Labour History

Taking Control: The Work-In Phenomenon in the Australian Metal Trades, 1969–78

Labour History (2015), 109, (1), 93–109.


During the union upsurge of the early 1970s, the “work-in” became a term to describe actions during which workers continued work in defiance of retrenchment. This article analyses the contours of the work-in phenomenon during this period as it occurred in the Australian metal trades. It is observed that the work-in was not only occasionally successful as a tactic for reversing retrenchments, but, in many cases, was expressive of an impulse among workers to challenge or subvert capitalist relations of production. The work-in phenomenon at times circulated with ideas of self-management and even worker ownership, in a tendency referred to by left-wing unionists as “workers’ control.” Shop committees were the basis of the work-in tactic, and a contest developed between the power of unionists and capitalist authority at the enterprise level, of which the work-in was indicative. The study draws on rank-and-file sources, including the Victorian metal worker journal, Link, and records of the Communist Party of Australia. These sources are used to give an overview of developments hitherto neglected in radical historiographies of the period. Work-ins and worker ownership have become resurgent features of industrial action since the global recession of 2008, giving presentist value to an analysis of the 1970s.

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Author details

Oldham, Sam