS INTRODUCTION has several objectives. It defines comparative labour history and examines the various benefits and problems of research. It then looks at the comparative methods and examines how extensively labour historians have used a comparative perspective, especially in Australia and Canada. Finally, the paper concludes with discussion of the Australian-Canadian Labour History Project and a general structural overview of Canada and Australia.

Comparative Labour History: Definition, Benefits, and Problems

The meaning of comparative research is problematic. All research can be regarded as comparative. Researchers do not examine a question in isolation, since they implicitly relate their findings to some form of theoretical construct or other social phenomena. More specifically comparative research has been defined as research dealing with the same question in two or more countries. Nations are the focus of research and provide the context for dealing with particular questions. While some proponents of comparative analysis have preferred the terms "macro-social units" or "social milieus," comparative labour history in this paper refers to comparison between two or more nation-states. (1)

There are problems with focusing on nation-states. Nation-states may assume homogeneity and mask regional, cultural, and ethnic differences. For example, there are tensions in Belgium between the Flemings and the Walloons that influence the shape of the labour movement and national politics. Nations are not static. Italy has only existed as a unified state since 1861. The recent experiences of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have indicated that nation-states can also disintegrate. The structure of capital, the labour force, and conflict may span national borders. For example, railway workers were mobile across the United States/Canadian border in the 19th century and the US railway brotherhoods became entrenched in the Canadian railways. There are also questions whether nation-states are still relevant given the growing globalization of the economy. Indeed Wallerstein and others have argued that you cannot isolate nation-states, since they form part of a broader single global economy, which is a source of social change. (2)

Despite these problems, there are some convenient reasons for using nation-states as the focus of comparative study. The world is divided into these administrative units, which provide statistical data and the focus of political activity. Oyen has argued that politicians and research councils give funding to comparative research that focuses on their nation-state. (3) For whatever reason there is still rather little comparative history written.

Comparative labour history has several benefits. As Burke argues comparisons are also "useful primarily because they enable us to see what is not there." (4) To understand why particular ideas or methods of action were not adopted by workers and trade unions, it is necessary to look at countries where they were. By isolating the factors that encouraged or inhibited certain actions by workers in different countries in each historical setting, it is possible to develop a more sophisticated conceptual framework. Comparative labour history stimulates hypotheses and also allows us to test ideas developed in the peculiar circumstances of one country. (5)

There are also important problems to be addressed in pursuing comparative analysis. It is not possible to make comparisons without reference to the cultural and political context of the countries studied. Concepts such as trade unionism and arbitration may have a very different significance across societies. Strike statistics may vary between countries because of different legal and bureaucratic definitions. In some countries workers may pursue other forms of organized conflict such as demonstrations and "riots" to achieve the same objectives as a strike. (6)

Comparative method

There are a variety of comparative methods. …

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