Current Research Interests in Australian Labour History

Australian labour history has long been seen as a vigorous area of intellectual endeavor.[1] Many writers have argued that the study of Australian labour history has broadened significantly from its early narrow focus on institutional histories and labour biographies to include broader social concerns, such as race, class, gender, the workplace, locality and the state.[2]

So why study labour history? A common justification for the continued study of labour history is often found in the ‘lessons from history’ argument. Writers such as Richard Hyman, have argued that ‘the present is historically conditioned and historically contingent’, thus any attempt to understand present events or debates must include a historical understanding of the issue.[3] Influenced by this approach, Ray Markey contends that Australian labour ‘history has always been important for the labour movement in defining its identity … and the immediate relevance of labour history to contemporary issues has never been more apparent’.[4]

In recent times the Australian labour movement has faced major challenges, with declining union density, a hostile regulatory environment, wage inequality, rising job insecurity, and a growing rift between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement. In response to these challenges the labour movement has broadened its horizons from traditional industrial issues, such as wages and conditions, to incorporate a wider social agenda. If labour history has been important in defining the identity of the labour movement, it seems pertinent at this time to examine the current research interests and research projects in labour history.

In July 2004 the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History conducted a survey to identify research trends in labour history. The survey was sent to the subscribers of Labour History. Of the 316 surveys distributed to subscribers 74 surveys were returned completed. Of those 74 responses, 60 respondents agreed to have their research interests and projects published. It is important note that the respondents of this survey come from a broad range of areas, both inside and outside the academic arena, including labour history, history, industrial relations, law, political science, social policy, politics and trade unions. Respondents were asked two questions: to specify their research interests and to detail their current research projects. The open ended nature of the questions allowed respondents to provide multiple answers to the questions.

The results of these surveys have been compiled and categorised under broad themes. The categorisations were developed from the Annual Bibliography of British Labour History Publications, and adapted to suit Australian research interests.[5] These categorisations provide useful insights into the study of the labour history, but are very loose. In many cases the topics specified could have been included in a number of categories, however, they have been categorised according to the essence of the research topic.

This article is divided into two parts. The first examines the expression of research interests, of which 158 topics were identified. These have been classified into 19 categories. The second part outlines the respondents’ current research projects, of which there were 98 projects specified. These research projects have been classified into 18 categories.

Research Interests

The diversity of research interests in labour history is clearly reflected in the results of the survey. As has been the case with previous studies, it was found that labour history’s traditional areas of interests such as trade union activism, biography and institutional histories have been augmented by broader research interests, such as comparative history, working class culture, amongst many others.[6]

The most commonly cited research interests were those that fell within the rubric of ‘social and economic conditions’. Within this broad research area several significant themes were identified. General research interests included issues such as economic development, labour markets, welfare capitalism, globalisation and the welfare state. Education was a popular theme identified by respondents. Research interests in this area were quite diverse and ranged from the history of tertiary education to radical students. Many respondents expressed an interest in health, welfare and social policy. Interests included public health and occupational health and safety. Other areas of interests included convict labour, returned soldiers and the peace movement in the 1950s.

Industry studies remain an important and enduring area of intellectual endeavor in labour history. The results of the survey, however, suggest that the diversity of research interests appears to be limited. The survey found that the majority of research interests were focused on traditional male industries, such as iron and steel, coal mining, metal mining, railways, maritime industries, lumber and forestry, police, printing and utilities. Female dominated industries, however, such as nursing and healthcare, received only minor interest. However, there was some evidence of innovation and diversity. For example one respondent expressed interest in the history of the veterinary science.

Political movements have traditionally been an important and influential area of labour history research. Respondents expressed interested in political parties, ideas and events. A majority of respondents expressed an interest in the period of the Cold War, particularly in regards to politics and industrial relations during the Cold War. The Australian Labor Party, the Democratic Labor Party and the Communist Party of Australia, were popular areas of interest. Some respondents expressed an interest in imperialism and politics in colonial Australia. Other areas of interests included local government, the politics of taxation, social work and political action, and the broad Left in Australia.

Australian labour historians have traditionally focused on trade unions and union activism. The survey found that the traditional interests of trade union history, trade union leaders, and forms of industrial disputation remained popular. The survey also found sustained interest in the relationship between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement. Other interests identified include trade union decline, union organising techniques and the relationship between the Methodists and the labour movement.

Influenced by recent developments in community studies and labour geography the survey found that local and regional histories are becoming a significant area of research interest. Geographical areas of interest included Tasmania, Northern Territory, Queensland, Brisbane, Newcastle and Broken Hill. Other interests included the history of industrial and mining towns, company towns and the geography of radicalism.

Critics have often argued that Australian labour historians have been reluctant to incorporate comparative history into their research agenda.[7] A comparative history of other countries provides insights into the strengths and weaknesses of particular national approaches to labour history. The findings of this survey, however, indicate that this is a growing area of interest. Areas of particular interest include Northern Europe, particularly the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, the Pacific Islands and the USA. Issues range from the politics of social democracy to government policy during the Cold War in Australia, Great Britain and the US.

Respondents were also interested in the identities of race, class and gender and their interaction. One respondent was interested in class, the state and the Cold War. Several respondents expressed an interest in female trade unionists, early colonial female employment and the general advancement of women. Interests in race included ethnic politics and Aboriginal policy.

Since the 1980s, state intervention and labour law has become an important area. Predominantly this debate has focused on the Australian system of conciliation and arbitration. However, despite this prolonged debate, respondents did not specifically identify this as an area of interest. Instead the expressions of interest included the law of occupational health and safety, immigration law and the regulation of employment recruitment agencies.

Work and working class culture were also identified as an area of research interest. Topics included forms of resistance to dominant capitalist cultural paradigms and nineteenth century working class culture, in particular larrikinism, crime, delinquency, prisons and reformatories.

Respondents also expressed an interest into the history of the ideas of the labour movement. Again a wide range of interests were expressed. These interests included the history of labour journalism, the development of social justice ideas, such as human rights, and halls and meeting places used by the labour movement in Western Australia.

Australian labour historians’ early interests in socialism, history and theory can be traced back to the rise of the Old left in the 1930s.[8] While the interest in this area has waxed and waned over time it is apparent from this survey that it is still remains an area of interest. Topics in this area included socialist political parties, social democracy, Marxist theory and ideology.

Up until the late 1980s labour management practice was an area that had received little attention by labour historians.[9] Influenced by the seminal work of Harry Braverman and other labour process theorists, many scholars in recent years have attempted to overcome this neglect.[10] Topics of interest included Taylorism/scientific management, welfarism, industrial democracy, payment systems and management discourse.

Wages and working conditions continue to be significant issues for the labour movement. Labour historians can play a crucial role in current campaigns for the improvement of wages and conditions, especially for those in precarious forms of employment, by providing insights into past campaigns. Research interests included voluntary labour, hours of work, casual labour and part-time work.

Overall the survey indicates there is diverse range of research interests in labour history. Traditional areas of interest such as labour biography, trade unions and political parties still remain at the heart of the labour history. However, the broadening of research interests within Australian labour history continues. This suggests that Australian labour history continues to be a vigorous area of intellectual endeavor. The next section asks the question whether these research interests translate into the actual research being undertaken by labour historians.

Current Research Projects

As was the case with previous results on research interests, the survey also found there was diversity among current research projects in Australian labour history. However, there are some stark differences in the results. While biography was only a minor research interest, it is the dominant part of current research projects. Social and economic conditions remained popular as both a research interest and as a research project. One notable trend was the emergence of comparative labour history as area of significant area of research in Australian labour history. Another interesting trend was in the area of industry studies. While there is a lot of interest in industry studies, there are only four projects are being undertaken in this area. By contrast international studies there are more current projects than the survey of research interests would suggest. Labour movement and ideas was an area that was cited as a research interest however, there were no research projects identified in this area.

As noted previously, the majority of research projects are labour biography. The survey identified a diverse range of research projects being undertaken in this area. These range from a biographical register of the Australian labour movement (1788–1975), to studies of notable individuals such as Frank Anstey, Vere Gordon Childe and Lucy Osburn, the founder of modern nursing in Australia.

Within the broad area of social and economic conditions there a number of key themes: education, health, welfare and social policy, convict and prison labour and returned soldiers. Current research projects include ideology and the education curriculum, public universities in Australia 1850–1920, the politics of the World Health Organisation, asbestos in Australian history, modeling convict labour markets and the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) in interwar Newcastle.

As noted earlier, comparative history is emerging as significant area of intellectual endeavor in labour history. Examples include scientists in Australia, UK and the USA during the Cold War, a comparative study of labour journalism in Australia and Canada during the 1920s and a comparison of the Australian and US Communist Parties.

Australian labour historians continue to actively research political movements. The survey found that within this area there are a diverse range of research projects being undertaken. Current research projects ranged from topics such as NSW Premiers, the ALP split in 1950s, ALP local branches, problems of Labor Governments during the Great Depression in the 1930s, the ethnic politics in the Victorian ALP, political activism, the origins of radical and liberal political traditions, and an investigation of nineteenth century NSW elections.

Research into trade unions and activism also remains an enduring element of Australian labour history. Current research projects included the structure and strategies of worker organisation in Australia before 1900 and the history of Australian peak unions/labour councils. Other research projects included the study of culture of trade unionism in Victoria and trade union policies towards casual workers.

A number of research projects are currently being undertaken in the area of class, race and gender. Current research projects examining gender include women in the Tasmanian confectionary industry, balancing work and family and the female orphan school in Sydney. There was only one research project identified in the area of class and race respectively.

The survey of current research projects reinforces the argument that local and regional histories are becoming a significant area of intellectual endeavor in Australian labour history. There are colonial histories of Newcastle and the Pilbara in Western Australia. Other current research projects include an investigation into radical Sydney, the social relations of work in Broken Hill from 1920 until the present, and the history of the Sydney suburb of Glebe.

International studies are another area of intellectual pursuit that appears to being growing in significance. Current research projects are quite diverse and include aspects of the 1965 coup in Indonesia, pre-famine Irish living standards, housing projects in Red Vienna and the workers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the 1890s to the Korean War.

As noted in the first part, wages and working conditions have always been, and remain an important area of concern for the labour movement. A number of current research projects are being undertaken into the nature and consequences of precarious employment. These projects examine the quality of part-time work in Australia and casual labour. Other projects investigate technological change in the nature of work and unpaid overtime, an issue that is becoming increasingly prevalent for Australian workers.[11]

Current research projects in work and working class culture suggest that this continues to be an enduring area of interest and historical research. Within this broad category a diverse range of research projects were identified. These include the changing nature of work and cultural forms of resistance in nineteenth century Sydney, the song and verse of the Australia goldfields and working life and political song in Australia.

As discussed in the previous section, Australian labour historians have had a long held interest in socialism and the socialist movement. The findings of this survey suggest that this interest has continued and is evident in the current research projects. Furthermore, some of the current research projects appear to be quite innovative and diverse. These projects include the relationship between the Australian Christian churches and the Australian Socialist League and the examination of various Australian socialist parties.


The aim of this survey was to identify trends in labour history. While it is important to remember that the findings of this research are drawn from a small sample, it does however, allow us to gain an insight into the general trends in the study of labour history. This paper has indicated that Australian labour history has broadened significantly from its traditional focus on institutional histories and biographies to incorporate broader areas of concern. Comparative labour history has been one area were there is a major growth in research interest and activity. Community studies and geography have also had a significant impact. However, the survey suggests that broader areas of concern such as class, race and gender, co-operation, ideology still remain on the periphery of Australian labour history interest and research. If as Markey suggests, that labour history has been important in defining the labour movement, it is essential that these broad areas of social concern be incorporated.[12] As Hyman reminds us ‘the present is historically conditioned and historically contingent’,[13] therefore it is essential labour history continues to broaden its intellectual agenda, so it can continue to enlighten contemporary debates with the ‘lessons from history’.


1.� G. Patmore, ‘Australia’, Labour/Le Travail, vol. 50, Fall 2002, p. 255.
2.� For discussions on the development of Australian labour history, see T. Irving ‘Introduction: Labour History, crisis and the public sphere’, in T. Irving (ed.), Challenges to Labour History, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1994, pp. 1–33; G. Patmore, ‘Australian Labor History’, International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 46, Fall 1994, pp. 161–171; G. Patmore, ‘Australia’, Labour/Le Travail, vol. 50, Fall 2002, pp. 255–260.
3.� R. Hyman, ‘Contribution to Review Symposium’, Industrial Relations, vol. 21, no. 1, 1982, p. 108.
4.� R. Markey, ‘The Relevance of Labour History to Contemporary Labour Relations in Australia’, Department of Economics, University of Wollongong, Economics Working Papers, WP 96–11, 1996, pp. 1–3.
5.� Y. Adeed and J. Bennett, ‘Annual Bibliography: British Labour History Publications 2001’, Labour History Review, vol. 67, no. 3, December 2002, pp. 323–345.
6.� See endnote 2.
7.� Patmore, ‘Australian Labor History’, p. 169.
8.�Ibid., p. 163.
9.� C. Wright, The Management of Labour: a History of Australian Employers, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995, p. 1.
10.� For labour process writers, see H. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: the Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1975; M. Burawoy, Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labour Process Under Monopoly Capitalism, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1979. For Australian writers on labour management practice, see Wright, The Management of Labour; P. Cochrane, ‘Company Time: Management, Ideology and the Labour Process, 1940–1960’, Labour History, no. 48, 1985, pp. 54–69; G. Reekie, ‘Humanising Industry: Paternalism, Welfarism and Labour Control in Sydney’s Big Stores 1890–1930’, Labour History, no. 53, 1987, pp. 1–19.
11.� Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training, Australia at Work: Just Managing?, Prentice Hall, Sydney, 1999.
12.� Markey, ‘The Relevance of Labour History’, p. 1.
13.� Hyman, ‘Contribution to Review Symposium’, p. 108.

By Melissa Kerr



Are you passionate about history?

Share that passion with the world. Join us: Contribute to History Cooperative