Thursday, February 27, 2014

Train Reading - class warfare and Ross' history of the miners' union

At the moment, my train reading is Edgar Ross's A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia (The Australasian Coal and Shale Employees" Federation, 1970, second edition 1984). I hadn't heard of Edgar Argent Ross (1904-2001), but he clearly played an important role as a journalist and writer in the struggles within the union movement and Labor/left politics.

It's an interesting book, although the detail is sometimes a bit eye-glazing. I find I lose track of the significance of overall patterns in the shifting detail of our how much was paid for particular types of work. I shouldn't, for the payment patterns are very important in understanding what happened and why.

I am reading the book as part of the research I am doing for my history of Northern NSW, the broader New England. I need to understand more of the history of Newcastle and the coal fields for their own sake and because the tensions and differences between these areas and those further north form one of the themes within New England history, culminating in the narrow defeat of the 1967 self government plebiscite. 

I never know when I start reading just where that reading will take me. That's one of the joys of the process. In this case, I simply hadn't realised the national significance of some of the early labour struggles on the Northern coal fields, nor the role played by (among others) the Australian Agricultural Company. As I read, I was also struck by similarities between coal field history and that of the country movements further north that gave rise to the Country Party and the twentieth century Northern self government movements.  Apparently different ideologies, different outcomes, but very similar structural causes and indeed operational responses.

Ross's analysis is set firmly within a framework of class warfare, of fundamentally opposing interests. He pours scorn on those who supported co-operation as an alternative, who tried to cooperate with the masters (the early phrase) or bosses. Yet he is objective enough to recognise the successes of those who held alternative views. He argues that they failed in the longer term and provides evidence to show why, but you can at least understand his arguments.

As I read, I found an unexpectedly current resonance with Hunter Valleycurrent conditions and debate. As I write, there has been a pay dispute on the Northern coal fields between unions and rail company Aurizon, culminating in a  three day strike. Aurizon, in turn, has locked the drivers out for three days, arranging for another rail company to carry the load. The photo shows an Aurizon coal train.

I don't want to get into details of the current dispute. I am not close enough to it. Instead, I want to make a broader point about the asymmetry of power and the sharing of benefits and costs.

On the Northern coal fields in the nineteenth century, the owners wanted freedom and flexibility to set wages and conditions. When times were good, they would negotiate with miners' lodges and agree to new conditions, When times were bad, they sought to maintain profits by maintaining or expanding production, while also cutting costs. Coal miners worked in harsh conditions, facing insecure incomes. They opposed this flexibility. Sometimes they lost, sometimes they won. Sometimes when they won, it had adverse results.

The first problem lay in an asymmetry in power between management, the bosses, and a disorganised and individualised workforce.The union argued, rightly, that without some countervailing force individual workers would be penalised, that workplace conditions would not improve. They had evidence to support that view. The coal companies argued, rightly, that they needed flexibility in working conditions to survive in an unstable and changing market place.

Sometimes the two sides coincided. When conditions were good, the companies would give concessions. The workers would raise their glasses to the masters, they did use that word. Sometimes, the two sides would join in individual action designed to protect the companies so that the companies would protect them. One result was the Vend

The Northern coal fields dominated the Australian coal trade. If the companies formed a combine and linked this to influence over shipping, then they could set prices. When business was bad, they could contract production. When business was good, they could expand. The emerging union movement, the lodges, supported this. for it meant that the companies could afford to maintain stable wages and employment. From a union viewpoint, anything would be better than the unstable working conditions created by what they saw as the ruinous competition between the four coal majors.

The Vend failed, swept away by competitive forces. Attempts to create cooperatives including coal mines failed. They must fail, Ross argued, because they failed to recognise the basis class warfare built into the capitalist system. These concepts became deeply imbedded in the union movement. They created a culture that, in the end, would fail the union movement itself. but you can see how it might have arisen 

In systems with asymmetrical power, the powerful need to recognise and accommodate the needs of the less powerful. If they fail to do so, they are likely (not always) to pay a price. That price will have to wait to a later post.

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