Remembering the Labor Press

In his Labor in Print (1975), H.J. Gibbney listed 488 newspapers published by the labor movement in Australia between 1850 and 1939.

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Terry Irving reminds us of the long history of union publishing

We are familiar with the idea that the press in democratic societies is ‘the fourth estate’, a vital forum in which the people can call their rulers to account.

This long history of the labor press also reminds us that, from time to time, popular movements have to set up their own press to counter the tendency for the established media to forget their democratic purpose.

In Australian history the first of those moments was in the 1840s, when trade unions began to make an impact on public life, linking up with radical organisations to agitate for land reform, public works for the unemployed, and an end to convict transportation. In that decade there were probably more newspapers published in Sydney (whose population exploded from 30,000 to 50,000) than in any other comparably sized city in the world.

We recall that The Sydney Morning Herald first came out in 1843, but forget that its elitist espousal of the interests of merchants and shopkeepers provoked a vigorous opposition press.

The Mutual Protection Association, which took up the issue of unemployment, published the Guardian in 1844. The titles of The Star and Workingman’s Guardian, and The People’s Advocate indicate their stance clearly enough.

In 1850 the most substantial of all Sydney’s democratic papers appeared, The Empire, published by a radical tradesman from Birmingham, Henry Parkes.

By the late 1880s, the time had come for ‘the second bite at political democracy’ (as Manning Clark called it) and another bust of popular publishing. Henry Parkes was no longer the fiery radical, and ‘the people’ were excluded from parliament by plural voting, a gerrymandered distribution of seats, and the cost of electioneering.

Moreover, after a generation of rapid economic expansion it was time for ‘social’ democracy. Only a handful of skilled building workers had the eight hour day, there was no system of social security, taxation was optional for the rich, and working conditions were largely unregulated.

Worried by signs that the good times were coming to an end, working people embraced trade unionism and looked to the labor press for a lead. Perhaps half of the newspapers listed by Gibbney were published between 1890 and 1920.

Unions needed to listen to and organise their own members, so most of the larger unions had weekly or monthly papers. In particular, the miners, printers, seamen, railwaymen, ironworkers and engineers laid the foundations in this period of long-running and lively publications.

A different sort of paper emerged when labor supporters made the local rag a voice for the movement. As Gibbney’s list reveals, there were many such ‘labor communities’ in the suburbs and country towns: the Carlton Advertiser and Trades Advocate; Westgate Weekly News; Barrier Daily Truth; Grenfell Vedette; Murray Independent; Queanbeyan Leader, and so on.

Politics, too, fertilised the labor press. Every political tendency in the movement felt that it could not exist without a periodical; indeed, producing and selling the paper was for some socialist groups their only sign of life. The Labor Party in New South Wales made a serious attempt at a newspaper between 1918 and 1924 with its Labor News, but subsequently the party contented itself with a more modest series of periodicals.

Most ambitious of all were the papers that sought to speak for the whole labor movement. The key here was to get agreement from a range of unions to underwrite and promote the paper. This was difficult, but the logic of belonging to a ‘movement’ demanded that it be done. Notable papers of this kind were Australian Workman (1890-1897), with New South Wales Trades and Labor Council involvement, and the Labor Daily (1922-1938), which was financed mainly by the Miners’ Federation.

The factional position of the miners’ union, however, meant inevitably that unions in the opposing faction would seek to promote a rival paper. This brings us to the best known of all labor papers, The Worker, published by the Australian Workers’ Union.

Beginning in Wagga in 1892 as The Hummer, this paper promoted itself from 1905 as the ‘official organ of the Trade Union and Labor Organisations’. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the movement divided about whether to support the officially endorsed attempt by the AWU to set up a national chain of labor dailies. In the end, this factional warfare combined with mismanagement and commercial pressures killed the opportunity for a viable daily labor press.

Against this disappointment however must be set the achievement represented by many hundreds of labor publishing efforts. These attempts exemplified the resourcefulness, creativity and co-operative strength of the labor movement.

The pride that labor people felt in their press is wonderfully expressed in the ‘Special Double Moving-In Number’ of The Worker, published on September 2, 1905. Almost the whole front page was taken up with an engraving of the new three-storey Worker building at 129 Bathurst Street. Inside a photo-story revealed the technical and organisational advances in the building.

‘Electrical communication between floors effects a great economy in time and saves much unnecessary stair climbing’. There were lavatories on each floor, and ‘to the dismay of an unclean contemporary, there is a bath on the first floor’. But greatest pride was taken in the two linotype machines, ‘the most wonderful invention of the last century’.

The movement was embracing the latest technology, and doing it in a labor way, as the writer made clear: ‘These are the only linotypes in Australia which fulfil the real purpose of machinery in a well-ordered community. Every advantage they bring is reaped by the whole of the Worker readers.’

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