Industry and its relationship with colonial progress became an enduring theme for newspapers throughout the 19th century. Newspapers, and later radio, television and digital products, traditionally have framed industrial reports around disputes over wages and conditions. Reports have applied this template assiduously from the reporting of the first strikes in colonial Sydney. Not surprisingly, unions have applied their template to these reports—one which sees newspapers siding with employers.
When the Melbourne Argus wrote critically about trade unions, Charles Jardine Don, the leader of the Masons Society and the Eight Hour Labor League, wrote to defend himself and his union in November 1859, maintaining that the Argus had ‘abandoned all hope of seeing capital and labour on permanently good terms’ and identifying another aspect of industrial disputes: press bias.
By the 1890s, workers were better organised, and had their own newspapers and legitimacy afforded by legislation. In a population of just over three million, more than 200,000 workers had joined one of the 1400 trade unions. Many unions wrote about workers from their own perspective in their own labour press. The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) published two newspapers, the Australian Worker in New South Wales and the Worker in Brisbane. Writer and propagandist Henry Boote edited both papers between 1916 and 1943.
Strikes in the 1890s saw lines harden between capital and labour. The four Great Strikes of the 1890s—the Maritime Strike (1890), the Shearers’ Strikes (1891 and 1894) and the Broken Hill Miners Strike (1892)—provided much copy for newspapers. Non-union papers largely took the side of employers, while union papers understandably supported strikers. Cartoons and photographs now began to complement news stories and editorials.
One paper, the Critic (1903–31), an independent newspaper in Central Queensland, talked of the ‘Fat Press’, while reinforcing other main-stays of the labour movement—scab labour, the White Australia policy, industrial progress and the support of conservative political forces for atrocious working conditions. It also reproduced stories from the United States about how employers had broken strikes.
By the 20th century, industrial reporting was a regular feature of newspapers. Unions and the ALP continued to pursue better working conditions and pay. When Justice H.B. Higgins, President of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, handed down his basic wage case in 1907, neither disputes nor their news coverage abated. Moviegoers had seen both industrial developments and disputes between 1913 and 1932 on the silent Australasian Gazette newsreel and news with sound with the Cinesound Review and the Fox Movietone News from the early 1930s to 1970. Radio had covered progress and disputes since its inception in 1923, and from 1946 provided parliamentary broadcasts on the ABC.
With sound, moving pictures and an improved capacity to reproduce photographs in newspapers, reporting became more dramatic. The Dalfram dispute at Port Kembla in 1938 typified this transformation. Footage and photographs of unionists heckling conservative Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies travelled around the world.
Strike reportage did not always describe the reasons for industrial action. When more than half Melbourne’s police force went on strike in October and November 1923, rioters and looters took to the streets and caused damage and mayhem. Three people died and thousands of volunteer constables struggled to maintain order. Melbourne’s Camperdown Chronicle thundered: ‘The shocking incidents associated with the strike of police in Melbourne form the blackest page in the history of Australia and will be deeply regretted by every Australian except those of the criminal classes.’ The reasons for the strike—pay, conditions and a pension scheme—were lost in the coverage of the riots and damage. As strikes developed, often their origins became blurred and replaced by more sensational reports. A demonstration at the Rothbury mine over pay and conditions that lasted more than 14 months (1929–30) was largely remembered for the death of a young miner who was shot when police fired on the demonstration.
Industrial reports were not restricted to populated urban areas or industries with radical pasts. Pay and conditions for Indigenous pastoral workers had largely escaped popular industrial reports. However, in 1946 when workers walked off stations in Western Australia’s Pilbarra over pay and conditions, it had unforeseen consequences. The strike lasted more than three years and, while workers won award rates, it contributed more significantly to issues such as cultural and human rights. It led to an internet appeal to the United Nations about the treatment of Australia’s Aborigines. The journalist Douglas Lockwood wrote in the Adelaide News in November 1946: ‘This is probably the most smashing indictment of our treatment of aborigines ever to be made. The matter is now on an international basis, and it would not be surprising if soon there should be unfavorable world publicity about our two-faced democracy.’ The same industrial issues emerged in 1966 when stockmen at Gurindji in the Northern Territory walked off Wave Hill Station. Far too nuanced for many newspapers, this was reported as an industrial dispute, if at all. Yet the land claims were pursued in some newspapers, including the communist Tribune and the Canberra Times.
Occasionally, industrial reporting highlighted a dispute by examining an individual. When Clarrie O’Shea of the Australian Tramways and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association refused court access to union records and also refused to pay court fines in 1969, he became the first unionist imprisoned for contempt. Mass protests followed, one million workers struck in support and one media figure played a significant role. Dudley MacDougall, a former executive of the Australian Financial Review, paid the fines and O’Shea was released.
In the 1980s, the industrial and political New Right began using section 45D of the Trade Practices Act 1974 and common law to challenge union power. Reports of the disputes at the Mudginberri abattoir in the Northern Territory and at Dollar Sweets in Melbourne were framed around wages, conditions and the rights of unions and employers. Magazines such as Business Review Weekly, television programs such as Four Corners and the Nine Network’s Sunday, and radio programs such as the ABC’s Background Briefing, less constrained by tight deadlines and circulation imperatives, teased out a different story. Pay and conditions were replaced by a battle for union survival and a hard-line conservative ambition to break union power.
Sometimes industrial action challenged reporting. In the 1970s, the NSW branch of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation imposed ‘Green Bans’ on projects that either compromised the environment and/or Sydney’s built heritage. Newspapers often inaccurately described this as ‘industrial’ action.
By the mid-1980s, the Australian media were regularly covering major national wage cases. National papers—the Australian and the Australian Financial Review—had more than one journalist covering industrial relations out of Melbourne, where the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and the ACTU were based. The Sydney Morning Herald posted a senior specialist journalist to the southern city in 1985. Negotiations between the Hawke Labor government, the ACTU and business groups to develop a Prices and Incomes Accord during the 1980s—much of it undertaken between Melbourne and Canberra—confirmed the wisdom of this strategy. The Accord went through eight major renegotiations over almost a decade. However, over time, the importance of national wage negotiations and cases waned under the pressure for a more decentralised enterprise bargaining approach and the slow decline of unionisation, especially in the private sector. Specialist ‘industrial relations’ journalists were increasingly replaced by ‘workplace’ writers whose focus was more on human resources than the tension between organised labour and capital.
REFs: J. Harris, The Bitter Fight (1970); J. Isaac and S. Macintyre (eds), The New Province for Law and Order (2004).