Vince O’Grady discusses factors which led to the growth of Organised Labo(u)r and whether these factors are still relevant today. Is there still a need for the Labor Party and Unions?
Don’t yawn yet! My interest here is giving an understanding of the way our industrial relations system developed and the reasons behind that development.
This is very relevant to Australia today because of the stances of conservative parties and the changes in the economy due to world trade and the introduction of technology.
In this historical journey, we must return to England in the 1700’s – a short 250-300 years ago or five to six generations.
England was an agrarian society, where the majority of people lived on the land and worked for landlords. In exchange for this work many of them were given cottages to live in and so they were tied to their employer and to the land. Even in the 20th century people in England still lived in tied cottages and still do today.
The other great employer of labour was the merchant trade. Much of the trade of the UK was between India (East Indies) and the Americas (including the West Indies). The century was one of scientific discovery and with science came the invention of the machine.
The basis of society, as it had been from the Middle Ages was religion. Every village had a church and in some cases, after the reforming zeal of the various protestant denominations, several places of worship.
Education was for the wealthy. Latin, the language of the church, was slowly being overtaken by the native languages of various countries. Many people did not understand the Catholic service which was only changed to English and other native languages from Latin after the Second Vatican Council in 1966.
Whilst we might laugh at what happened in churches and educational institutions as something quaint, it was deadly serious to many of the people living during those times.
Nowadays for example we have serious discussions about Health Policy and Education. In the 1700’s there was no Health Policy or Public Education. Much of what went on can be seen in terms of ignorance and superstition. You did what the priest and landlord said.
Don’t believe that we are so sophisticated as to dismiss our past and how it affects our perception of where we are today in the world. Much of what I am about to write will explain the ignorance and fundamentalist arguments of many beliefs today.
As a product of the baby boom generation I am an interesting case study. I had not realised so much until I became politically aware in Australia in the 1980’s as a result of being struck down with Arthritis.
That is another story, however. What I want to highlight today is my absolute understanding of the Right side of Politics and the Left side of same. In fact in my case, I equate the right side of politics to the privileged and educated and the left to the under privileged and under educated.
My understanding comes from my parents, who were the antitheses of the each model. My mother came from a Protestant (French Huguenot) family and my father came from a Catholic Irish background.
Mother went to a private school and enjoyed going to the theatre, ballet and the promenade concerts in London in the 1930’s and 40’s and Father was farmed out to his grandmother on a remote Cornish Island and left school at 15. Mum became a Registered Nurse and Dad became an apprentice plumber and jack of all trades ending up as a farm labourer in winter and a building worker in summer.
The Cornish Island by the way is owned by the Duke of Cornwall and so much of the economy of the Island was controlled by his administrators, much has changed but it is still the case today.
Mother and Father met on this remote island where Mum was a nurse at the Cottage Hospital. They had to get married in 1950.
So began my understanding of the sides of the class divide, ending up with me at eleven going to boarding school in the centre of Cornwall. I remained there for 6 years (bar holidays) and left in 1972 with poor passes in three ‘A’ Levels and 6 ‘O’ Levels.
The school was the equivalent to the King’s School in Sydney (same tuition fees and curriculum).
The marriage lasted until 1966 and then Mum and Dad went their separate ways. I did the yoyo of staying with one and then the other in school holidays.
So, I was a pretty confused young man with a push me pull you approach from my parents.
Leaving aside the marital breakup as the result, what I want to examine are the differences between my parents. Mother was a stickler for manners. “Manners maketh man” she used to say, so she was a traditionalist, but she was also a semi practicing Methodist (the right fit with the Protestant (Huguenot) reformed church of France. Dad was a doer, he worked with his hands and he enjoyed what he called a “yarn” in the pub, what his catholic parents and ancestors called the Craigh (crack), good conversation and funny stories. So he enjoyed a drink. I thought he had no ambition, but he had returned from the Second World War in the Royal Navy. Subsequent research into his navy career revealed six warships torpedoed in the operations of his ship and Escort Group.
Mother on the other hand had plenty of ambition, she turned our home into a Bed and Breakfast and we had a fairly good childhood, with plenty of food, the occasional holiday and lots of books.
Meanwhile we didn’t have a very good extended family life. I suspect mother was disdainful of dad’s family because of their class and I also suspect she was pretty disdainful of herself for becoming pregnant and having to get married. Her mother, my grandmother, the last of her parents was absent from our family for all of my life. The closest I came to her was when we went to her funeral on the mainland in 1960 and we three kids sat bickering in the car whilst they said their goodbyes.
I remember the cringe I had reading comics about War heroes and the Officer class of the British army who were so upright and strong and that I would never attain such status because of my bad class antecedents. I apologise to all my Irish relations for these thoughts, I did after all have a very influential parent in my mother.
So the characteristics I saw in my parents reflect the characteristics of the class structure of society.
The erudite middle class vs. the badly educated working class.
You may recall that dad lived with his Granny. Her name was Conway and she came from county Cork, curiously enough not two miles from where my Huguenot ancestors had made their fortune trading in sugar with the West Indies.
Her antecedents were also of the sea, her husband (my Great grandfather) was a Sailor in the Coastguard. She was a powerful influence on my father and uncles. This influence was shown to me in 1973 when I was a farm labourer on the farm where my uncle was foreman.
Having left boarding school I was about to leave the island and go to England and start a new academic career at college. In preparation for this I decided that I should have my hair cut. It was shoulder length and I felt I should revert to the traditional and compliant hair of the boarding school.
Having visited the local hairdresser on Saturday morning, I went to the local club where my father was having a lunchtime drink and walked into the bar and stood next to him. After some little time when he didn’t recognise me I said “all right dad” and he was shocked at my appearance, not because I had an awful haircut but that I had changed from hippy to the solid citizen in one short hour.
Back at work on Monday I related this episode to my farm co-workers, including my uncle. It was a good topic as farm work in invariably hard and relentless and essentially boring. Whilst we were discussing hair, the pace of work continued unabated.
One hair story led to another and then Terry, my uncle said a strange thing. He shared with us that hairdressers used to singe your hair after they had cut it. I was astonished and asked why? He replied to stop it bleeding.
Now at the boarding school, along with Latin and French, we even had Science periods and I knew that hair didn’t bleed. I explained to Uncle that hair didn’t bleed but he was adamant, because “granny said it did.”
That was 39 years ago. My Uncle, “bless him” passed away two years ago, probably still believing that hair bled.
I have flown way ahead of myself again and must return to the agrarian society of the 1700’s.
The people who owned the land were educated, and from this class of people came the Age of Enlightenment. Basically it was a movement of people who looked at society through the prism of science rather than of religion or political tradition.
One such man was Jethro Tull.
Many readers of this discussion will know Jethro Tull as the British musical band of the late 1960’s and 70’s. However Jethro Tull was born in 1674 in Berkshire, England and in 1701 invented the horse drawn seed drill and later the horse drawn hoe. He is credited with helping to bring about the British Agricultural revolution.
Accompanied by the invention of machinery was the scientific understanding of the soil and hence the nutritional requirements of crops.
This understanding allowed farmers to increase production of crops and the machinery to efficiently plant, harvest and process the crops for market.
The quest for greater arable land led to the enclosure of the land so that more crops could be planted.
The Entrepreneur was born and Economic growth as we know it today was created.
With machinery and enclosure came hardship.
In Australia we often forget that we have a mild climate and that the climate of the British Isles is very cold in winter. Crops were seasonal and farm employees eked out their existence by the small husbandry system. They kept a cow or a pig or both, some chickens and during the winter months these livestock lived with them in their house or a nearby barn if they could afford it. Grazing was done on common land and the livestock lived off the waste of the household.
Enclosure of the land continued apace in the 1800’s with over 5000 enclosure acts being passed by the Parliament of Great Britain. These acts disenfranchised the ordinary worker. They took away his common land.
As machinery became more prevalent in farming, the labour requirement became less and so people suffered badly. At the same time the profits from expanded farm enterprises allowed new markets to be created because of the use of new machinery in factories. There was an exodus from the land to newly created industrial cities. Slum housing was created for the workers and work consisted of long days and poor pay.
It was an “out of the frying pan and into the fire situation” where disenfranchised agricultural workers moved from the land to the city and their plight was dire because of small wages and even poorer conditions.
An excellent article on the discussion above is at
Naturally people were not happy with this plight and as under educated people tend to do, because they have no voice and champions, they became violent. They broke the machines that had deprived them of their livelihood.
Another factor to take into account at this time was the representation of the people.
Control of the Parliament was vested in the landowning classes and they were the ones who decided what laws governed the land.
Here are some milestone acts passed in England to suppress the workers.
- When workers agitated they passed The Combination Act of 1799 known as An Act to prevent Unlawful Combinations of Workmen. Prohibiting Trade Unions. It was repealed in 1800.
- The Combination Act of 1800 strengthened the 1799 Act. It forbade workers acting to increase wages, reduce hours and quantity of work done as well as withdrawal of their Labour. This was repealed in 1824
- After several groups were formed the Combination Act of 1825 reintroduced the restrictions of the previous Act.
- When they wanted more control of the Land, the landowning class passed a series of Enclosure (5000) acts between 1773 and 1882, enclosing 21% of land in England.
I don’t want to give the impression that all the landed gentry were political philistines. Here is the story of Sir Francis Burdett, who fought the unrepresentative tooth and nail.
But he was overwhelmed by the strength of the landowners who were so opposed to his progressive views.
Machine breakers and machine breaking were the result of the reduction in agricultural wages.
- The wages of agricultural workers were cut from 9 shillings to 6 shillings per week. A 30% pay cut.
- Frame Breaking Act 1812 was passed.
- Malicious damage Act 1812 was passed.
- Both were in answer to the Luddites. Luddites were named so because they were “Members of organized groups of early 19th-century English craftsmen who surreptitiously destroyed the textile machinery that was replacing them. The movement began in Nottingham in 1811 and spread to other areas in 1812. The Luddites, or “Ludds,” were named after a probably mythical leader, Ned Ludd. They operated at night and often enjoyed local support. Harsh repressive measures by the Government included a mass trial at York in 1813 that resulted in many hangings and banishments. The term Luddite was later used to describe anyone opposed to technological change. Concise Encyclopaedia.
- The Reform Act 1832 (increased representation of the population by shifting seats in Parliament from rural boroughs to industrial cities).
A Wiltshire account of machine breaking in 1830
Three groups of men are well known as protesters.
- Tolpuddle Martyrs.
- Swing Riots 1830/31
The 6 Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of agricultural workers who swore an oath to each other as part of a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. In 1834, a farm owner, James Frampton, wrote to the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, complaining about these six men. They were subsequently arrested and charged under an obscure Law of 1797 which prohibited people swearing oaths to each other.
They were found guilty and transported to Australia for seven years.
Here is the account of one of these men as described in The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes at page 311 and 312. It describes the treatment given by the fledgling middle class of Australia to:-
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 post holes, 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 foot 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 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. If you ask me again 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 on your head is your own?”’
Brine had had his convict assigned clothing, bedding and shoes stolen on the way to this assignment.
Upon the conviction of these six men, 800,000 people across England, mainly in London, marched in demonstration against their conviction and transportation. So alarmed were the Government that they pardoned and released the men.
They had formed the Friendly Society to ask for 10 shillings per week wages rather than the subsistence level of 2 shillings.
The malevolence of the Squire who had had them charged knew no bounds. On applying for poor relief, Frampton denied the wives of the transported men relief. The Tolpuddle Martyrs website describes it thus.
‘In refusing any assistance, Frampton considered that no person should be entitled if they could afford to join a union. “They meant us to suffer for the offences of our husbands” said the women in a letter to supporters. “Tolpuddle have for many years been noticed for tyranny and oppression and cruelty and now the union is broke up here.”’
The example of the Tolpuddle martyrs story is typical of the struggle of the working class against oppression. The worst part of the oppression was the complete lack of compassion on behalf of the landed classes, those with the money and the wealth.
The links to the Tolpuddle,
And the chartists story
Please read these important changes in the social fabric of our society.
To conclude, the rise of the working class and the birth of Trades Unions to following factors influenced the social changes.
The Agricultural Revolution
The growth in Science and Technology, especially the machine.
The enclosure of land and new animal husbandry and crop techniques.
The Industrial Revolution
The invention of machines which replaced hand labour, such as in
Weaving of cloth and the making of clothing.
The mass transportation of goods by canals and rail.
An oversupply of labour from the disenfranchised agricultural class.
Both systems created new markets for food and other consumer goods. The only problem was that the uneducated poor were being treated like slaves in regard to their wages and hours of work.
The question asked at the beginning of this essay, was whether the Labor and Union movements created in the 18th and 19th centuries are still relevant today.
In 2007, Joe Hockey, the Howard Liberal Government Minister for Workplace Relations, didn’t think so.
He said this.
Later in the day, John Howard asserted that he did not say it and Hockey himself amended his rhetoric on the ABC’s PM program.
It might be 8 years ago but I believe it shows the underlying beliefs of the Liberal Party.
Subsequent events show that what John Howard said that day, that he didn’t want unions controlling anything have certainly become plain in his Work Choices legislation. This single act, causing the loss of Liberal and National Party Government, and Squire Howard, the seat of Bennelong.
An act of Parliament which was consistent with the same type of legislation in England in 1799, 1801 and 1825, which denied workers their hard won rights to be represented by Unions in their workplaces and wage negotiations.
Are we now to believe that such a policy is dead on the conservative side of Politics?
If it is and there is truly a change of conservative heart then there is indeed no need for the Unions as we know them or the Labor Party as the representative of the workers.
BUT, and this is a big BUT, the facts do not fit the rhetoric. All you have to do to see that the collective parts of the Liberal National Party are telling porkies is to refer to the following Liberal Party document (Victorian Liberal Government) submitted in February 2012 to Fair Work Australia about the Review of the Fair Work Act.
It is my contention that this document still has the same entrenched set of views that the landed gentry had in the late 1700’s and the 1800’s. That the hard won rights workers have in the 20thC are still in play. That the IPA and the HR Nicholls Society aims are to return the state of industrial relations back to the Status Quo of the early 19thC.
In this document the word flexibility appears 78 times. The document is 53 pages long. The word productivity appears 142 times. This (Liberal/National) Government submission is supposed to represent the democratic views of Victorians, yet it is skewed toward references from the AiGroup and against the views of Unions.
It is my contention that the Baillieu Victorian Government was being heavily influenced by the IPA and other Liberal think tanks as well as so called representative bodies from various industry employers. Their thinking is akin to Squire Frampton.
Because they are the people who have the money and they want to make more. They don’t believe that anyone else is entitled to be paid a fair day’s wage. They begrudge the fair remuneration of workers.
For a while in industrial relations we did achieve an equilibrium of sorts, but then along came a whole lot of reform of the economy and the opening up of the country to world trade.
For the worker this has been an unmitigated disaster. I say disaster because through sound industrial reforms Australians achieved a level of income which allowed them to move from the badly educated to be better educated and that was when they could really make inroads into the balance of their lives with the aspirations they had only dreamed about.
Now we have a situation where the wages of workers who make the majority of our goods (overseas) are paid a pittance. When they manage to organise and improve their lot, the people who exploited them move along and exploit the next country that have low wages.
Demand has grown but quality has suffered. Today’s generation have become the ultimate consumer. Not satisfied that a product can sing and dance they want the next one to do a jig as well, so the life cycles of products have become shorter, the throw away society has arrived and the greed of people for new and ‘cool’ things is out of control.
Meanwhile the conservative management class, who drive this paradigm are also well into their favourite sport, the blame game. They blame people who for no reason of their own cannot work, the disability pensioner, they blame the dole bludger and they blame the single mother. They always choose the least able people to fight back against their rhetoric, the weakest in society.
Does this remind you of anyone? It seems to me that it’s the same behaviour as Squire Frampton. He was reducing wages, didn’t allow people to have an opinion and had the force of Acts of Parliament to deny workers any rights or justice. He then used the powers he had as a poor law commissioner to grant the transported men’s wives relief from poverty.
The thing that offends me about this approach is that it is so stupid; it has not one intellectual shred of credibility. It does however seemed to have worked on the majority of Australian workers who have achieved the goal of moving from the working class to a higher one.
An enormous amount of Electricians and Fitters and Turners who now are contractors and small businesses, think that they are now better off than the ‘worker’ tag that they wore for so many years. They have the idea in their head but the Squire Frampton’s of Australia don’t agree with you. You are still plebs and cannon fodder.
What everyone is failing to see; is that when the wages of Australians have been depressed to a low level, the markets for the goods they are now making so much money on will disappear because there will be no disposable income from workers to buy them.
There is one small ingredient missing in conservative politics today, in fact that small ingredient has never been a part of conservative politics. The word is compassion. The concept is Christian and the Genesis of the missing ingredient is greed and money.
I originally wrote this in 2012 and have now updated a couple of the links.
We now have a Liberal Government under Tony Abbott. The Squire Frampton approach continues apace. The night before (6th Sept 2013) the Federal Election in Sept 2013. Abbott said “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”
He has cut Education funding.
He has cut Health funding
He has changed the Pension Assets test.
No change to the GST.
No cuts to the ABC or SBS
It only took Abbott eight months (detailed in May budget) to change his mind about Education funding, Health funding, changes to the Pension and 63 days to decide to reduce the ABC’s funding. SO my contention is that he LIED because he knew he was going to do all these things.
The hardest one to change is the GST, but that will deliver the biggest prize. It will absolve the Federal Government of delivering grants to the States.
Let’s also take a look at some other promises. The jobs promise is in tatters. The figures are compromised and just cannot be believed.
The treasurer has gone out of his way to destroy the Unions by a clever political game of cat and mouse through the Productivity Commission enquiry and the Car Industry assistance.
I wrote about it here. It has destroyed thousands of jobs, skills and weakened Australia strategically.
The Australian Submarine Corporation’s promise to build a new Submarine fleet in I South Australia is in tatters.
Once again, the promise.
And the breaking of it……..in progress.
NOTHING has changed with the class structure. As soon as the workers start to get ahead, the people who have ownership and control, start to slap them down… very hard.
The final thing I have to say is on the China Free Trade deal, which although not yet passed by Parliament has been signed twice.
1/ With great fanfare in Parliament the Memorandum of Understanding was signed. The DFAT Website showed No official documents other than that Memo being signed. Yet all the press went along and said it had been signed. 17 Nov 2014.
2/ Then the actual Agreement was signed 17 July 2015.
3/ The detailed Agreement was placed on the DFAT website.
Of particular interest to Australian workers was the following letter by Andrew Robb to his Chinese counterpart.
It’s about Skills assessment and Licensing of Workers in the following trades.
Automotive Electrician 
Carpenter and Joiner 
Diesel Motor Mechanic 
Electrician (General) 
Electrician (Special Class) 
Motor Mechanic (General) 
Motorcycle Mechanic 
The text above is interesting and I will reproduce it in full.
“The Parties undertake to cooperate to streamline relevant skills assessment processes for temporary skilled labour visas, including through reducing the number of occupations currently subject to mandatory skills assessment for Chinese applicants for an Australian Temporary Work (Skilled) visa (subclass 457). Australia will remove the requirement for mandatory skills assessment for the following ten occupations on the date of entry into force of the Agreement”
In other words these job classes can come into Australia and work without assessment of their skills
My final thought. Does this remind you of Squire Frampton and the reasons for a Labor party?