The Little History of Australian Unionism

Sean Scalmer answers questions from Danielle Clark

Besides a “little history” what else can the reader expect to find within the pages of your book?

The book tries to explain why employees form unions; how they have been constrained or opposed by employers and governments; what they have won; and what is still to be fought for.


Why have you written The Little History of Australian Unionism and what do you hope to achieve through its publication?

My aims extend from the humble to the ridiculously ambitious. Starting small, I want to tell a simple and effective story that is little known. More ambitiously, I want to contribute to the battle to maintain a powerful union movement in this country. I hope that a successful volume might encourage other writers to focus on the stories and struggles of ordinary employees.
I also hope that if the book is able to circulate through trade-union networks it might encourage similar projects in the future (taking up issues besides ‘union history’).


It appears that you want to target an audience who wouldn’t already be exposed to the operations and achievements of unions in Australia. How do you envisage your book reaching these people and getting them to actually read it?

You raise a very interesting (and difficult) question. In some ways, there are sharp limits on what writers can do. We can’t demand that people read our books. Many people who I’d love to reach won’t be interested, or won’t be aware of the book, or won’t like it (even if they pick it up).


What can writers do? Specifically, what can I do in this book?

First, I will try to write as simply and accessibly as possible. Second, the book will be short. Third, it will be illustrated with cartoons and will be attractively designed. Fourth, it will be cheap. Fifth, and most importantly, the book will be distributed outside conventional channels.

Most books sit in bookstores that are patronised by the middle class (and the middle aged), hopefully this book will be distributed through trade unions themselves.


Do you see your book as a promotional tool for unions? In the sense that it will be publicising the benefits and achievements of Australian unionism, and therefore a tool that unions could potentially benefit from?

The Little History of Australian Unionism is designed as a promotional tool for unions . I hope to explain to a younger generation of Australians why unions exist; how they have been organised; and what they have achieved. The current industrial changes have made many more citizens conscious of the importance of ‘industrial relations’ and work.
There is a hunger for knowledge about these issues; the book is designed to satisfy at least part of that hunger.


Some people have suggested that in the current climate of industrial changes, with the new work place reforms being introduced, unions will slowly be phased out. Do you think unions will retain their authority and continue to be a key component in the workforce or will they be phased out once the position of power has shifted?

The fate of unionism is still open. For much of the twentieth century, employers and governments accepted the legitimacy of unions. However, this appears to have changed over the last 15 years or so. Many employers and conservative politicians no longer accept that unions are a legitimate presence in Australian society. At the same time, many of the workplaces that were strongholds of unionism (especially manufacturing; wharf-labouring; public sector employment) now employ fewer workers. The new jobs that have appeared in their place are often casual and part-time, and unions have struggled to connect with this new constituency.

The new legislation will make it much more difficult for unions to operate. The right to strike will be circumscribed; the ability of union officials to enter a workplace will be curtailed; the removal of ‘unfair dismissal’ protections will make it easier for hostile employers to victimise union members. However, this does not necessarily mean that unions will disappear. The union campaign against the legislation has been impressive; a large number of Australians continue to belong to unions; a larger number believe that unions play a vital role. Unions have resisted attacks in the past (and they do so in other countries, too). In this sense, the future of unionism is a story that still contains many possibilities.


Tell me a little bit about yourself in regards to your own history and involvement with unions.

I grew up in a family committed to unionism. My great grandfather’s membership ticket for the Waterside Workers’ Federation (the ‘wharfies’ union) was a prized possession. My father worked in many occupations, but especially as a labourer, truck driver and salesman. My mother worked as a typist and office worker. Both emphasised the value of unions, and Dad still works as a truck driver (and is a member of the Transport Workers’ Union).

My keen enthusiasm for unionism fed an interest in ‘labour history’ when I managed to go to University. While studying, I paid the bills working as a cleaner and a removalist. I joined the Miscellaneous Workers’ Union and the Transport Workers Union while on the job, and I was highly conscious of the protection that unions offered to me as a young and inexperienced employee. Today, I’m employed as a Lecturer, and I’m a proud member of the National Tertiary Education Union.’

I haven’t been a formal office-holder. However, I have been on strike as a removalist and an academic, and I’ve enjoyed the fruits of union victories. Writing The Little History is a way to communicate to others what unions can offer to us all. It’s also a way of using my own skills as a writer and researcher for the good of the cause.

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