Labour History Books and News

There is a rich literature on the history of labour.

Terry Irving reviews the beginnings of union news here

This guide will barely scratch the surface of the many books but may give a few tips on our favourites


bitter fight

Our favourite labour history publication is The Bitter Fight: a Pictorial History of the Australian Labour Movement by Joe Harris (UQP, 1970). It has an extraordinary compilation of images and great short notes on many, many events in our history of struggle for a just society. Harris was driven to it by a union official asking him who Charles Don was, when Harris was taking a photo of his bust at Melbourne Trades Hall I didn’t know that Don was a stonemason in Australia, but had been a handloom weaver from Fife, where he joined the chartist movement and emigrated to Australia in 1842. He was backed by Melbourne unions into the Legislative Assembly in 1857).

Harris has combed many collections throughout Australia for a marvellous book ranging from convictism to the 1920s. He has uncovered many items which are now accessible via trove (a national pictorial and other website covering collections across Australia. But Harris did it with his own boot leather and patience.

Ian Turner (and later editions with Leonie Sandercock) wrote In Union Is Strength in the 1970s and it remains an excellent short history of Australian unions. Turner was inspired by Brian Fitzpatrick’s Short History of the Australian Labor Movement (1940)

Sean Scalmer produced The Little History of Australian Unionism, Melbourne: The Vulgar Press, 2006

Ian Syson who began Vulgar Press commissioned some great histories of radical movements. Radical Melbourne (vols 1 and 2) by Jill and Jeff Sparrow, Radical Brisbane by edited by Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier. Radical Sydney by Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving was eventually published by UNSW Press. Rowan and Terry continue the work at

Andrew Reeves put together a good short history covering the development of a national movement, labour cartoonists, the influence of mining unionism and the eight hours movement, called Another Day Another Dollar: Working Lives in Australian History (MCCulloch Publishing, 1988). He was also the co-author with Ann Stephen of Badges of Labour Banners of Pride: Aspects of Working Class Celebration (Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and Allen & Unwin)

Liquor Trades, 1947
Liquor Trades, 1947

Unions have individual histories with William Guthrie Spence The History of the A.W.U (1911) being the classic. The AWU has recently republished this.

Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles produced a different story One Big Union: A History of the Australian Workers Union 1886-1994 (Cambridge Uni Press) in 1996

As did John Merritt in 1986 with The Making of the AWU (Oxford Uni Press)

Jim Hagan wrote a History of the ACTU for the 50th anniversary in 1977 (actually published by Longman Cheshire in 1981) and a shorter version too.

For younger people Macmillan published Trade Unions by Michael Dugan in 1981 as part of its Factfinder series.

Woman and work and Trade Unions. The classic is Edna Ryan and Ann Conlon, (1975), Gentle Invaders. Australian Women at Work 1788-1974 (Nelson, 1975). Zelda D’Aprano has written an excellent book on equal pay too: Kath Williams: The Unions And The Fight For Equal Pay (Spinifex Press, 2001)

More recently the work of Barbara Pocock has been setting the standards for research and advocacy. Her latest is Time Bomb: Work, Rest and Play in Australia today, co-authored with Natalie Skinner and Pip Williams, is published in 2012 by New South Press.

The Best Hated Man in Australia: the Life and Death of Percy Brookfield 1875-1921 is a recent telling of the tragic story of a remarkable unionist from Broken Hill. (Puncher and Wattman, 2010. Also Labor’s Titan: the story of Percy Brookfield, 1878-1921; by Gilbert Giles Roper edited by Wendy and Allan Scarfe. (Warrnambool Institute Press, 1983. Brookfield was certainly a supporter of syndicalist and the Wobblies.brookfield-book

Other great histories of this Silver, Sin and Sixpenny Ale: a social history of Broken Hill, 1883-1921 by Brian Kennedy (Melbourne Uni Press, 1978)

The Industrial History of Broken Hill by George Dale (Melbourne: Fraser and Jenkinson, 1918; facsimile edition by the Library Board of South Australia 1965) is a wonderfully political, unashamed industrial unionist book by a person who was involved in most of the events described.

Sydney’s Burning by Ian Turner (Alpha Books, 1969) is a forensic examination of the accusations and defences of the IWW 12.

Revolutionary Industrial Unionism by Verity Burgmann (Cambridge Uni Press, 1995) is a terrific account of the rise and fall and the legacy of the Wobblies and syndicalism.iww-book










On organising in our current travails try Michael Crosby Power at Work: rebuilding the Australian Union Movement (Federation Press, 2005)