The evolution of industrial modernity in late 19th-century Australia stimulated the establishment of the Australian labour press. The mobilisation of the new unionism in the mass-employment industries that developed in the Australian colonies from the 1880s provided a readership of sufficient scale to facilitate the launch of trade union-based journals, including the New South Wales Railway and Tramway Review (1888–92), sponsored by the fledgling NSW Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Association, and the Hummer (1891–92), the voice of the Wagga Wagga pastoral workers.
New cost-effective technologies of typesetting and printing, and the availability of cheap newsprint, stimulated opportunities for new titles. The economic grievances triggered by industrialisation provoked the movement’s political mobilisation and fuelled an assertive and idealistic labour press. The voice of the working class emerged in the public sphere in unprecedented scale and variety: articles, letters and poetry poured forth from hands formerly discouraged from self-expression. Editor of Queensland’s the Worker (1890–1974), William Lane, proved the outstanding propagandist of the early labour narrative: socialism as the unity of mates, organised to advance the interests and identity of a white working class.
The labour press replicated the predominantly male culture of the union movement and the nascent Labor Party, although working-class women carved an editorial space for themselves, including Rose Summerfield, using the labour press as a tool for organising laundresses in the 1890s. The heterodox nature of Australian labour, from its radicals to its pragmatists, was reflected in the lively debates of its press; the commercialised nature of the Australian public sphere also infiltrated the labour press from its origins. The Shearers’ and General Laborers’ Record (1891–93) and the Australian Workman (1890–97) respectively provided a voice for pastoral workers and the unions organising as affiliates of the NSW Trades and Labour Council (TLC); these publications were also intended to be viable commercial enterprises generating profit from sales and advertising. The economic depression of the 1890s saw many labour publications either permanently or temporarily fold.
The labour press revival from the turn of the century was typified by the professionalism of Hector Lamond, editor and later business manager of Sydney’s the Worker (1892–1913). Published by the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), the Worker developed a sharp pragmatic style of journalism, expanding its range and audience with Norman Lilley’s regular page on Australian and international literature, and (Dame) Mary Gilmore’s Women’s Page (1908–31). The Worker pioneered new labour press standards of design and black and white art, particularly in the stylish illustrations provided by Claude Marquet, deflating the bloated pretensions of ‘fat man’ capital. Yet wide planes of display advertising often confined the articles into narrow funnels: the journal had to pay its way. The Worker was distributed across New South Wales and beyond the labour movement, ambitiously expanding its title to become the Australian Worker (1913–93). ‘The Worker was a power then,’ Gilmore recalled, and Brisbane’s the Worker and Kalgoorlie’s Westralian Worker (1900–51) extended labour movement power on a national scale, enhanced in Victoria by Tocsin (1897–1906) and the Labor Call (1906–53), and the Weekly Herald in South Australia (1894–1910). The reach of the labour movement’s message played a vital role in the movement’s mobilisation in federal politics following Federation, and in the election of the second Fisher Labor government in 1910—the first genuinely national political force controlling both houses of parliament.
The growth of the labour press was constrained by the prohibitive cost of producing daily newspapers, including the cost of cable news subscription. Access to news transmitted via the global cable network was vital for any significant expansion of the labour press, and its ability to articulate the movement’s response to an era marked by the unprecedented development of industrial capitalism. From 1910, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher urged the creation of a network of labour dailies around the Commonwealth to counter a mainstream press that supported conservative politics. In South Australia, the Daily Herald (1910–24) replaced the weekly edition. Fisher’s predecessor as Labor leader, John Christian Watson, retired from politics in 1910 and became the managing director of Labor Papers Ltd, dedicated to the launch of the World, a labour daily sponsored by the AWU and other unions. Sufficient capital was raised to fund the construction of Macdonell House, a purpose-built Sydney headquarters. The Fisher government supported the establishment of the Independent Cable Association, of which Watson was a shareholder, as a rival to the cable cartel dominated by the established press empires. State-of-the-art printing presses were imported from the United States but the imminent publication of the World was forestalled by the outbreak of World War I in August 1914.
Prime Minister William Hughes’ attempts to impose conscription for overseas military service via plebiscites in 1916 and 1917 spilt the labour movement. The mainstream press united in editorial support of Hughes; the labour press provided the dissenting voice. The Australian Worker’s editor, Henry Boote, defied prosecution under the War Precautions Act 1914, excoriating Hughes as a ‘miniature Nero’, while cartoonist Claude Marquet portrayed Hughes nailing shut ‘The Case for Labor’—the lid of a coffin. The plebiscites were lost but the labour movement drifted in division, as the Bolshevik revolution in Russia stimulated the formation of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). From 1923 the CPA’s Workers Weekly (Tribune from 1939) urged a radical path for the labour movement, and repudiation of key tenets—industrial arbitration and the White Australia policy. Common Cause (1920– ), the journal of the Miners Federation, emerged as another radical voice on organised labour’s Left. So did the Railroad, the journal of the Australian Railways Union in NSW, edited by Lloyd Ross, which pioneered innovative techniques in the 1930s for exploiting the union journal as a weapon in support of industrial campaigns—rights for women employed in Railway Refreshment Rooms, and ‘The Red Roll’ highlighting unsafe conditions for fettlers maintaining rail lines.
While union in-fighting in the post-war years had further delayed publication of the World, the Labor Daily was published in New South Wales from 1922. Supported by the NSW TLC and the political machine of NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang, the Labor Daily provided an alternative to the mainstream press during the years of the Great Depression, but suffered from the bitter factionalism of NSW Labor, impacting on both profitability and appeal. The Labor Daily slipped away in 1938, along with Lang’s overbearing influence. The World was finally launched as the Depression intensified in 1931; the paper folded in November 1932. Subsequently, the World’s production resources were sold to (Sir) Frank Packer’s Consolidated Press Ltd and Macdonell House became the home of the Australian Women’s Weekly.
The prosperity of post-World War II Australia, the growing maturity of radio broadcasting and the emergence of television from 1956 all seemed to inhibit the reach of the labour press beyond the limits of the movement, and as a dynamic voice of its members. Union journals were often colonised by cribbed boxes of ‘tombstone’ display advertising, and padded out with perfunctory reports of arbitration proceedings and slabs of industrial award data. The 1950s split over Labor’s industrial group campaigns against communist-controlled unions stimulated some divisive political energy in the labour press: in 1954, the Australian Worker’s front page ‘unmasked’ B.A. Santamaria (‘Santa-Stiletto’) orchestrating a Catholic Social Studies Movement takeover of Labor. The split provided the last great cataclysm of Labor’s fractious industrial culture.
The conditions that had stimulated the growth of the movement and its press seemed increasingly marginalised in the evolving consumerism of the 1960s. From the 1970s, an accelerating fall in manufacturing sector employment eroded union membership. In 1987, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) responded to membership decline with Future Strategies for the Trade Union Movement, recommending amalgamations to pool resources and industrial strength. The loss of distinctive union identity that at times accompanied amalgamation was symbolised in the extinction of long-established journals. Labor News, launched by the Federated Ironworkers’ Association in 1943, disappeared within the Australian Worker in 1993. The Metal Worker (1980–2000) survived the amalgamation of manufacturing industry unions and Hard Hat, published by the construction industry union, emerged in 2003 to join it as a pugnacious voice of the industrial left. Other radical voices fell silent: the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall also collapsed Tribune, which ceased publication in 1991.
A new wave of global capitalism, triggered by the end of communism and stimulated by new technology, also enabled innovative forms of the labour press to emerge. Personal computers and software in the mid-1980s provided fresh platforms for cost-effective page design, and promoted a greater diversity of printed labour movement communications. From 1991, the internet provided another platform for communication, via websites, email and social media. These technological developments stimulated commercial relationships between the labour movement and service providers; a new generation of consultancies emerged to provide communication services for unions and the ALP. The ‘labour press’ is now constituted by this heterogenous vibrancy, contesting and accommodating the commercialised culture within which it functions.
REFs: F. Bongiorno, ‘Constituting Labour: The Radical Press in Victoria, 1885–1914’, in A. Curthoys and J. Schultz (eds), Journalism (1999); M. Hearn, ‘The Benefits of Industrial Organisation? The Second Fisher Government and Fin de siècle Modernity in Australia’, Labour History, 102 (2012); R.B. Walker, Yesterday’s News (1980).