Workers' control: aspects of Australian industrial relations in the 1970s
thesisposted on 02.03.2017, 23:20 by Oldham, Sam
From the late 1960s, Australian trade unions expanded their prerogatives to encroach upon the traditional concerns of employers and governments, in a tendency described as ‘workers’ control’. This thesis aims to reconstruct the history of workers’ control as it existed in the Australian metal trades, from the late 1960s, when it emerged amid social and labour unrest generally, to the late 1970s, when it was submerged beneath the weight of recession, mass unemployment, and a renewed employer offensive. It is observed that metal workers asserted growing levels of control over ‘hiring and firing’, industrial health and safety, the labour process, and social and political affairs beyond their individual enterprises. In isolated cases, metal workers took full control over their enterprises in fleeting moments of self-management. It is argued that workers’ control, in its emphasis on shop committees and direct action at the enterprise, aligns with older traditions of syndicalism and radical unionism. Workers’ control is largely neglected in existing labour historiography. Historians who have given it attention have tended to dismiss it as ‘faddish’, intrinsically limited, and ultimately unviable as a strategy for economic and social transformation. In reconstructing the history, this thesis aims to redeem workers’ control by suggesting that it did not fail as a result of inherent shortcomings, but due to a concerted attack on shop committees and trade unions by the organised employing class, among other forces imposed upon it. Workers’ control therefore maintains a core of viability for contemporary and future labour organising.