Publication Date



History has always been important for the labour movement in defining its identity. Partly for this reason the institutions of the labour movement have placed great emphasis on recording their participation in labour history.

The importance of labour history for contemporary labour relations, however, is far greater than that. An appreciation of labour history throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries shows that most of the major contemporary issues in Australian labour relations are really new wine in old bottles. Workplace reform, deregulation and decentralisation of wage determination have been on the employers’ agenda on a number of other occasions, notably the 1890s and 1920s. Gender equity was a major concern in this context, then as now. Union amalgamation was also a major issue during and after the First World War, but with an entirely different rationale, driven by union militants rather than the modem ‘managerialist’ union leaders. Significantly, both then and now militants have tended to be critical of a unionism directed towards service, or ‘benefit’, delivery. Even internationalism, or ‘globalisation’ as we now call it, was a major perspective and force in the labour movement from the outset, well in advance of other sectors of society. This internationalism even challenged the labour movement’s contradictory commitment to ‘white Australia’ on occasions, and was partly responsible for the labour movement taking the lead in dismantling the nation’s ‘white Australia’ policy in recent decades. It is instructive to examine the different responses of the labour movement to all of these similarities in policies and circumstances across time, and the different outcomes in terms of success and failure. The historical record is an important, but underutilised, source of data for contemporary policy formulation.

This is particularly important at this time because of the magnitude of the decline in density of union membership, the volatility in traditional working class support for the Labor Party, and the abolition of the Communist Party and its alternative vision of an ideal society. Together with the rise of economic rationalism, this context has seriously weakened the viability of the traditional labour movement espousal of a major role for the state, in provision of welfare and employment and in regulation of industrial relations and other areas.

A careful analysis of historical circumstances reveals the long-term sources of decline in the labour movement, and helps distinguish major from minor factors, which is an important step in prioritising policy development. Perhaps the single most important sociological trend has been the weakening of working class community, upon which labour’s industrial and political organisation has been so dependent historically. However, the historical record also offers clues as to how a renewal of the labour movement may be achieved. It even offers indications of how a socialist ideal may be redefined and renewed.