Thesis - From Servants to Citizens: A History of Victorian Public Service Unionism 1885-1946

By Dustin Halse

04 May 2015

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Abstract

The history of Victorian departmental public service unionism had its genesis in the era of ‘New Unionism’ in the 1880s. On 17 June 1885, a group of approximately 1,000 Victorian public servants packed into Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre to create Australia’s first state departmental public service union. And yet despite its age, Victorian departmental public service unionism has seldom been the subject of serious historical analysis. It has alternatively been posited that public servants are devoid of the ‘bonds of class feelings’. Public servants have commonly been treated as a residual class in both Marxist and non-Marxist labour history writings. This dissertation therefore fills an obvious lacuna in Australian trade union historiography. It focuses on the experiences of ordinary Victorian public service unionists and the actions of the various configurations of Victorian service unionism from 1885-1946. The central argument of this history is that public service unionists, with the aid of the public service union, challenged the theoretical and practical limitations placed upon their political and industrial citizenship. Indeed, public servants refused to accept the traditional ‘servant’ stereotype. Throughout this dissertation the regulations governing the unique employment status of public servants are revealed. What becomes evident is that public service unionists are frequently subjected to extreme levels of political coercion as a direct result of the historical influence of the master and servant legacy. Successive governments were reluctant to frame public servants as industrial employees and thus they continually thwarted the attempts public service unionists to secure expanded industrial rights and recognition.

The themes of growth, crisis and regeneration are apparent throughout this history. In the six decade period under investigation the public service union and its members are forced to navigate through two major economic Depressions and a hostile political environment. At first the union fixed its focus upon the establishment of political rights for public service employees. This campaign successfully concludes in 1916 and the attention of the union turns then to organisational expansion and the imposition of a range of industrial rights. The hopes of the public service union and its members are periodically spiked in line with the intermittent parliamentary advances of the Victorian Labor Party. By the mid-point of the 1940s the decades long campaign of public service unionists for expanded industrial rights is poised for success. Throughout this history it is obvious that bonds of class feeling, while periodically tested, were developed among public servants and a unique public service work culture was forged.

Read my thesis here.