Why the idea of a Labor Party is so important in 2014.
It is not for me to judge how effectively they follow the history of the labor movement or how effective they are in the polls and elections. That is the prerogative of the whole of the voters in Australia.
What my idea in writing this piece is to explore the set of circumstances which led to the formation of trades Unions and the Labor movement as a whole.
The journey of course should start in the United Kingdom, because that is where the founders and first European inhabitants of Australia came from.
The journey starts in England in the first half of the 18th Century in the Berkshire (near London) in 1701 when an agriculturalist, Jethro Tull perfected a horse drawn seed drill which economically planted rows of seeds in a neat row. Later he invented a horse drawn hoe.
This was the beginning of the agricultural revolution.
To understand the import of this is necessary to understand the climate of England and the consequent farming practices that were employed.
Generally speaking the land was worked by labourers who planted spring and summer crops and in the Autumn the work wasn’t as heavy because nothing would grow in the harsh climate. So the work available for the people on the land was mainly seasonal. This was always highlighted in the local churches by the harvest festivals which gave thanks for the seasonal crops, known as Harvest home.
Many of the labourers were tied to the land, meaning that their cottages and their livelihood depended on the local farmers who owned the land and their homes. These squires as they were known were also the people who had the ability to become Members of Parliament and so they made the laws which applied to the people. They were probably the local magistrates as well.
So the ordinary worker relied on the farmer for his house, his livelihood, and his punishment if he should transgress the law.
As the agricultural revolution picked up pace and machines began to replace workers, they were either put off or their wages were reduced.
Initially this was not a problem as such because the villages and people who lived on the land could use the “common land” to raise a pig, graze a cow and chickens etc; with which to eke out some sort of existence during the cold winter when there was little farm work to be had.
Coupled with the Agricultural Revolution there was also the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the machine closely followed the adoption of the agricultural machines in the 1760’s with the use of steam, iron and coal. The main industry was textiles.
By the 1800’s the Agricultural Revolution was well underway as was the Industrial Revolution.
These two innovations saw productivity and profitability rise and man power decline. As farmers took to using machines they made their smaller fields bigger and decided that it was also a good idea to enclose the common land within their own farms.
Along with these changes agricultural wages fell and unrest was rife. So the people who owned the land and also were members of parliament passed laws to curb the unrest.
In 1799, the first combination Act (An Act to prevent Unlawful Combinations of Workmen) was passed in the British Parliament which forbade people combining in groups to lobby for better conditions and hence Trades Unions were banned.
A second act was passed in 1800 which strengthened the 1799 Act.
Penalties for combining together to ask for higher wages or for less hours or complaining of work to be done were 3 months imprisonment or 2 months hard labour.
These acts lasted 24 years until they were repealed in 1824.
Some of the effects on the poor were horrendous under these conditions.
- The wages of Agricultural workers were cut from 9 shillings to 6 shillings per week. A 30% pay cut
- The Lands were enclosed by the wealthy and previous rights on “common land” such as small farming practices and husbandry were taken away from the poor.
- No one had a voice because the landlords owned their cottages.
- They had no voice and if they did they were taken up before the magistrate who may well have been their employer.
The people started to move away from the land and farming to the cities where they could get a job in the new industries. However they had no way they could bargain for wages because of the laws and no way they could not work long hours for their pay. Children as young as nine were employed in the factories.
Basically there was no balance between the classes.
- The rich got richer with their new machinery.
- The poor moved to the cities and worked in the new factories for long hours and for small pay.
- There were plenty of workers from the land to fill the factory jobs.
- Power was in the hands of the wealthy.
21% of Agricultural land in England was enclosed between 1773 and 1882 by 5000 enclosure acts in the English Parliament. No wonder people moved from the countryside to the city.
Crime, the result of a State where there was poverty was rewarded by hanging or Transportation to the Colonies.
America was used by Britain as it’s convict colony between 1610 and 1776, when the American War of Independence shut off that conduit. So in 1787 a fleet of convicts was sent to New South Wales and arrived on 26th Jan 1788.
In all 168,000 convicts were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868 when it ended.
Naturally the law of England was the same as the new colony of Australia and because it was overseen for many years by the military, the punishment was extremely harsh, involving brutal flogging, chain gangs and other strict regimes of punishment – all to keep the dregs of society down.
Meanwhile in 1824 back in good old England, the combination Acts of 1799 and 1824 were repealed and a new poor law enacted. Where those who could not work or were poor were set to institutions called Workhouses, where they were fed and worked and slept.
Other Acts of Parliament had been passed in response to the changes in machine integration where workers used to be. They were the Frame breaking Act of 1812 and the Malicious damage Act of the same year.
Naturally, in response to such changes in the Industrial and Agricultural landscape there were changes in Society.
- Trade Unions (obviously, but also to help the unemployed)
- The Luddites (formed in response to technological change and reduction in the need for their skill and replacement by low paid workers.
- Tolpuddle Martyrs.
- Swing Riots 1830/31
- 6 Tolpuddle Martyrs transported to Australia for 7 years. For the offence of unlawfully administering oaths of loyalty to the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers.
- 475 machine breakers (Luddites and Swing rioters) transported to Australia for the offences of machine breaking, riot and arson.
- Many descendants of the machine breakers still live in Australia.
After the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 an attempt was made to reintroduce them in 1825 but was unsuccessful. By 1832 the Reform Act extended the representation in England to industrial towns but only the wealthy could enter parliament.
In 1832 a group of Agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle in Dorset formed a friendly society of Agricultural Labourers. They refused to work for less than 10 shillings a week and as wages had been reduced to 7 shillings and were about to be reduced to 6 shillings a week the farmers were angry.
In 1834 the local farmer, James Framlingham, wrote to the Prime minister Lord Melbourne complaining and they six were charged with an obscure law from 1797 which forbade the secret making of oaths with each other.
They were tried found guilty and sentenced to transportation to Australia for seven years.
Their plight was the first time the public sent a petition of this sort to Parliament and it contained 800,000 signatures. They were released in 1836, four returning to England whilst two remained in Australia.
One of the six was sent to a farm as assigned labour in the Hunter region of new South Wales the farmer said to James Brine, “You are one of the Dorchester machine breakers, but you are caught at last.”
This same man’s story is taken up again by Robert Hughes in his book “The Fatal Shore” on page 311.
“James Brine, one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs transported to Australia for trade-union activity in 1834, was assigned to a magistrate named Robert Scott at Glindon on the Hunter River. Scott set Brine to digging postholes, even though his bare feet were so cut and sore that he could not put them on the spade. Eventually Brine ‘Got a piece of iron hoop and wrapped it around my feet to tread upon’ but for six months (the regulation period between issues) Scott would give him no shoes, clothes or bedding. Stricken by a severe cold after spending seventeen days up to his chest in a creek, washing sheep, Brine begged for a blanket and got a homily instead.”
“No” said he “I will give you nothing until you are due for it. What would your masters in England have had to cover them if you had not been sent here? I understand it was your intention to have murdered, burnt and destroyed every thing before you, and you are sent over here to be severely punished, and no mercy shall be shown you. If you ask me for any thing before the six months is expired, I will flog you as often as I like…. You d—d convict!—don’t you know that not even the hair of your head is your own?”
Is it any wonder that with such harsh treatment that the Trades Union movement was formed in England and Australia? I think not.
That happened a short 180 years ago. But the sentiments of the farmer/magistrate live on in our political system in Australia.
So what is common about the 19th century and now?
Three themes survive.
1/ Oppression of the ‘ordinary’ workers
2/ Destruction of jobs by changing and manipulated economic circumstances
3/ Reduction in living wage as a consequence of 2/ above.
After Paul Keating brought Australia into the 20th Century the Howard Government short sightedly sold many of our assets to the private sector. He privatised as much as he could. Utilities in Victoria were sold off to Private Enterprise by the Liberal Kennett Government and the price of electricity in Australia has been rising ever since the national grid for electricity was created.
Before privatisation the shareholders of the utilities were the people who owned them (in the various states where they were sold). The first thing these people did was to put up the price of electricity and reduce jobs (In Victoria 13,000 jobs were lost in the SEC sell off).
This reminds me of the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions, where the workers were disenfranchised. The shareholders of the enterprise (the people of Victoria) were disenfranchised as well. Their ability to sack the board (the Government of Victoria) ceased with the sale.
World trade agreements have seen greedy industries exploit the extremely low wages of other countries in the Asian, Indonesian and Indian regions. Wages which would have to be reduced in Australia to extreme poverty level ones to compete. Yet our politicians have let this go on and on.
Many job types have gone overseas, such as call centre operators and IT operations.
The present government is calling for reduced wages as they tried to get in under the draconian work choices legislation.
The balaclava clad ‘Thugs’ of Peter Reith and John Howard were wheeled out to try and oust the pickets of the waterfront workers. Yet the Liberals call the Unions ‘Thugs.’
Reminiscent of the way Brine was treated by his Magistrate master in 1834?
We have a Royal Commission into the Union movement which has in truth uncovered a small amount of misdemeanour, the largest being alleged indiscretions by Kathy Jackson, the so called Unionist who gave a talk at the H.R. Nicholls society, an ultra right wing Tory club.
In short, just like in the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions, the workers are under the greatest pressure they have ever been under.
The demands for Work for the Dole are redolent of the old style workhouses, the unfair requirements on people out of work to apply for 20 jobs a week and their demonisation by this Liberal National Government as bludgers are a disgrace in this day and age. They are an even bigger disgrace because there are over 700,000 people unemployed looking to find work where only 146,000 places exist. So it is a nonsense for 700,000 people to apply for 20 jobs a week. That is a total of 14 million job applications a month – or 146,000 jobs? A rate of nearly 96,000 applications for every job.
Bastardry? There is no other explanation for such a policy – redolent of the nasty attitude of the landowners in Australia and the UK in the 19th century.
But I have to tell you, the reader, that the bastards who did everything to keep the workers down in the 1700’s and 1800’s are the same ILK who are running this country now. They say they are interested in governing for everyone but their actions show otherwise.
What is different with the working conditions now and back in the 1700’s and 1800’s. The answer to that is nothing.
Consider the three themes above.
Three themes survive.
1/ Oppression of the ‘ordinary’ workers
2/ Destruction of jobs by changing and manipulated Economic circumstances
3/ Reduction in living wage as a consequence of 2/ above.
When you think about your vote, think about the people who really care about workers. Don’t listen to the LNP lies about the Unions, they are the people who have got Australia the standard of living which it enjoys now.
Don’t listen to the propaganda of the Liberals with their lies and their News Limited association, sprouting their falsehoods about workers rights. Make no mistake about this, the Royal Commission into Unions is a class war by the conservative elite. The ones who like to think of themselves as the gentlemen farmers of the 21st century. Born to rule over the plebs.
Every policy they lied about before coming to Government in 2013 they have changed. They have destroyed the Gonski reform process and future funding for schools which was supposed to bring Australia back to some sort of parity with the rest of the world in Educational outcomes. But don’t you know; poorly educated people are easily manipulated.
They have de funded the public TAFE systems in all of the States, principally NSW and Victoria, the power houses of Trades training. This has led to a private model of training which is riddled with mediocrity and corruption and a complete reduction in standards.
One wonders if in fact this de-funding isn’t a ploy to restrict training in Australia so that shortages in Trades can be filled by foreign workers on 457 visas at substantially lower rates of pay.
If ever the union movement were needed it is in 2014, and in the future. The Liberals are driving out the jobs of this country. They are destroying our future by failing to innovate, denying climate science and trashing a great idea in the NBN – Labor’s NBN which promised so much – the job creating technologies and innovations of the future.
If ever there was a time to learn the lessons of the past it’s now. Join the Labor Party and make a difference. Join a Union and make a difference. Don’t believe the apathy that the Liberals have woven around the political issues which confront us. Vote for the only Party which can make things better for workers. Thank You.