In the country’s first 60 years of colonisation, the Australian printing industry was mainly restricted to the publication of newspapers and official notices, with a small jobbing industry. The first print workers in Australia were immigrants from Britain, some of whom arrived as felons. Whether convict or free, all printers shared in the customs of the trade that provided a structural basis for the emergence of trade unionism. Each printing office had its own chapel, to which all workers belonged. An agreed set of rules, enforced by the father of the chapel, bound workers together in a tightly knit group through the exercise of workplace rituals and after-work socialising. Over time, these workplace groups—unique to the printing trade—began to assume industrial as well as social functions, with the father of the chapel representing workers in negotiations with employers.
From the outset, Australian unions were involved in political agitation to control the entry of labour to the colony and end the convict system. The use of excessive numbers of apprentices was an equally burning issue for printing workers in Australia, and the earliest industrial campaigns were directed at limiting the employment of boys to a fixed ratio of journeymen.
In the subsequent history of printing unions in Australia, these themes continued to resonate, although in changing form. The craft traditions of the typographers’ societies were preserved until well into the 20th century, with their position as the elite of the trades unchallenged until after World War II. Industrial and political organisation to restrict entry to the trade was part of this success, and from the 1880s the targets of this exclusion included women and girls as well as boys and less-trained males. Most famously, the Typographers’ Association resisted the attempts of the feminist publisher Louisa Lawson to employ women typographers on her journal the Dawn, physically harassing the women workers and refusing to admit them to membership even though they were paid male wages. Although admitted to union membership in the 20th century, women were still kept out of the craft jobs by a combination of male domination of the unions and support for men’s claims for a monopoly of certain work from the new industrial tribunals at both state and federal levels.
The late 19th century brought other challenges, as new technologies and working methods changed many of the older ways of working. For example, two-thirds of the compositors working on daily newspapers lost their jobs with the introduction of the linotype machine in the 1890s. Despite such dramatic short-term impacts, printers were more successful than most tradesmen in extracting benefits for themselves out of these changes in the form of higher earnings and shorter working hours, while increased production over the longer term offset initial job losses. The adoption of electronic printing technologies in the late 20th century presented similar challenges in fundamentally altering the old ways of composing and printing.
Meanwhile, after the gold rushes of the 1850s, other unions associated with the production of books, newspapers and other printed items proliferated. These unions included separate male and female bookbinding associations, cardboard box-making unions and general print unions that represented the non-craft workers.
The 20th century saw these unions amalgamate, first with each other at state and federal levels and then with other manufacturing unions outside printing. The Printing Industry Employees’ Union of Australia registered federally in 1917, but did not include the Victorian unions until the Victorian Branch of the Printing Industry Employees’ Union was formed in 1920 after the successive amalgamations of several Victorian printing unions. In 1966, the Printing Industry Employees’ Union of Australia changed its name to the Printing & Kindred Industries Union. In 1986, this union amalgamated with the Federated Photo Engravers, Photo-Lithographers & Photogravure Employees’ Association of Australia and in 1992 with the Victorian Printers Operatives’ Union, each time under the name of the Printing & Kindred Industries Union (PKIU). In 1995, the PKIU amalgamated with the Automotive Food Metals and Engineering Union to form the Automotive Food Metals Engineering Printing & Kindred Industries Union, otherwise known as the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union.
REFs: R. Frances, The Politics of Work (1993); J. Hagan, Printers and Politics (1966).