Labour History

Arbitration or Collaboration? The Australasian Society of Engineers in South Australia, 1904-68

Labour History (2011), 101, (1), 123–144.


Although Australia’s metal trades unions have been extensively studied by historians, sociologists, and students of industrial relations, one of the two leading engineering unions in this country - the Australasian Society of Engineers (ASE) - has almost been totally ignored. Yet the ASE, most notably in South Australia, pursued a remarkably independent course with regard to political orientation and industrial relations, one that set it apart from not only other metal trades unions but also other state branches of the union. Well before the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s the ASE in South Australia had become a spearhead of anti-communism in that state and only a few years later a champion of a collaborationist approach toward leading employers. The union neither totally conforms to the ‘business unionism’ model formulated by American sociologist Selig Perlman nor fits neatly into either the mobilisational or arbitrationist moulds detailed by Australian industrial relations scholar Tom Bramble. Rather, it brings to mind claims made by Margaret Gardner and Gill Palmer that unions seldom start out with a well-thought-out strategy but rather develop one over a long period of time.

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1.Ken Buckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, 1852-1920,Australian National University,, 1970;T. Sheridan, Mindful Militants: The Amalgamated Engineering Union in Australia, 1920-1972,Cambridge University Press,, 1975;T. Sheridan, ‘The Amalgamated Engineering Union’, Labour History, no.17, November1969, pp.52-66;T. Sheridan, ‘Partial anatomy of a union: A sample of AEU recruiting, 1914-1952’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.14, no.3, September1972, pp.238-63;T. Sheridan, ‘Democracy among the aristocrats: Participation of members in the affairs of the AEU (Australian section) 1900-1972’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.21, no.2, June1979, pp.161-83;T. Sheridan, ‘Opposition, factions and candidates in AEU elections in Australia 1907-72’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.22, no.3, September1980, pp.293-311;J. Hutson, ‘The Amalgamated Engineering Union and arbitration in the 1920s’, Labour History, no.14, March1968, pp.50-53;Kouichi Inaba, Industrial Relations in the Australian Engineering Industry, 1920-1945:The Amalgamated Engineering Union and Craft Unionism, PhD thesis,Department of History and Politics, University of Wollongong, 1997. Google Scholar

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5.Sheridan, Mindful Militants, p.10; For the Electrical Trades Union seeArchie Dawson, Points and Politics: A History of the Electrical Trades Union of Queensland,Colonial Press,, 1977;Douglas Blackmur, ‘Industrial conflict in the public sector: The origins and nature of the 1985 Queensland electricity dispute’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol.48, no.2, June1989, pp.163-76;Anna Collins, 100 Years of Lighting the Way: The Electrical Trades Union in NSW,Focus Publishing,, 2002;Ken Purdham, A Century of Struggle: A History of the Electrical Trades Union of Australia, Victorian Branch,, 2002. On Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association of Australasia seeMalcolm McDonald, FEDFA: A Victorian Branch History, 1907-2005, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union,, 2005;Mark Westcott, ‘One of the boys or the common good? Workplace activism in the NSW branch of the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association’, Labour History, vol.91, November2006, pp.75-94. For the others seeGeoffrey Robinson, A History of the Newcastle Branch of the Boilermakers’ Society of Australia, 1877-1977, Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union,, 1977;W.J. Hargreaves, History of the Federated Moulders’ (Metals) Union of Australia, 1858-1958,Worker Print,, 1958. Google Scholar

6.Keith G. Goodwin, Pattern for Struggle, Information Division,Australasian Society of Engineers (ASE) (NSW branch),, 1968;‘History of Australasian Society of Engineers’, ASE Centenary Issue, June1990, pp.5-35. Google Scholar

7.Tom Bramble, ‘Australian union strategies since 1945’, Labour & Industry, vol.11, no.3, April2001, p.5ff. Google Scholar

8.Ibid., p.7. Google Scholar

9.Margaret Gardner andGill Palmer, Employment Relations: Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management in Australia, 2nd edn,Macmillan Education Australia,, 1997, p.113. Google Scholar

10.See, for example,Roy J. Adams, Industrial Relations under Liberal Democracy: North America in Comparative Perspective,University of South Carolina Press,, 1995, pp.41-44. Google Scholar

11.ASE, South Australia, Secretary’s report, 15December1947. See next endnote for further archival information. Google Scholar

13.John Miles, ‘Vivid reign of “Alby” Thompson’, Advertiser(), 24May1968, p.2;Stewart Cockburn, ‘Versatile mind and quick fists’, Advertiser(), 23November1982, p.4. Google Scholar

14.No one has yet written a lengthy and scholarly account of the ASE either nationally or in any of the states. The best source thus remains the union’s own collection of documentary snippets, that is,‘History of Australasian Society of Engineers’, ASE Centenary Issue, June1990, pp.5-35. Unless indicated otherwise, the next few paragraphs are based on information in this booklet;Ken Buckley was quite right when he pointed out that reports of the inaugural meeting of the ASE in Sydney in1890offer little evidence that the foundation members of the union wanted to break away from the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in Britain simply because they wanted autonomy; seeBuckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, pp.84-85. However,Buckley fails to appreciate the power of this myth in deterring the Australasian Society of Engineers over the next 100 years from returning to the fold, that is, to what was, from1920, called theAmalgamated Engineering Union (AEU);Sydney Morning Herald, 5February1890;Advertiser(), 28April1904. Google Scholar

15.‘History of Australasian Society of Engineers’, p.43. Google Scholar

16.See‘History of Australasian Society of Engineers’, passimbut especially pp.13-14;, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, ch. 7. Google Scholar

17.‘History of Australasian Society of Engineers’, p.43. Google Scholar

18.See‘Foundation of Adelaide branch’in‘History of Australasian Society of Engineers’, p.43;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 31May1936;31May1937. Google Scholar

19.Cockburn, ‘Versatile mind and quick fists’;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 31May1936;31May1937. Google Scholar

20.ASE (SA), Special executive meeting, 10April1938; Interview, Bruce Thompson (A.B. Thompson’s son), 10 February 2008. Google Scholar

21.ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 31May1938;ASE(SA), Secretary’s report, 31May1941; An entry on Thompson can be found in everyWho’s Who in Australiabetween1941and1965. Unfortunately most entries are either inaccurate or incomplete in a significant way. However, his two one-year presidencies of theUnited Trades and Labor Council (UTLC)have been confirmed by letter (Janet Giles toMalcolm Saunders, 9June2005). Janet Giles was the secretary of SA Unions in2005;Jan Brazier, ‘Dawes, Edgar Rowland (1902-1973)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.13,Melbourne University Press,, 1993, pp.592-593;Advertiser(), 31July1941, p.8;Australasian Engineer, 1September1941, p.126. Google Scholar

22.ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 30November1941;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 30November1943. Google Scholar

23.Sheridan, as mentioned before, has listed eight metal trades unions in Australia at this time, not all of which might have had a branch in South Australia. These were, besides the ASE and the AEU, the FederatedIronworkers’ Association; theBlacksmiths’ Society; theBoilermakers’ Society; the Moulders’ Union; the Electrical Trades Union; and theSheet Metal Working Industrial Union. (Not on Sheridan’s list was the Federated Engine Drivers’ and Firemens Association, which certainly had a branch in).Sheridan makes the point that the ASE and the AEU‘were direct rivals in their attempts to organise engineering workers’(Sheridan, Mindful Militants, pp.9-10); The above claims are supported by a thorough canvas of the minutes of ASE (SA) executive and branch meetings between1929and1939;Alastair Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History,Hoover Institution Press,, 1969, pp.75-76. Google Scholar

24.See, for instance, ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 21November1928. Google Scholar

25.See, for instance, ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 31May1940;Australasian Engineer, 1September1940, p.87. Google Scholar

26.John Scott toMalcolm Saunders, Correspondence, 7October2007(Scott was the secretary of the AEU in South Australia in the 1960s); In the winter of1941there was a great deal of correspondence betweenCharlie McCaffrey(in) andErnie Thornton(in) about the issue. (McCaffrey was the secretary of the South Australian branch of theFIA;Thornton was the federal secretary of theFIAand one of the leading Communists in Australia). See, especially,C. McCaffrey toE. Thornton, 17June1941, FIA(SA) files, in whichMcCaffrey describes Thompson’s action as‘one of the scabbiest things ever done in the Trades Union movement’. Google Scholar

27. Advertiser(), 27April1943, p.5;Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History, p.90;To all engineers. Leaflet advertising forthcoming meeting of ASE and AEU members, Trades Hall, Sunday14March1943, No date,;Engineers Amalgamation Committee: South Australia. Leaflet authorised byS.S. Gough for the Amalgamation Committee, No date,. Both leaflets can be found in the files of theFIA(SA). Google Scholar

28.Based on a thorough examination of the minutes of allASE (SA)executive and branch meetings between1941and1948;Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History, pp.80-84;Jim Moss, Representatives of Discontent: History of the Communist Party in South Australia, 1921-1981, The Communist and Labour Movement History Group,, 1983, p.29. Google Scholar

29.See, for instance, for the first eight months of1943alone, ASE (SA), Branch meeting, 19April1943;Executive meeting, 16June1943;Branch meeting, 21June1943;Branch meeting, 12July1943;Branch meeting, 23August1943. Google Scholar

30. Australasian Engineer, 1June1943, p.184;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 30November1943. Google Scholar

31.ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 2April1947. Google Scholar

32.ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 14May1947;ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 8March1950. Google Scholar

33. Australasian Engineer, 1June1940, p.66;ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 17August1942. Google Scholar

34.Eulogy delivered byBarton Pope at funeral ofA.B. Thompson on3December1982. Cassette recording given toMalcolm Saunders byCharmaine Reece, one of Thompson’s daughters;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 15December1947. Google Scholar

35. Advertiser(), 21February1948, p.1;Advertiser(), 28February1948, p.1. Google Scholar

36.Industrial agreement between theAustralasian Society of Engineersand Pope Products Limited, 10June1948, FIA(SA) files, NBAC. Curiously, the files of the ASE (SA) do not hold a copy of this crucial agreement whereas those of the FIA (SA) do;Advertiser(), 25June1948, p.1;Advertiser(), 17May1948, p.3. See also,David A. Horowitz andPeter N. Carroll, On the Edge: The US Since 1941,Wadsworth,, 1998, pp.100-101. Google Scholar

37. Advertiser(), 4December1948, p.3;News(), 4December1948, p.2;South Australian Tribune, 11March1949, p.5;Journal of Industry, vol.17, no.1, January1949, pp.1-2, 4, 7, 9, 21, 23-25;Journal of Industry, February1949, p.25. Google Scholar

38. Advertiser(), 4December1948, p.3;South Australian Tribune, 21January1949, p.1;South Australian Tribune, 14October1949, p.3. Google Scholar

39.D.W. Rawson, Unions and Unionists in Australia,Allen and Unwin,, 1978, pp.59-60. Google Scholar

40.FIA(SA), Executive meeting, 22June1948;Advertiser(), 3July1948, p.3;17July1948, p.3;D. McLelland toN. Maclean, 5October1948, FIA(SA) files;Advertiser(), 19February1949, p.1;ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 29June1949. Google Scholar

41.C. McCaffrey toE. Thornton, Correspondence, 30July1948, FIA (SA) files;Advertiser(), 19February1949, p.1;ASE (SA), Special executive meeting, 16February1949;ASE (SA), Special executive meeting, 18February1949. Google Scholar

42. Advertiser(), 14February1948, p.5;Labor News, March1948, p.5(Labor Newswas the monthly journal of theFIA);Advertiser(), 21July1948, p.5;Advertiser(), 15October1948, pp.1and6;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 20December1948;News(), 4December1948, p.2;6December1948, p.1;South Australian Tribune, 10December1948, p.8;17December1948, p.1. Google Scholar

43. News(), 6December1948, p.1; See especially,Miles, ‘Vivid reign of “Alby” Thompson’. Google Scholar

44. Australasian Engineer, June1949, p.470. Google Scholar

45. The Australasian Society of Engineers Federal Journal, November1960, p.23. Google Scholar

46. Advertiser(), 1August1947, p.2;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 21December1964. Google Scholar

47.ASE (SA), Special executive meeting, 16June1952;Advertiser(), 19September1952, p.4;6October1952, p.3;9October1952, p.3;28November1952, p.3;Australasian Engineer, December1952, pp.666-667;Advertiser(), 28April1955, p.6;22November1956, p.5. Google Scholar

48. Advertiser(), 26June1947, p.7;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 31May1945;Advertiser(), 11April1945, p.8;19April1945, p.5;Australasian Engineer, 20June1946, p.311;Australasian Engineer, March1958, p.3. Google Scholar

49.(J. Goss),‘A.B. Thompson resigns’, South Australian Engineer, September1968;News(), 26June1954, p.3;Australasian Engineer, June1954, p.3. Google Scholar

50. Advertiser(), 22November1956, p.5;Australasian Engineer, December1957, p.2;Australasian Engineer, June1954, p.3. Google Scholar

51.ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 18December1961;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 21December1953. Google Scholar

52.ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 22June1959. See alsoSheridan, Mindful Militants, p.294. Google Scholar

53.ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 21June1954;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 20December1954;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 16December1963;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 16July1956. Google Scholar

54. Australasian Engineer, June1950, p.531;ASE (SA), Secretary’s report, 24June1957;16December1957;Australasian Engineer, March1950, pp.516-517;ASE (SA), Executive meeting, 18September1946;Labor News, December1948, p.2; (Goss),‘A.B. Thompson resigns’. Google Scholar

55.Cockburn, ‘Versatile mind and quick fists’;Advertiser(), 5February1957, p.1;19February1957, p.6;16July1957, p.9;7June1958, p.3. Google Scholar

56. Australasian Society of Engineers, June1968, p.15;‘A.B. Thompson resigns’;‘Team work in industry’, Solidarity, March1950, p.31. See also‘Teamwork experts must be exposed: Worker shows why’, South Australian Tribune, 31March1950, p.4. Google Scholar

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Author details

Saunders, Malcolm

Lloyd, Neil