Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of History and Politics


This thesis examines industrial relations in the Australian engineering industry between 1920 and 1945, with a focus on the legal framework, production methods and union activities. During this period, the Australian engineering industry developed from the 'jobbing' to the manufacturing stage. Therefore, the study assesses the extent to which the traditional industrial order, based on the apprentices-tradesmen system, was affected by this transformation. The investigation focuses on the industrial struggle between capital and labour at the point of production, especially the logic of craft unionism.

In the 1920s, the industry remained at the 'jobbing' stage and production was heavily dependent on the craft-type skill of tradesman engineers. Capitalising on this technical advantage, their union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), held strong influence on the shopfloor. The basic industrial strategy of the AEU, as a craft union, was to impose craft regulation on the industry, in order to protect the conventional job territory of tradesmen and restrict the supply of the skilled workforce. Because the main purpose of the Arbitration Court was to maintain industrial peace, its judgements basically confirmed the existing industrial order. Therefore, the Arbitration system served the Union favourably, legally consolidating craft regulation. Thus, the Union evolved its relationship with the Arbitration system, while strengthening its ties with the Labor Party to secure and supplement the benefits of Arbitration. The Union's basic policy of 'labourism' was thus established in the 1920s in line with its craft orientation.

The recovery from the Great Depression and the ensuing development of the industry in the 1930s corresponded to the transformation of the industry towards manufacturing with the introduction of the new "manufacturing' method. In this period, the Court gave priority to improving the condition of the Australian economy, and it encouraged the introduction of the 'manufacturing' method by legally providing cheap labour like 'process workers' and unindentured juniors for simplified operations. However, the actual deskilling effects of the 'manufacturing' method was limited. Unlike the 'mass production' method which was characterised by the systematic use of automatic, single-purpose machines, the 'manufacturing' method was characterised by the attachment of deskilling devices like jigs, fixtures and stops to standard machines. By this method, Australian employers, who catered almost entirely for a small and fragmented domestic market, secured flexibility in production. However, because the setting up and the operation of standard machines were still largely dependent on tradesman engineers, the employers could not seriously undermine their employees' industrial ground. With the skill of tradesmen maintaining its value, the AEU continued to adapt traditional polices of craft unionism, and these remained effective. Thus, although the validity and efficacy of labourism was tested through the economic turbulence of the decade, the Union's reformist attitude was consolidated. Although the class consciousness of tradesman engineers increased in the Depression, their craft consciousness outweighed it.

During the Second World War, the production of the engineering industry was boosted, because of War necessities. Under the circumstances of national crisis, the Union was forced to loosen craft regulation in order to increase the supply of the skilled workforce. Thus, dilutees and even women were introduced into the industry in great numbers. However, the increase in output was realised not so much by the introduction of new production methods as by the intensification of labour and the extensive overtime. The 'manufacturing' method nevertheless remained and so did the dependence on tradesmen's skill. Because the six months' training of dilutees was not sufficient to give them responsible tasks, the technical advantages of legitimate and competent tradesmen, who had served apprenticeship training, survived. In fact, as production increased, the industry was plagued by the dearth of competent tradesmen. Therefore, the AEU maintained its strong industrial position in opposition to the employers, the Court and the Government, and did not let wartime anomalies break the framework of the traditional industrial order. The AEU's practical and reformist attitudes also remained, sharpening the confrontation with more radical, leftist unions of the non-skilled. The empirical investigation in this study corroborates the theoretical assumptions set out in the Introduction. The industrial power of tradesman engineers derived from their technical advantage in production. Capitalising on it, they successfully resisted the employers' efforts to extend their power to manage. The deskilling process by technological development was not a unilinear and straightforward one. The historical process of struggle between organisations of employers and employees was complex, and neither developed a monolithic class loyalty.

02Chap1.pdf (1816 kB)
03Chap2.pdf (861 kB)
04Chap3.pdf (2686 kB)
05Chap4.pdf (1346 kB)
06Chap5.pdf (1732 kB)
07Chap6.pdf (2210 kB)
08Chap7.pdf (740 kB)
09Chap8.pdf (1206 kB)
10Chap9.pdf (1367 kB)
11Conclusion.pdf (368 kB)
12Bibliography.pdf (546 kB)



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.