Printer Friendly

Arbitration or collaboration? The Australasian Society of Engineers in South Australia, 1904-68.

Labour historians have by no means neglected Australia's metal trades unions, the most important of which have been the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) (until 1920 the Amalgamated Society of Engineers) and the Australasian Society of Engineers (ASE). One has only to note Ken Buckley's pioneering study of the early years of the AEU published in 1970 and Tom Sheridan's better-known sequel published a few years later. Sheridan pursued his interest in this benchmark-setting union in journals such as Labour History and the Journal of Industrial Relations. Other scholars have produced the occasional postgraduate thesis or journal article on the AEU. (1)

Similarly, the somewhat smaller Federated Ironworkers Association of Australia has won the attention of several labour historians. At the same time Sheridan was completing the doctoral thesis that eventually developed into Mindful Militants, John Merritt was finishing his extensive study into the FIA during the first half of the twentieth century. Both John Merritt and Daphne Gollan have produced journal articles on the ironworkers, the former at least one on the FIA in the Great Depression, the latter at least two on the union at the very beginning of the Cold War. (2)

Then there is the husband-and-wife team of Robert Murray and Kate White who in the early 1980s published the most comprehensive study of the FIA to date. Ten years later Susanna Short produced a biography of her father, Laurie Short, who in the early 1950s wrested control of the FIA away from its communist secretary Ernie Thornton. Susanna Short's biography is a de facto history of the FIA before and during the early years of the Cold War. Sheridan, too, has written about the FIA in connection with the steel strike in New South Wales in 1945. (3)

One union inextricably associated with the metal trades unions--yet not, strictly speaking, one of them--is the Vehicle Builders Employees Federation (VBEF) (after World War II the Vehicle Builders Union or VBU). Sheridan mentions it as the one most likely to recruit workers who would otherwise have been organised by a metal trades union. Between them, John Wanna, Tom Bramble, and Robert Tierney have extensively studied this union. No one seriously interested in the history of the metal trades unions could bypass Wanna's PhD thesis. (4)

Of the eight metal trades unions that Sheridan has enumerated, the AEU and the FIA have undoubtedly been of most interest to historians. There have been fewer and more narrowly focused studies of at least some of the others, particularly the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association of Australasia (FEDFA). But the Boilermakers Society of Australia (BSA) and the Federated Moulders Union of Australia have only inspired the 'in house' pamphlet history whereas the Blacksmiths Society and the Sheet Metal Working Industrial Union of Australia (SMWIU) seem to have remained completely untouched. (5)

The one metal trades union not yet mentioned is the ASE. Historians seem to have ignored it. The union itself has published at least two brief factual accounts of its past up to the early 1990s but nothing of a scholarly nature has ever appeared. Why is this? After all, apart from the AEU, the ASE is the one metal trades union whose history seems to cry out for attention. For most of its century-old life--it was inaugurated in 1890 and effectively forced to amalgamate in 1990--it was the second largest and second most influential metal trades union in Australia. (6)

The absence of almost anything scholarly on the ASE is easily explained. Historians seem to have considered the ASE--which in 1890 broke away from what became the AEU--as a less legitimate union. Those in the metal trades who did not want to join the AEU were most likely to join the ASE. But nationally, between its beginning as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1852 and its incorporation into the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union in the early 1970s, the AEU was always able to recruit more eligible members than the ASE. As a result it was the more powerful union. For a hundred years the AEU, rather than the ASE, was the main engineering union in this country.

A more important reason why historians and other scholars have ignored the ASE has less to do with its origins or size than its position on the political spectrum and its orientation toward industrial relations. Left-wing academics have always been attracted to left-wing unions such as the AEU and have been far less interested in moderate unions such as the ASE. The willingness of the AEU to accept communists into its ranks and to espouse left-of-centre views has set it apart from the ASE.

Similarly, the industrial militancy of the AEU has seemed far more admirable and worthy of highlighting than the seemingly tame approach of its main rival, the ASE. Especially during the Cold War, the AEU at the national level was one of the more militant metal trades unions (apart from the FIA) whereas the ASE was one of the more moderate ones (with the possible exception of the ETU). It has always been easy for historians to depict the AEU rather than the ASE as the more 'progressive' union.

Yet not all of these factors apply to the ASE in South Australia. In this state the ASE was always bigger than the AEU, and indeed every other metal trades union. Although widely regarded as a 'moderate' union, it would be more appropriate to describe it as right-wing. The ASE federally, and in the states in which it had a branch, was notably anti-Communist but its hostility to Communism and Communists never equalled that of the South Australian branch.

Moreover, the South Australian branch's bargaining strategy was markedly to the right of not only other metal trades unions but also the ASE at the federal level. Using a typology devised by Bramble, we can describe Australian unions' strategies between the mid 1940s and the late 1970s as either arbitrationist or mobilisational. Bramble claims these were the 'rival currents within the Australian labour movement' at this time with the former being 'by far the more popular amongst conservative union leaders'. (7)

While Bramble details several differences between these two approaches, the central one concerns union leaders' attitude to strike action. Whereas unions adopting the arbitrationist strategy harboured '(an) extreme reluctance to strike beyond what was necessary to expedite an arbitration hearing', those pursuing the mobilisational strategy displayed a 'frequent preparedness to strike'. (8)

Yet while the strategy of ASE in South Australia could never have been called mobilisational, the description of 'arbitrationist' simply does not do justice to its approach to industrial relations. Arbitration itself was not the bargaining strategy it most liked to use. Indeed, like unions that favoured the mobilisational strategy, it came to see the arbitration system as a hindrance to the way it wanted to relate to employers. And while it exhibited a great reluctance to strike, it was always preparing a contingency plan should a strike be necessary. In fact, the ASE's strategy, which was characterised by highly cordial relations with some of the largest companies in Adelaide and intense competition with several other metal trades unions, was unashamedly collaborationist.

If the ASE in South Australia doesn't fit neatly into Bramble's typology it conforms well enough to ideas suggested by other industrial relations scholars, most obviously Margaret Gardner and Gill Palmer, who claim that amongst unions, 'consciously articulated and planned strategies are not common' and that 'there is little long-term or systematic planning of industrial activities'. Instead, they argue, 'successive decisions may evolve into a consistent approach' and that over time these decisions 'gradually consolidate ... into a strategy for union activities and programs'. This very much describes the strategy-development of the ASE in South Australia from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. (9)

Indeed, the whole approach of the ASE in South Australia has much in common with--yet must still be distinguished from--what American Professor Selig Perlman in the 1920s called 'job-conscious unionism'--a concept that American industrial relations scholars today most often call 'business unionism'. Perlman effectively identified three sorts of unions in the USA: unions that rejected the tenets of capitalism; those that rejected the tenets of socialism; and those that rejected both ideologies and instead practised 'business unionism'. As will be seen, the ASE in South Australia behaved very much like a 'business union' but, broadly speaking, over two decades moved right across the spectrum from an acceptance of socialism to an acceptance of capitalism. (10)

Had the ASE been a small or minor union, its bargaining strategy might be of little interest. But, at least by the early 1950s, the ASE was one of the three largest unions in South Australia, the two largest being the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Vehicle Builders Union (VBU). And, the ASE was easily the most powerful of the conservative--more often called 'moderate'--unions in that state. Moreover, its secretary from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, 'Alby' Thompson, was one of South Australia's most influential and respected trade union officials. Yet Thompson became the bete noire of the Left and for a while one of the most controversial union leaders anywhere in the nation while the ASE became almost an outcast among the metal trades unions in South Australia. (11)

A study of the ASE in South Australia in the immediate post-war period does more than simply provide a window into the labour movement in that part of Australia at that particular time. In addition, it allows us insights into not only how different unions responded to the pressures of the Cold War but also the strategies they adopted to achieve their goals and the role of union officials in shaping the character of the unions they led.

Such a study is possible because the records of the ASE during the period in question have been donated to, and preserved in, the Noel Butlin Archives Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra--almost certainly the leading labour history archive in Australia. Minutes of meetings, secretaries' reports, and copies of the union's principal journal were valuable sources of information. Unfortunately, correspondence within the union and between it and other unions was either withheld at the time the records were donated or had been destroyed. As a result, there is much that one would like to learn about what went on 'behind the scenes' that will probably never be known. (12)

There is some compensation insofar as Thompson was a fairly well-known public figure, one frequently rung up by newspapers and asked to comment about industrial matters. Consequently, Adelaide's two major dailies, the morning Advertiser and the evening News, carry not only useful factual information about the union but also expressions of opinion from its leading officials. Feature articles on Thompson by journalists with the Advertiser--one by John Miles in 1968, the other by Stewart Cockburn in 1982--allow insights into the union's leading light that would not otherwise have been available. Interviews with Thompson's only son and his longtime secretary supplemented these articles. (13)

Origins and Early Years

The Australasian Society of Engineers had its origins in the early 1890s as a breakaway from the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in Britain. Exactly why some workers in engineering industries in the Australian colonies chose to form another union rather than remain affiliated with the one in the mother country is obscure. But, in very general terms, it was based on the beliefs that workers in Australia should not be under the control of an organisation in Britain and that only the former could appreciate Australian conditions. The first branch was formed in New South Wales in 1890, the second in South Australia in 1904. (14) Those who formed the latter, too, rejected any connection with the society in Britain. An official of the union explained its formation thus:
   The regrettable state of the engineering trade, its rates of pay
   and the dormant state of a world-wide organisation whose apathy in
   trade matters had fallen below zero ... Hundreds of tradesmen were
   outside the ranks of unionism, uncatered for, yet no attempt was
   made to improve this state of affairs. There was no helping hand
   offered them, wages and the trade in general were left to run
   uncontrolled. (15)

In addition, those who established the ASE in South Australia certainly accepted the view of their counterparts in Sydney that the mother union in Britain was exclusive. There is no doubt that the Amalgamated Society had, for one reason or another, failed to organise certain types of workers in the metal trades (eg blacksmiths). But very likely, a more important reason why it was seen by those who broke away from it as exclusive had to do with the cost of belonging to it. Bound by the rules of the English body, the Amalgamated Society in Australia demanded high contributions, for which it correspondingly provided many benefits. It thus effectively excluded those who were not prepared to pay the contributions or who lost their rights when they fell into arrears. The importance of this factor is evidenced by the course of the ASE both in South Australia and in other states. Throughout its history, the Australasian Society of Engineers remained a small-contribution, low-benefits union. (16)

Overall then, the mother body in Great Britain was regarded as being most interested in its own aggrandisement and unwilling to help. As the ASE's 'in house' history put it,
   The conservative rules of the English organisation stood as a
   barricade ... 'Secure the rate of pay as laid down by our rules and
   you are eligible to enter our ranks' or, in other words, 'fight
   your own battles individually and when you have improved your
   conditions we will receive you with open arms and take full credit
   of your unassisted efforts'. (17)

It became deeply embedded in the folklore of the ASE--and perhaps, most of all, in the South Australian branch--that the Amalgamated Society in Britain was dictatorial and ignorant of labour conditions outside its own country and that a new engineering union in Australia was an absolute necessity. Indeed, the idea that the ASE ought have nothing to do with the engineering union 'establishment' in Britain and that there ought to be a union for workers in the engineering trade in Australia (other than what in 1920 became the Amalgamated Engineering Union) was nothing less than a driving force in the South Australian branch for most of the twentieth century

For the next quarter of a century, the ASE in South Australia struggled to survive. It competed for members and recognition with an Amalgamated Society that at every opportunity challenged its right to exist and frequently made efforts to have the two unions amalgamate. At times, it must have seemed that eventually the ASE would have to 'throw in the towel'. The union which had 'hundreds of tradesmen' ready to join it in the early 1900s was not much bigger 20 years later. True, in the mid 1920s there was a brief boom in the South Australian economy and, in 1926 especially, the ASE enjoyed a rapid influx of members and income. But by the end of the decade it still had fewer than 1,000 members. (18)

Then, the Great Depression struck and, by the early 1930s, the union was again in the doldrums. Unemployment in the engineering industry--as in most others--skyrocketed. For instance, only 15 out of 55 workers at Hitchcock's--a brass-finishing firm in Carrington Street in the Adelaide CBD--were retained. The branch's membership stagnated and the proportion of its unfinancial members rose alarmingly. The ASE in South Australia had no full-time organiser and could barely afford the rent for its office at Trades Hall in Grote Street. More importantly, it had little industrial clout. Only a few years later, its secretary reflected that in these early years neither employers nor other unions had taken the ASE seriously. Until the late 1930s, the ASE in South Australia was not only a small but also an insignificant union. (19)

World War II

Over the next 15 to 20 years, three factors not only transformed the union but catapulted it into a leading position in the organised working-class movement in particular, and into prominence in South Australia in general. The first was the coming together of several politically conservative strands into the Liberal and Country League (LCL) in 1932 and their victory at the state elections early the following year. Above all, there was the initiation by the Butler LCL government (1933-38) of a policy which sought to change the very character of the South Australian economy from one largely reliant on primary industries to one much more concerned with secondary industries. Under Butler's successor, the legendary Thomas Playford (1938-65), the policy of encouraging local, interstate, and overseas capital to invest in secondary industry in South Australia was intensified. Among those firms that prospered in the new environment were motor-body builders (notably Holden's--after 1933, General Motors-Holden's (GMH)--and T.J. Richards and Sons) and 'white goods' manufacturers like Pope Products, Simpson, and Kelvinator. All of these--and other industries--required workers who could then be organised into the metal trades group of unions, and especially the engineering unions. The mid and late 1930s, then, provided a fertile ground for a union which was eager to take into its ranks workers who could not belong to either the AWU or the VBEF--by far the biggest unions in South Australia from the 1930s to at least the early 1960s.

The second factor was the rise of Albert Baden Thompson within the ranks of the ASE in South Australia. Born into a large working-class family in Adelaide in 1900, a school-leaver at 13, a brass-finisher in his late teens and early twenties, and a shop steward at Hitchcock's in the late 1920s, 'Alby' was elected onto the branch's executive in 1929, served as its president between 1935 and 1939, and became its first full-time and paid organiser in April 1938. Intelligent, sensible, energetic, and, not least of all, remarkably calm and emotionally stable, Thompson well knew that both the survival of his union and the maintenance of his new job depended upon how many workers in the engineering industry he could persuade to join the ASE. (20)

Over the next few years he was so successful that the membership of the ASE's South Australian branch more than doubled, from a mere 1,110 in May 1938 to 2,640 by June 1941. His prestige within the trade union movement was so high that he was elected to the presidency of the state's peak union body--the United Trades and Labor Council (UTLC)--and served a one-year term (1940-41). But it was also fortunate for Thompson that Edgar Dawes, who had been secretary of the ASE since 1927 (and while such even served a term in the South Australian House of Assembly) was, in May 1941, offered a leading position in the Department of Munitions. There was keen competition for the position Dawes vacated but eventually Thompson was confirmed as secretary by a ballot of members; he received 816 votes while his main rival--S.S. Gough, a Communist--managed only 145. (21)

The third factor was the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 and the special role South Australia played in the country's war effort. South Australia was distant from both the population centres on the eastern seaboard and the country's more vulnerable northern coastline. Always looking to the state's advantage, Playford was successful in persuading the federal government that South Australia was the ideal place to establish munitions and other factories vital to supplying Australian defence forces. The creation of munitions factories at Hendon and Finsbury and the establishment of an aircraft-manufacturing plant at Penfield (near Salisbury), created an unprecedented number of jobs in the engineering industry for both skilled tradesmen and 'process workers'.

Thompson was too young to fight in World War I and, while not obviously too old to do the same in World War II, worked in a vital and therefore 'reserved' occupation. He was quick to see and well-suited to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the mobilisation of the state's resources for war. Throwing himself into the task of bringing these new workers--many of whom had never before had a full-time job--into the ASE, his results were spectacular. The years 1941 to 1943 were a boom time for the branch. In the six months between May and November 1941, a further 1,020 members were signed up--more than had belonged to the union little more than a decade before. By the end of 1943, the ASE in South Australia had nearly 5,000 members. (22)

Thereafter, its membership plateaued for a few years but, nevertheless, unlike its first 30 to 40 years, it was, from the early years of World War II, always financially secure. Until this time, the ASE enjoyed good relations with other metal trades unions in the state, principally the AEU and the FIA. Each would have considered itself, and been considered by the others, as broadly left-wing. The ASE was no different from the others insofar as Communists in the Communist Party of Australia and socialists in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) were active in its affairs and it regularly supported peace groups (like the Council Against War & Fascism) and Communist 'fronts' (such as the Friends of the Soviet Union). Indeed, Thompson himself frequently volunteered to attend meetings of these groups and urged that the union support them. In the 1930s, the Labor Party in South Australia was the only state branch which did not proscribe either the Communist Party or its several fronts to its members. (23)

As a result, not only were members of the ALP in South Australia free to participate in such groups but also avowed Communists were free to join the Labor Party. Thus unions like the ASE saw no contradiction between their affiliation with the Labor Party and their support for mainly Communist organisations. During these depression years, too, most unions were small and all were on the defensive, most keen to protect what they had achieved over the previous 30 to 40 years. Not only moderate unions like the VBEF but militant ones like the FIA were prepared to enter into pacts with employers. The ASE was involved in at least a few such pacts with other unions, most notably one with GMH on one side and itself, the AEU, and the VBEF on the other. All in all, there was little acrimony between the metal trades unions, all of whom enjoyed a certain unity under the auspices of a Metal Trades Council. (24)

The new conditions brought about by World War II completely changed both the ASE's relations with other metal trades unions and its standing in the trade union movement in South Australia. More particularly, burgeoning employment in the state's engineering industries seemed to have transformed it from one of the smaller to one of the largest unions in the state. It also intensified its rivalry with other metal trades unions. From 1940, relations between the ASE and, principally, the AEU and the FIA, rapidly deteriorated. The ASE accused the AEU of 'poaching' its members and both the AEU and the FIA in turn accused the ASE of the same. It is simply impossible to ascertain who was more to blame; what is undeniable is that during these years the longstanding rivalry between the two major engineering unions was building to a climax. Minutes of executive and branch meetings of the ASE have scattered references to 'lying' statements by this or that AEU official or shop steward and minor shop-floor disputes between the two unions. (25)

The AEU was the ASE's main rival. They competed to sign up workers in the engineering industry and to be seen as the chief engineering union in South Australia. But relations between the ASE and the FIA, while less serious, were far worse. In 1941, a major dispute occurred when the state secretary of the FIA, 'Charlie' McCaffrey--even by this time possibly the most publicly-visible Communist in the South Australian trade union movement--accused Thompson of 'going behind his back'. Certainly, Thompson had recently negotiated a deal with Barton Pope--owner of Pope Products (PP)--which gave preference to ASE rather than FIA or any other union's members. Thompson, who had met Barton Pope while working at Hitchcock's in the early 1930s, was not averse to exploiting his friendship with Pope for the benefit of the union and its members. Thompson's view was that he was simply pursuing the interests of ASE unionists but, to McCaffrey, and no doubt to other metal trades union officials, it was one of the greatest acts of 'scabbery' they had ever witnessed. (26)

Communists and Amalgamation

Relations between the ASE and other metal trades unions worsened considerably when, in 1943, the AEU, doubtless inspired in part by the ASE-PP agreement, mounted yet another campaign, almost certainly the most determined ever, to bring about the amalgamation of the AEU and the ASE into one giant engineering union. Amalgamation seemed an appeal to common sense. In practice, even Thompson and other ASE officials paid lip-service to it while being wary of any scheme proposed. That Communists had greatly increased their influence in the AEU and the FIA at the federal level in 1939-40, and that Gough led the 'push' from within the ASE for amalgamation with the AEU, added to the branch's by now almost traditional resistance to any threat to their independence from any union whose parent body was based in Britain. Thompson's 'stonewalling' tactics infuriated those on the Left who not only believed that a union comprising all engineers was essential in 'the struggle' against 'the bosses' but also were increasingly resentful of the ASE's frustration of Communists' objectives in the organised labour movement. (27)

The metal trades unions' attacks on the ASE and the Left's attempts to finally bring about amalgamation were a prelude to a persistent campaign by Communists in South Australia in the mid and late 1940s to wrest control of the ASE from union officials whom they considered far too willing to cooperate with rather than confront employers. The Communist Party had been declared illegal in Australia in 1940 but, by the end of 1942, the ban had been lifted. From this time until the end of the war, the Party enjoyed a remarkable resurgence. While there were far fewer Party members in South Australia than in the eastern states, there were many more in the early 1940s than there had been only a few years earlier (400 vis-a-vis 80) and they were no less determined to increase their influence in the trade union movement. (28)

Spearheading the attempted Communist takeover of the ASE in South Australia was a 25-year-old former munitions worker 'Jim' Moss (who after the war became a long-serving official of the CPA and the state's best-known Communist). With a handful of other Communists and several Labor leftists, Moss helped turn ASE branch meetings between 1943 and 1948 into a perpetual battleground with accusations that the executive was making illegitimate 'closed shop' agreements with employers, dragging its feet on amalgamation, rigging ballots for executive positions, and victimising opponents on the Left. Attempts were made to pass motions of no-confidence in the executive and many branch meetings ended in total disorder. (29)

It was not that Thompson's standing in the trade union movement or his hold on the union was ever in doubt. By the early 1940s, he had been appointed by the state government onto such bodies as the Apprentices Board and the Dilution Committee and by the UTLC to represent it on the Australasian (after 1947, Australian) Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) executive. In fact, he was often interstate on ASE or ACTU business when attacks on him were being made from within the union. But the Left's incessant criticism of him and their efforts to dislodge the executive convinced ASE members that they were facing not merely another attempt by the AEU to force the ASE back into the fold but a concerted campaign by the Communist Party to oust the moderate leadership of what was fast becoming one of the most influential unions in the state.

And so the Left came to be seen as both alien and disruptive. As early as May 1943, Thompson reported that 'members who claim to be "progressive" have only succeeded in frustrating the work of the Union by their tactics. No subject matter of any importance has been brought before the Branch meetings'. Thompson clearly felt that the Left lacked an appreciation of the giant strides the union was now taking, that the agenda it was pushing was of little relevance to the union, and, not least of all, that its methods were counter-productive. This impression is reinforced by Thompson's reflection six months later that 'inexperienced men, by agitation and "bull at the gate" methods, have caused no end of trouble'. (30)

The effect, then, was to steadily push Thompson and his supporters to the right. They increasingly rejected not only the Left but, by association, the issues it raised. Of course, by 1946-47, when it had become apparent that a 'cold war' was developing between the capitalist and communist worlds, it became far easier for erstwhile and disillusioned supporters of the Soviet Union to adopt a hostile and antagonistic approach toward members of the only political party in Australia that championed Soviet interests. But, it must be recognised that, well before the end of World War II, the ASE in South Australia--whose executive included several Catholics such as Fanning, Fitzgerald, and Nugent--had come to see Communists as a threat to their union. It was only another small step to see the philosophy of Communism as alien to the West in something like the way the Amalgamated Society in Britain had long been seen as alien to Australia. Less than three years after the war had ended, the ASE had become one of the most readily identifiable anti-Communist forces in South Australia. In less than a decade, self-declared socialists of the 1930s had become Cold War warriors.

Thus by the late 1940s, what distinguished the ASE from all other metal trades unions and indeed most trade unions in the state was not so much its size and financial resources but the intensity of its opposition to Communism. There were few if any socialists let alone Communists active in the union and most members of the executive were also members of the Labor Party. Whereas many other union executives rejected the idea of ALP-sponsored 'industrial groups' being set up in their union to fight the influence of Communists, in 1947 the ASE's executive committee welcomed a visit from a representative of the newly-established Industry Groups Committee to address members on the virtues of Laborism and the evils of Communism. (31)

Unlike many other unions, too, in the same year the ASE welcomed the building of a rocket range at Woomera in the far north of the state, less because its establishment meant significantly more workers could be enrolled in the union than because it was accepted as a necessary measure by the 'free' world to defend itself against the Communist world. When, in 1950, the Australian Peace Council--the Australian chapter of the newly-formed and communist-influenced World Peace Council--approached the ASE for support, it was firmly rebuffed. It was the first time the ASE had rejected the overtures of a peace group. Very likely, the ASE never again supported an initiative by any section of the organised peace movement. (32)

Along with an antipathy to the Left in general and Communists in particular was an extreme reluctance to strike. As suggested before, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the ASE acquiesced to participating in a union-company pact. Like most unions at the time, it was too weak to stage an effective strike. However, around the turn of the decade what had been either the branch's inability to strike or a preference for arranging a deal (or 'pact') with a firm, slowly began to develop into a positive aversion to strike action. From September 1939 to June 1941, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were nominal allies and Communists throughout the world were doing whatever they could to hinder the Allied war effort. Consequently, Australia suffered a wave of strikes strongly supported if not instigated by Communist trade union leaders. At a time when relations between the ASE and the Communist-influenced AEU were beginning to deteriorate, it is hardly surprising that, in June 1940, Thompson reported that the union's members were apathetic toward a coalminers' strike in New South Wales and that the union itself would not be supporting it. Yet the union had not yet completely turned the corner on Communism. In August 1942, a letter from a 'Political Rights Committee' asking for help to lift the ban on Communists came before the executive who received and supported it. (33)

The ASE and Collaboration: Anti-Communism and Union-Company Pacts

Clearly a host of influences during and after World War II transformed the ASE into a spearhead of anti-Communism in South Australia and the rejection of the Communists' principal strategy in the trade union movement. Not least was Thompson's close association with Barton Pope, and, indeed, with other leading manufacturers in the state. Decades later Pope remembered unexpectedly meeting Thompson while walking along a street in the Adelaide CBD and the two striking up a conversation. It must have been in 1947-48, among the most strike-laden years in Australian history. By this time, the ASE had become easily the largest metal trades union in South Australia and the third largest union in the state. On the other hand, Pope Products, like other major businesses in the state, had been bedevilled by industrial disputes. Thompson suggested that he, as a leading trade union official, and Barton, as a leading manufacturer, join forces and try to restore some 'common sense' to industrial relations. The result was a series of events which made 1948 and 1949 two of the most controversy-packed years in South Australian labour history. Thompson was serving the second of his two one-year terms as president of the UTLC and Barton Pope was president of the South Australian Chamber of Manufactures. (34)

The campaign they launched had several strands. The first was a number of public pronouncements about Communism versus co-operation. In February 1948, Barton Pope, in a highly-publicised address to former students of King's College--a Baptist-Congregationalist private school in the Adelaide suburb of Kensington--warned his audience that 'all the powers of organised labor', which were 'vested in the hands of a group which owes allegiance and loyalties to other than this country', was a threat to 'our Australian way of life'. He urged 'the eradication of the Communist cancer in the trade union movement' as a prelude to 'an era of goodwill and co-operation' between capital and labour. A week later Thompson, in his first and much more subtle address to the UTLC as its incoming president, implied that, while workers had not reached 'our ultimate goal of Socialism', it didn't really matter because the trade union movement had achieved so much since the end of the war: inter alia the best-possible wages, the breaking of wage-pegging regulations, and provisions for longer annual leave. One wonders why he did not highlight the 40-hour week --which had just been won for all workers--but his message was essentially the same as Barton Pope's: there were too many industrial disputes over 'frivolous and trivial matters' and what, above all, was needed was 'sound and sane leadership' of the trade union movement. (35)

The second strand was by far the most significant and controversial pact that the ASE had ever had with Pope Products or, in fact, any union had ever had with a major employer in South Australia. In June 1948, Thompson and Pope signed an agreement which, while not totally excluding the members of other unions, certainly promoted a 'closed shop'. It also stipulated that, before any strikes could be called, a secret ballot of union members had to be held. The first provision, in real terms, gave preference to members of the ASE and the second was hailed as democratic insofar as the union could not act without the consent of the workers at Pope Products. It also agreed on the idea of 'incentives' for harder or longer work. But the really novel and challenging provision of the pact was that, 'any person having known communist affiliations or sympathies' could not hold official positions in either the company or the union. It even made it clear that any such employee of the company would be given 'the sack'. This appears to have been the first union-company pact in the state to specifically exclude Communists. The idea was almost certainly Thompson's rather than Barton Pope's, and one wonders what had inspired him. Possibly it was the news that reached Australia in May that the Congress of Industrial Organisations in the USA, hitherto the more radical of the two rival US peak union councils, had decided to bar Communists from holding any of its official positions. (36)

The third strand in this very public attempt to promote better relations between capital and labour in South Australia was social and sporting rather than political and industrial. In December 1948, Thompson accepted an invitation to attend a dinner put on by the South Australian Chamber of Manufactures. The event's significance was best outlined by the News--by far the more likely of Adelaide's two daily newspapers to support the ALP rather than the LCL--which pointed out that it was the first time in the 60-year history of the UTLC that one of its officials had attended such a function. At about the same time, the Lord Mayor of Adelaide publicly proposed that a Chamber of Manufactures team should play a goodwill game of cricket against a UTLC team--an idea that Thompson had almost certainly been the first to suggest. The News heartily approved of both developments, editorialising that 'This is one of the reasons why South Australia has for years been relatively free from serious industrial strife'. The cricket match was duly held in January. That the Trades Hall team won was irrelevant; it was a considerable public relations success. Thompson and a few leading ASE and other officials played on one side, Barton Pope and several leading manufacturers on the other; the Lord Mayor officiated; the Premier opened the bowling; and Donald Bradman--already a legend in the sport of cricket--acted as umpire. The monthly journal of the South Australian Chamber of Manufactures devoted nearly ten pages to it. Waterman Brothers Limited was engaged to film the event and the following month a newsreel of the cricket match was screened in their private theatrette. (37)

At a time when conflict between capital and labour seemed sharper than at any other in Australian history--save possibly the early 1890s and the late 1920s--this avowed and highly publicised attempt to counter what seemed to be a looming class war was greeted with warm declarations of support from business quarters and furious howls of protest from the labour--and especially the Communist--Left. Of course, the dinner acceptance and the cricket match could be criticised and ridiculed--but they could not be prevented. At a meeting of the UTLC in early December, the secretary of the Plasterers' Union, 'Jim' Cavanagh, a much-respected figure on and by the Left, denounced 'dining with class enemies' and urged the UTLC, albeit unsuccessfully, to dissociate itself from its president's actions. The Communists' South Australian Tribune (SAT) derided Thompson's fellow cricketers as 'the team that did not represent unionists'. In the UTLC nearly a year later--and hardly surprisingly--an AEU official attacked working-class leaders who engaged in 'hobnobbing with bosses' while the SAT again sneered at 'Rightwing union officials and others who take particular delight in playing cricket with the exploiting class'. Indeed, for years after this, Thompson was publicly attacked--and for decades remembered--as not merely someone who was overly friendly with 'the bosses' but nothing less than a traitor to his class. (38)

What best symbolised the collaborationist approach and made it a principal target to attack were the key features of the agreement between the ASE and Pope's. All in all, the pact provoked one of the most furious and bitter internal storms in the history of the South Australian trade union movement. The provisions for secret ballots and incentives were anathema to the Left (The first were made compulsory under certain conditions by the Menzies Liberal and Country Party government in 1951 and the second clearly smacked of the capitalist system itself). But what infuriated other metal trades unions in the state--and worried both the UTLC and the ASE federal council and executive--were the tightening of the 'closed shop' arrangement with Pope's and, above all, the ban on Communist trade union officials at any level. Both were obviously aimed at keeping Communists out of the ASE but, more obviously, keeping the FIA and the AEU out of Pope's. The latter appeared more akin to a weapon a conservative government would use against the trade union movement than a stratagem one trade union should use against others. (39)

The furore was bitter and sustained. McCaffrey angrily protested to both the UTLC and the newly-formed Metal Trades Federation of South Australia, arguing that the PP-ASE agreement was 'in complete contradiction' to the policy of the MTF which opposed the making of agreements by individual unions. The FIA organised several factory-gate meetings that denounced the agreement; the MTF condemned it; and the Communist press, of course, took delight in detailing the backlash it had caused.

The UTLC was in an awkward position; Thompson was still, after all, its president. It got around the problem at a meeting in early July by recording its disagreement with the pact--especially the clause concerning Communists--and narrowly (60 to 55) voting to support rather than declare no-confidence in Thompson. However, a subsequent meeting made it clear that Thompson only retained the support of the UTLC on the understanding that the ASE would relent and withdraw from the pact. Both the ASE federal council and federal executive clearly opposed the pact and threatened intervention if the South Australian branch did not cancel it. Even other employers grew nervous about the pacts they had with the ASE. For instance, in June 1949, Holden's, almost certainly under pressure from the AEU, wrote to the ASE suggesting that the agreement between GMH and the ASE be cancelled. (40)

Yet in the face of this enormous opposition, neither party to the pact was inclined to abandon it. When approached by the FIA, Barton Pope insisted that, for the time being, the agreement was still in force. The ASE was even more adamant. Thompson insisted the ASE would only cancel the pact if other metal trades unions abandoned their own 'closed shop' agreements. Angry at criticism from the MTF and convinced that it was controlled by Communists, the ASE disaffiliated from it. The branch even fell out with the right-wing leadership of the ASE interstate. In February 1949, a special executive meeting of the ASE in South Australia declared unanimously that no agreement entered into by the South Australian branch 'be interfered with in any way' and demanded that the federal council 'publicly proclaim its determination to fight the Communist attempt' to influence the trade union movement. There is no clear record of what happened to the PP-ASE pact of June 1948; very likely it was allowed to lapse. What really matters is that, in practice, Barton Pope and Thompson effectively denied employment to Communists, the 'closed shop' arrangement was tightened even further, and all workers at Pope Products were members of a union, for the most part the ASE. (41)

For much of 1948, Thompson and the ASE were fighting on several fronts at once. In February, Thompson launched a defamation action against McCaffrey who, at a UTLC meeting, had effectively accused him of betraying the membership of the ASE. At about the same time, a small group of five Communists and socialists active in the ASE--including Moss and Crick--took the ASE to the State Industrial Court in an effort to have the branch's rules changed. Their ultimate purpose, of course, was as always to wrest control of the union from its intensely anti-Communist leadership. The Supreme Court of South Australia agreed that McCaffrey's words had been defamatory and fined him 50 pounds; most of the rebel group's demands were rejected. The year ended much as it began with a very heated and much-publicised exchange of words between Thompson and McCaffrey at a UTLC meeting at which Thompson (a former amateur boxing champion) challenged McCaffrey (a man only four years younger) to a fist-fight. It was an extraordinarily tumultuous year for a union notorious for its reluctance to confront employers or to go on strike. (42)

Neither Thompson's challenge to McCaffrey to fight nor McCaffrey's subsequent challenge to Thompson to debate was accepted by the other party. And thus the central issue which McCaffrey had raised continued to simmer. He wanted a lengthy public debate on the question as to whether the Left's approach to industrial relations was more beneficial to workers than that of the Right. But Thompson wasn't interested. McCaffrey wanted to propagate his central message that the trade union movement as a whole was locked into an ongoing struggle with employers' representatives and that capital and labour were natural enemies. But Thompson was primarily interested in pursuing what he saw as the best interests of ASE members and to some extent demonstrating, by actions rather than words, that cooperating with 'the bosses' netted far better results than confronting and clashing with them. (43)

The 1940s, then--and especially the late 1940s--constituted a watershed in the history of the ASE, clearly separating its early years of struggle to survive as an independent union in South Australia (1904-39) from the almost placid and, by comparison, halcyon decades of the 1950s and 1960s. On the surface, these turbulent years seemed to witness a simple struggle between a resurgent Communist Left and an incumbent non-Communist Right for control of an increasingly important trade union in South Australia. But it was much more than this because, during these years, the leadership of the ASE was doing nothing less than formulating a very different philosophy as to how an economy worked and in what ways workers should best relate to 'bosses' than most had accepted before the war. By the mid 1950s, these ideas had crystallised into a set of beliefs with which the remainder of this article will be concerned.

The Credo of the ASE in South Australia

The first idea was that on the issue of Communism, workers were voting with their feet. The union's membership resumed its growth in the late 1940s fuelled by the state government's determination to push on with industrialisation and the federal government's new immigration programme. ASE leaders were convinced that the union's increasing size was due to its strong and very public stand against Communism. As early as May 1949, Thompson reported that, 'The new enrolments speak for themselves and undoubtedly the progressive policy of the South Australian Branch, together with the prestige of the Society because of its stand against Communism, has been, to a large measure, responsible for the enrolment of members'. (44) More than a decade later, he was still saying that immigrants preferred the ASE for the same reason:
   Although a large number of newcomers to the metal industry are
   English migrants, and are members of the AEU, on arrival we manage
   to get a few members changing over to the ASE. European migrants
   who have had experience with Communist dominated Unions in their
   own country, invariably join our Society once our policy becomes
   known. (45)

It is very likely that migrants from eastern and central Europe did prefer the ASE to the AEU but it must also be admitted that in many instances they had no option but to join the one rather than the other. The management of those firms with which the ASE had pacts would undoubtedly have made every effort to ensure that workers fresh off the boat joined the 'moderate' ASE rather than the militant AEU.

The ASE's second belief was that strikes--the Communists' principal strategy were to be avoided if at all possible. In the late 1940s, Thompson and other officials of the ASE were active in the rather short-lived 'peace in industry' movement which at least a few other trade unionists and employers in the state supported. Secretaries' reports over the years exhibit obvious pride that the ASE had continued over the preceding six months to stay out of strikes. The ASE's view of strikes were that they were seldom if ever justified. Furthermore, the union should build up its financial resources for the evil day if and when it became necessary to recommend that ASE members lay down their tools. Its officials were particularly averse to strikes that other unions staged which drew in ASE members. In late 1964, Thompson was clearly angry about a stoppage at GMH which 'was both avoidable and unnecessary' and 'a dispute not of our making, and one over which we had absolutely no control'. He took the opportunity to reiterate that 'it has been our policy to improve wage rates and conditions of employment for our Members without recourse to unnecessary stoppages of work'. (46)

The third notion was that it was in employees' best interests to help their employers achieve greater productivity. This idea was much confirmed in Thompson's mind in 1952 when, at the invitation of the American government, he spent three months in the USA studying labour conditions there. He returned greatly impressed by American methods of production, the 'close harmony' that existed between capital and labour in the USA, and above all the results: the higher wage levels and greater purchasing power that American workers had vis-a-vis their Australian counterparts. To him, the consumer durables that ASE members helped to produce--things like cars, refrigerators, and washing machines--were so much more affordable in the USA than in Australia. And he came back with a slogan that he was to voice again and again in the 1950s and 1960s: 'The more there is produced, the more there is to share'. The flow of goods from American industry thus confirmed his view that capitalism could deliver for employees and was something which should not be hindered let alone smashed. (47)

The fourth was that the country's--and within it a state's--prosperity

would best be promoted by cooperation between government, industry, and unions. More than this, Thompson and his fellows came to accept that it was in their own and the union's interests to help the state government and the bigger industries attract engineering firms to South Australia. Even before the war ended, Thompson was 'seriously concerned' about the drift of engineering work from South Australia to the eastern states. At about this time, too, he was excited by the federal government's interest in a fully Australian-made motor-car and participated in talks in Canberra and Melbourne about the possibility that GMH could be persuaded to locate its main factory in Adelaide. He envisaged that 70 per cent of the car would be made in South Australia and that all of the tooling would be done by ASE members working for GMH at Woodville. In fact, Thompson clearly hoped that Adelaide would become 'the "Detroit" of Australia'. (Thompson was nothing if not a South Australian). In the late 1950s, he saw the satellite city of Elizabeth to the north of Adelaide as having 'a bright future', realised that engineering jobs were easier to get than ever before, and was determined that engineering workers would share in the state's growing post-war prosperity. (48)

The fifth and central point was that while arbitration was infinitely more effective than strike action, it was by no means the best way unions could bargain with employers. One of the main arguments rival unions used against Thompson was that he was 'a staunch believer' in Australia's arbitration system; 'To him it was the essence of industrial impartiality and justice'. This claim doesn't do justice to the complexity of Thompson's--and through him the ASE's--attitude to arbitration. A number of events in the 1950s--particularly the abandonment, in 1953, of automatic quarterly cost-of-living pay rises by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court--shook his faith in the system. In a speech to the UTLC in June 1954 he declared that, 'the unions had "had" arbitration in its present form'. To Thompson, the arbitration system had strayed too much from the purpose of the original (1904) Act and was exceeding its powers. (49)

But, his more pointed objection to the arbitration system was that a court had the power to prevent union-company pacts of the sort the ASE favoured. By 1957, the union had six such agreements with large South Australian firms. On another occasion he stressed that the system needed less arbitration and more conciliation, on still another less conciliation and more negotiation. Above all, Thompson wanted the ASE to have the freedom to act alone, that is, collaborate with employers to achieve good results for both parties. One of the many things he admired about industrial relations in the USA was that American workers had the freedom to negotiate contracts. He was so impressed by what he had seen that, on at least one occasion, he advocated replacing Australian-style arbitration with 'US methods'. Agreements, not arbitration, were the cornerstone of the ASE's bargaining strategy with employers. (50)

The ASE in the 1950s and 1960s

Insistence upon amalgamation persisted, but as the threats from Communism receded, the ASE in the 1950s and 1960s entered into an era of growth, security, strength and influence that it had not experienced before. The union which had not had many more than 2,500 members in 1941 had well over 8,000 in 1961. It took pride in being not only one of the largest unions in the state--and one allowed a major voice in both the UTLC and the ALP--but even more in being by far the largest metal trades union in South Australia. It seemed a vindication of its hostility to Communism and its accommodation with capitalism that it continued to attract newly-arrived migrants as well as members disaffected from the AEU. There were no major worries about money. 'From a financial point of view', declared Thompson in late 1961, 'our position is unassailable'. Long before this, his and his fellow executive members' positions had become secure. In 1953, for the first time since 1938, the branch secretary's job went unchallenged. Similarly, there was far less competition for positions on the executive. The union settled into a mould almost unthinkable even 20 years earlier. (51)

Three features of the ASE in South Australia in this era stand out. One is that it took on many features of a business, albeit a small one. The office was renovated and provided with air-conditioning, and by 1955 the union could brag that its rooms in Trades Hall constituted 'the most modern occupied by any union in Australia'. Gone were the days in the late 1930s when Thompson got around on a motorbike; by 1959 the union provided three late-model Holden cars for its secretary and organisers. At this time the one organiser of the AEU in South Australia got around mainly by bus. Clearly the ASE had far better resources with which to organise workers in the metal trades. That its British constitution restricted the AEU's ability to compete with the ASE was of course seen by the latter as a vindication of its splitting off from the Amalgamated Society in the first place and its refusal to amalgamate with the AEU thereafter. (52)

For the ASE was remarkably successful in building up its cash reserves. Thompson had observed in America that trade unions in the USA were 'big business' and that they had to be to deal with the huge companies there. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the secretary's reports were far less about this or that dispute--there were hardly any anyway--but about matters like expenses, dues, and, not least of all, investments. The ASE had for long put its money into government bonds and was increasingly looking for the best return. By late 1954, the ASE's income was more than 6,000 pounds--about twice the worth of all its assets and securities in 1941. Thompson noted that 'Were we a profit making concern and were I a Chairman of Directors, I would be in a position to announce a dividend of 12 per cent for our six months trading'. Ten years later he was still talking about 'our gilt edge securities'. The financial assets the ASE accumulated--something the leadership asserted was always there to be used in case of a major and prolonged strike--became an even greater priority than increasing the membership. (53)

Another feature was that the ASE in South Australia had every appearance of a union 'going it alone'. It stood aloof from most metal trades unions, especially the AEU with whom it continued to spat. In 1950, the British president of the AEU visited Adelaide seemingly with the purpose of destroying the ASE and transferring its membership to the AEU (Certainly this was the ASE's view). The two unions continued to compete with one another for members and to accuse each other of 'gutter tactics' and 'false propaganda' in attempting to 'poach' members from one another. The AEU several times protested to the UTLC about the ASE but with little success. In fact, the only other metal trades union with whom the ASE had good relations was the ETU--a much smaller but no less anti-Communist union in the ALP-affiliated fold. Its secretary, Trevorrow, was, like Thompson, a leading voice for right-wing unions in the UTLC. For years after the furore brought on by the ASE-PP agreement of 1948, relations between the branch in South Australia and the ASE in the federal sphere remained strained. Well before this, South Australia was the only state branch of the ASE totally opposed to amalgamation and unwilling to discuss it further. The ASE continued to pursue the union-company pact and the 'closed shop' regardless of the interests of other unions. The Left, of course, continued to attack the ASE in general and Thompson in particular as the very negation of what it called 'working-class principles' or 'trade union principles'. (54)

Further proof of the ASE's alienation from the organised labour movement was its cooler relations with the ALP. Had he wanted to, Thompson could have used his influence within the Labor Party to secure a safe seat in either state or federal parliament. However, he clearly preferred the role of trade union leader to parliamentary back-bencher. When the Labor Party suffered its third and most devastating split in 1954-56, if any union in South Australia might have been expected to leave the ALP and affiliate with the fiercely anti-Communist Democratic Labor Party (DLP) it was the ASE. With the ALP increasingly to the left of the ASE, the union's links with the Labor Party became even more tenuous. In 1957, when a left-of-centre unity ticket removed all right-wing trade union leaders (including Thompson) at the annual elections for the UTLC executive, the ASE seriously considered disaffiliating from the ALP. True, Thompson was back on the TLC executive the following year and affiliation continued, but the ASE thereafter had little to do with the ALP. With the state ALP in the political wilderness until 1965, and the federal ALP until 1972, the ASE virtually turned its back on the Party. It believed that whatever gains the union could make it would have to make alone. On several occasions, Thompson once again raised the American example and suggested that trade unions should be independent of, and unaffiliated with, any political party whatsoever. (55)

By the early 1960s then, the ASE in South Australia had been completely transformed. This was not simply a change from a vaguely left-wing trade union in the 1930s to a staunchly anti-Communist one in the 1950s; nor from an integral part of the metal trades unions section of the trade union movement to one almost totally disaffected from it; nor from a steadfast supporter of the ALP to one largely aloof from it. Over these decades its success and experience had caused it to become a staunch advocate of the very system from which its founders had sought to defend its members.


When he eventually retired in June 1968, Thompson had been the prime mover of the ASE and its public face for nearly 30 years. His detractors took the opportunity to point out that 'on many questions Mr Thompson's views seem closer to the Liberal Party than the Labor Movement'. Above all, they decried 'his inability, despite his years in the movement, to understand or get anywhere near understanding the spirit and purpose of the Trade Union and Labour Movement'. What did they mean? To them, industrial peace was suspect not because workers rejected it but because employers wanted it. To them, too, the ASE and Thompson were traitors to their class--although, for legal reasons, they usually stopped short of calling them such--because they were more interested in cooperating with employers to get what they wanted for their members than in joining with other unions and presenting a united front to employers. To them, finally, the ASE's bargaining strategies were inimical to everything they understood the organised working-class movement stood for. Something of the venom that the ASE's 'team work in industry' policies aroused during the heady days of the late 1940s--and which lasted for decades--can be gleaned from a trade unionist's letter in the Australian Government Workers' Association journal. The writer poured contempt on 'this boss-hatched paralysis germ', 'the conscious germ-carriers masquerading as "leaders" in the trade union movement', 'these betrayers of the working class', 'these sycophants, these Judases'. (56)

But to the leaders of the ASE their principal loyalty was not to something as fluid as the working class or as broad as the trade union movement but to the membership of their union. The ASE in South Australia, led by Thompson and his peers, pursued the idea of the trade union as a self-interested pressure group, willing to collaborate with employers to further the job security, wages, and conditions of its members and at the same time just as willing to compete with other unions not merely for members but for the benefits it could cajole from employers. To the ASE, strikes were counter-productive, not in the interests of its members, and something their competitors favoured only because they subscribed to either old-fashioned or discredited ideologies. To it, even arbitration--or at least the federal and state systems it had spawned--were in need of reform and should be bypassed, not by strike action but by person-to-person agreements between trade union officials and employers' representatives. Very likely, ASE leaders believed that its bargaining strategies were not only best for its members but were a model that all other trade unions should adopt. Certainly, the gains they won for their members, their continued re-election to office, and Thompson's high standing in both the UTLC and the ACTU confirmed the view that their whole approach was both effective and legitimate. In the postwar era the ASE was well aware that, in the state of South Australia, it symbolised a rejection of the very ideas of class conflict and the class war.

Malcolm Saunders and Neil Lloyd *


* This article has been peer reviewed for Labour History by two anonymous referees.

(1.) Ken Buckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, 1852-1920, Australian National University, Canberra, 1970; T. Sheridan, Mindful Militants: The Amalgamated Engineering Union in Australia, 1920-1972, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1975; T. Sheridan, 'The Amalgamated Engineering Union', Labour History, no. 17, November 1969, pp. 52-66; T. Sheridan, 'Partial anatomy of a union: A sample of AEU recruiting, 1914-1952', Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 14, no. 3, September 1972, pp. 238-63; T. Sheridan, 'Democracy among the aristocrats: Participation of members in the affairs of the AEU (Australian section) 1900-1972', Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 21, no. 2, June 1979, pp. 161-83; T. Sheridan, 'Opposition, factions and candidates in AEU elections in Australia 1907-72', Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 22, no. 3, September 1980, pp. 293-311; J. Hutson, 'The Amalgamated Engineering Union and arbitration in the 1920s', Labour History, no. 14, March 1968, pp. 50-53; Kouichi Inaba, Industrial Relations in the Australian Engineering Industry, 1920-1945: The Amalgamated Engineering Union and Craft Unionism, PhD thesis, Department of History and Politics, University of Wollongong, 1997.

(2.) John Merritt, A History of the Federated Ironworkers' Association of Australia, 1909-1952, PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1967; John Merritt, 'The Federated Ironworkers' Association in the Depression', Labour History, no. 21, November 1971, pp. 48-61; Daphne Gollan, 'The Balmain Ironworkers' strike of 1945: Part 1: The factors emerge 1942-3', Labour History, no. 22, March 1972, pp. 23-41; Daphne Gollan, 'The Balmain Ironworkers' strike of 1945: Part 2: The strike against the union', Labour History, no. 23, November 1972, pp. 62-73.

(3.) Robert Murray and Kate White, The Ironworkers: A History of the Federated Ironworkers' Association of Australia, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1982; Susanna Short, Laurie Short: A Political Life, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1992; T. Sheridan, 'A case study in complexity: The origins of the 1945 steel strike in New South Wales', Labour History, no. 41, November 1981, pp. 87-109; T. Sheridan, 'The 1945 steel strike: Trade unions, the new order and Mr Chifley', Labour History, no. 42, May 1982, pp. 1-26.

(4.) Sheridan, Mindful Militants, p.10; John Wanna, The motor vehicle industry in South Australia to 1945', Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no. 13, 1985, pp. 139-44; John Wanna, 'A paradigm of consent: Explanations of working class moderation in South Australia', Labour History, no. 53, November 1987, pp. 54-72; Thomas Bramble, 'Conflict, coercion and co-option: The role of full-time officials in the South Australian branch of the Vehicle Builders Employees' Federation, 1967-80', Labour History, no. 63, November 1992, pp. 135-54; Thomas Bramble, The Contingent Conservatism of Full-Time Trade Union Officials: A Case Study of the Vehicle Builders Employees' Federation of Australia, 1963 to 1991, PhD thesis, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University, 1993; Thomas Bramble, 'Trade union organization and workplace industrial relations in the vehicle industry, 1963 to 1991', Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 35, no. 1, March 1993, pp. 3961; Robert Tierney, The Australian Automotive Industry 1939-1965: A Sociological Study of Some Aspects of State Intervention, Managerial Control and Trade Union Organisation, PhD thesis, Macquarie University, 1991; Robert Tierney, 'Immigration and production line margins in the 1950s vehicle building industry', Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 36, no. 1, March 1994, pp. 18-36; Robert Tierney, 'Racial conflicts in the Australian automotive industry in the 1950s: Production line workers, the Vehicle Builders Employees' Federation and shop floor organisation', Labour History, no. 76, May 1999, pp. 20-40; John Wanna, The Politics of Organised Labour: An Analysis of South Australian Trade Unions in the Metal and Vehicle industries, PhD thesis, Department of Politics, University of Adelaide, 1984.

(5.) Sheridan, Mindful Militants, p. 10; For the Electrical Trades Union see Archie Dawson, Points and Politics: A History of the Electrical Trades Union of Queensland, Colonial Press, Brisbane, 1977; Douglas Blackmur, 'Industrial conflict in the public sector: The origins and nature of the 1985 Queensland electricity dispute', Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 48, no. 2, June 1989, pp. 163-76; Anna Collins, 100 Years of Lighting the Way: The Electrical Trades Union in NSW, Focus Publishing, Sydney, 2002; Ken Purdham, A Century of Struggle: A History of the Electrical Trades Union of Australia, Victorian Branch, Hyland House, Melbourne, 2002. On Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association of Australasia see Malcolm McDonald, FEDFA: A Victorian Branch History, 1907-2005, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Melbourne, 2005; Mark Westcott, 'One of the boys or the common good? Workplace activism in the NSW branch of the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association', Labour History, vol. 91, November 2006, pp. 75-94. or the others see Geoffrey Robinson, A History of the Newcastle Branch of the Boilermakers' Society of Australia, 1877-1977, Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union, Sydney, 1977; W.J. Hargreaves, History of the Federated Moulders' (Metals) Union of Australia, 1858-1958, Worker Print, Melbourne, 1958.

(6.) Keith G. Goodwin, Pattern for Struggle, Information Division, Australasian Society of Engineers (ASE) (NSW branch), Sydney, 1968; 'History of Australasian Society of Engineers', ASE Centenary Issue, June 1990, pp. 5-35.

(7.) Tom Bramble, 'Australian union strategies since 1945', Labour & Industry, vol. 11, no. 3, April 2001, p. 5ff.

(8.) Ibid., p. 7.

(9.) Margaret Gardner and Gill Palmer, Employment Relations: Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management in Australia, 2nd edn, Macmillan Education Australia, Melbourne, 1997, p. 113.

(10.) See, for example, Roy J. Adams, Industrial Relations under Liberal Democracy: North America in Comparative Perspective, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, South Carolina, 1995, pp. 41-44.

(11.) ASE, South Australia, Secretary's report, 15 December 1947. See next endnote for further archival information.

(12.) The principal sources for this article, apart from published material, are the files of the South Australian branch of the ASE and to a lesser extent the South Australian branch of the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA). Both sets of files are housed in the Noel Butlin Archives Centre (NBAC) in the Menzies Library at the Australian National University in Canberra. The ASE files are deposit numbers E113 and Z479; the FIA's files are deposit numbers E102, E170, and Z480.

(13.) John Miles, 'Vivid reign of "Alby" Thompson', Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 May 1968, p. 2; Stewart Cockburn, 'Versatile mind and quick fists', Advertiser (Adelaide), 23 November 1982, p. 4.

(14.) No one has yet written a lengthy and scholarly account of the ASE either nationally or in any of the states. The best source thus remains the union's own collection of documentary snippets, that is, 'History of Australasian Society of Engineers', ASE Centenary Issue, June 1990, pp. 5-35. Unless indicated otherwise, the next few paragraphs are based on information in this booklet; Ken Buckley was quite right when he pointed out that reports of the inaugural meeting of the ASE in Sydney in 1890 offer little evidence that the foundation members of the union wanted to break away from the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in Britain simply because they wanted autonomy; see Buckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, pp. 84-85. However, Buckley fails to appreciate the power of this myth in deterring the Australasian Society of Engineers over the next 100 years from returning to the fold, that is, to what was, from 1920, called the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU); Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 1890; Advertiser (Adelaide), 28 April 1904.

(15.) 'History of Australasian Society of Engineers', p. 43.

(16.) See 'History of Australasian Society of Engineers', passim but especially pp. 13-14; Buckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, ch. 7.

(17.) 'History of Australasian Society of Engineers', p. 43.

(18.) See 'Foundation of Adelaide branch' in 'History of Australasian Society of Engineers', p. 43; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 31 May 1936; 31 May 1937.

(19.) Cockburn, 'Versatile mind and quick fists'; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 31 May 1936; 31 May 1937.

(20.) ASE (SA), Special executive meeting, 10 April 1938; Interview, Bruce Thompson (A.B. Thompson's son), 10 February 2008.

(21.) ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 31 May 1938; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 31 May 1941; An entry on Thompson can be found in every Who's WWho in Australia between 1941 and 1965. Unfortunately most entries are either inaccurate or incomplete in a significant way. However, his two one-year presidencies of the United Trades and Labor Council (UTLC) have been confirmed by letter (Janet Giles to Malcolm Saunders, 9 June 2005). Janet Giles was the secretary of SA Unions in 2005; Jan Brazier, 'Dawes, Edgar Rowland (1902-1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.13, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 592-593; Advertiser (Adelaide), 31 July 1941, p. 8; Australasian Engineer, 1 September 1941, p. 126.

(22.) ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 30 November 1941; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 30 November 1943.

(23.) Sheridan, as mentioned before, has listed eight metal trades unions in Australia at this time, not all of which might have had a branch in South Australia. These were, besides the ASE and the AEU, the Federated Ironworkers' Association; the Blacksmiths' Society; the Boilermakers' Society; the Moulders' Union; the Electrical Trades Union; and the Sheet Metal Working Industrial Union. (Not on Sheridan's list was the Federated Engine Drivers' and Firemens Association, which certainly had a branch in South Australia). Sheridan makes the point that the ASE and the AEU 'were direct rivals in their attempts to organise engineering workers' (Sheridan, Mindful Militants, pp. 9-10); The above claims are supported by a thorough canvas of the minutes of ASE (SA) executive and branch meetings between 1929 and 1939; Alastair Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California, 1969, pp. 75-76.

(24.) See, for instance, ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 21 November 1928.

(25.) See, for instance, ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 31 May 1940; Australasian Engineer, 1 September 1940, p. 87.

(26.) John Scott to Malcolm Saunders, Correspondence, 7 October 2007 (Scott was the secretary of the AEU in South Australia in the 1960s); In the winter of 1941 there was a great deal of correspondence between Charlie McCaffrey (in Adelaide) and Ernie Thornton (in Sydney) about the issue. (McCaffrey was the secretary of the South Australian branch of the FIA; Thornton was the federal secretary of the FIA and one of the leading Communists in Australia). See, especially, C. McCaffrey to E. Thornton, 17 June 1941, FIA (SA) files, in which McCaffrey describes Thompson's action as 'one of the scabbiest things ever done in the Trades Union movement'.

(27.) Advertiser (Adelaide), 27 April 1943, p. 5; Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History, p. 90; To all engineers. Leaflet advertising forthcoming meeting of ASE and AEU members, Trades Hall, Sunday 14 March 1943, No date, Adelaide; Engineers Amalgamation Committee: South Australia. Leaflet authorised by S.S. Gough for the Amalgamation Committee, No date, Adelaide. Both leaflets can be found in the files of the FIA (SA).

(28.) Based on a thorough examination of the minutes of all ASE (SA) executive and branch meetings between 1941 and 1948; Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History, pp. 80-84; Jim Moss, Representatives of Discontent: History of the Communist Party in South Australia, 1921-1981, The Communist and Labour Movement History Group, Melbourne, 1983, p. 29.

(29.) See, for instance, for the first eight months of 1943 alone, ASE (SA), Branch meeting, 19 April 1943; Executive meeting, 16 June 1943; Branch meeting, 21 June 1943; Branch meeting, 12 July 1943; Branch meeting, 23 August 1943.

(30.) Australasian Engineer, 1 June 1943, p. 184; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 30 November 1943.

(31.) ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 2 April 1947.

(32.) ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 14 May 1947; ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 8 March 1950.

(33.) Australasian Engineer, 1 June 1940, p. 66; ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 17 August 1942.

(34.) Eulogy delivered by Barton Pope at funeral of A.B. Thompson on 3 December 1982. Cassette recording given to Malcolm Saunders by Charmaine Reece, one of Thompson's daughters; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 15 December 1947.

(35.) Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 February 1948, p. 1; Advertiser (Adelaide), 28 February 1948, p. 1.

(36.) Industrial agreement between the Australasian Society of Engineers and Pope Products Limited, 10 June 1948, FIA (SA) files, NBAC. Curiously, the files of the ASE (SA) do not hold a copy of this crucial agreement whereas those of the FIA (SA) do; Advertiser (Adelaide), 25 June 1948, p. 1; Advertiser (Adelaide), 17 May 1948, p. 3. See also, David A. Horowitz and Peter N. Carroll, On the Edge: The US Since 1941, Wadsworth, Belmont, California, 1998, pp. 100-101.

(37.) Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 December 1948, p. 3; News (Adelaide), 4 December 1948, p. 2; South Australian Tribune, 11 March 1949, p. 5; Journal of Industry, vol. 17, no. 1, January 1949, pp. 1-2, 4, 7, 9, 21, 23-25; Journal of Industry, February 1949, p. 25.

(38.) Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 December 1948, p. 3; South Australian Tribune, 21 January 1949, p. 1; South Australian Tribune, 14 October 1949, p. 3.

(39.) D.W. Rawson, Unions and Unionists in Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1978, pp. 59-60.

(40.) FIA (SA), Executive meeting, 22 June 1948; Advertiser (Adelaide), 3 July 1948, p. 3; 17 July 1948, p. 3; D. McLelland to N. Maclean, 5 October 1948, FIA (SA) files; Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 February 1949, p. 1; ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 29 June 1949.

(41.) C. McCaffrey to E. Thornton, Correspondence, 30 July 1948, FIA (SA) files; Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 February 1949, p. 1; ASE (SA), Special executive meeting, 16 February 1949; ASE (SA), Special executive meeting, 18 February 1949.

(42.) Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 February 1948, p. 5; Labor News, March 1948, p. 5 (Labor News was the monthly journal of the FIA); Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 July 1948, p. 5; Advertiser (Adelaide), 15 October 1948, pp. 1 and 6; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 20 December 1948; News (Adelaide), 4 December 1948, p. 2; 6 December 1948, p. 1; South Australian Tribune, 10 December 1948, p. 8; 17 December 1948, p. 1.

(43.) News (Adelaide), 6 December 1948, p. 1; See especially, Miles, 'Vivid reign of "Alby" Thompson'.

(44.) Australasian Engineer, June 1949, p. 470.

(45.) The Australasian Society of Engineers Federal Journal, November 1960, p. 23.

(46.) Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 August 1947, p. 2; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 21 December 1964.

(47.) ASE (SA), Special executive meeting, 16 June 1952; Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 September 1952, p.4; 6 October 1952, p.3; 9 October 1952, p.3; 28 November 1952, p.3; Australasian Engineer, December 1952, pp. 66^667; Advertiser (Adelaide), 28 April 1955, p. 6; 22 November 1956, p. 5.

(48.) Advertiser (Adelaide), 26 June 1947, p. 7; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 31 May 1945; Advertiser (Adelaide), 11 April 1945, p.8; 19 April 1945, p.5; Australasian Engineer, 20 June 1946, p. 311; Australasian Engineer, March 1958, p. 3.

(49.) (J. Goss), 'A.B. Thompson resigns', South Australian Engineer, September 1968; News (Adelaide), 26 June 1954, p. 3; Australasian Engineer, June 1954, p. 3.

(50.) Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 November 1956, p. 5; Australasian Engineer, December 1957, p. 2; Australasian Engineer, June 1954, p. 3.

(51.) ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 18 December 1961; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 21 December 1953.

(52.) ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 22 June 1959. See also Sheridan, Mindful Militants, p. 294.

(53.) ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 21 June 1954; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 20 December 1954; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 16 December 1963; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 16 July 1956.

(54.) Australasian Engineer, June 1950, p. 531; ASE (SA), Secretary's report, 24 June 1957; 16 December 1957; Australasian Engineer, March 1950, pp. 516-517; ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 18 September 1946; Labor News, December 1948, p. 2; (Goss), 'A.B. Thompson resigns'.

(55.) Cockburn, 'Versatile mind and quick fists'; Advertiser (Adelaide), 5 February 1957, p. 1; 19 February 1957, p. 6; 16 July 1957, p. 9; 7 June 1958, p. 3.

(56.) Australasian Society of Engineers, June 1968, p. 15; 'A.B. Thompson resigns'; 'Team work in industry', Solidarity, March 1950, p.31. See also 'Teamwork experts must be exposed: Worker shows why', South Australian Tribune, 31 March 1950, p. 4.

Malcolm Saunders studied or taught at five universities between 1969 and 2009. A graduate of Flinders University, he is now semi-retired and lives in Rockhampton. <>

Neil Lloyd teaches at the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre. With Malcolm Saunders he has contributed essays to a number of publications including the Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and Queensland Review. <>
COPYRIGHT 2011 Australian Society for the Study of Labour History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Saunders, Malcolm; Lloyd, Neil
Publication:Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Previous Article:'Silent forms of coercion': welfare capitalism, state labour regulation and collective action at the Yarraville sugar refinery, 1890-1925.
Next Article:Right vs Left in the Tasmanian Liquor Trades Union.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |