Interconnected Oligarchy: The New South Wales Labor Party and the Trade Unions from 1910 to 1939

The period from 1910 to 1939 was one of the most turbulent chapters in New South Wales (NSW) labour history. It was defined by intense ideological conflict, winner-take-all factional warfare, widespread accusations of corruption, and multiple Labor Party splits. Intertwined within these issues were questions of democracy and oligarchy within the movement. Questions, that is, of the extent to which ordinary trade union and Labor Party members should control labour institutions.

Democracy within unions and parties means control by the ordinary members and, where necessary, their accountable representatives. Oligarchy sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from democracy and entails organisational domination by a small group of leaders. This thesis focuses on the tensions and struggles between democracy and oligarchy within interconnected labour organisations. Events inside one major organisation affected what happened inside the others and my study is therefore relational and comparative, examining the Australian Workers Union (AWU), the Miners Federation and the NSW Labor Party.

This pre-submission paper will outline my project and present my arguments and conclusions. I argue that the NSW Labor Party was an interconnected oligarchy, both influencing and influenced by its affiliated trade unions. These influences were complicated and sometimes counterintuitive. At times the effects were straightforward, with organisations and leaders transposing their own methods into another organisation, but in other instances the involvement of oligarchical unions and union leaders enhanced democracy within the Labor Party and vice versa.

Scott Stephenson is a PhD student in the School of History. He has published articles in Labour History and the Australian Journal of Political Science and in 2015 Labour History awarded him the Gollan Prize. Scott has also written a chapter for a forthcoming book on comparative labour history in Australia and the United States. He completed Honours in History at ANU where he received the Eric Fry Research Grant and his thesis won the David Campbell Prize and the Mick Williams Prize.

Obedience was a virtue within the oligarchical AWU, Australian Worker, 23 July 1930, 19.

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Wed 14 Sep 2016, 4.15–5.30pm


McDonald Room, Menzies Library, ANU

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