The Northern Territory's one big union
: the rise and fall of the North Australian Workers' Union, 1911-1972

  • Bernard Norman Brian

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    This thesis examines the contribution of the labour movement to Northern Territory (NT) history by investigating the origins and evolution of the largest and longest surviving trade union, the North Australian Workers’ Union (NAWU). To do so, it is also necessary to study those unions preceding the NAWU because they developed the structures, practices and leadership that were incorporated into the NAWU when it was formed in 1927. The study also attempts to uncover Darwin’s working class past and to shift the preoccupation of NT historiography away from stories of pioneers and settlers. It is essentially an organisational history, but one influenced by ‘new’ labour history. That is, it attempts to draw out the relationships between the union, its membership and the community from which it emerged. By contextualising the union within the broader community of the Territory, something of the cultures of the working class beyond the walls of the union office and Arbitration Court will be revealed.

    The thesis challenges two themes that have emerged from the few existing histories of the Territory union movement, namely its militancy and its racial tolerance. Neither of these conclusions is upheld by close examination of the historical record. When unions did resort to militant action it was often a defensive reaction against management attempts to erode established wages and conditions. More often than not, these disputes were resolved through the channels of the arbitration system.

    At times, Territory workers were involved in supporting civil rights for non-Anglo-Irish workers but at other times, racist bigotry was at the forefront of union discourse. For nearly 40 years the union barred members of the so-called ‘coloured’ races from membership. For the most part the union movement was not interested in the plight of Aboriginal workers except for when they competed with ‘white’ union members for jobs. The only exception to this was when members of the Communist Party were leading the union in the period immediately after the Second World War.

    There is much that is different about the Territory from other parts of the country – a harsh environment, geographic isolation, a weak and distant state authority, limited amenities and i an ‘undisciplined’, male dominated, itinerant working class. However, this thesis suggests that the evolution of the NAWU and its predecessors was mainly influenced by national factors for three main reasons. Firstly, from 1911-1978, the Federal government administered the Territory and for most of this period the government was the main employer. Secondly, by virtue of the Northern Territory Administration Act, the Commonwealth Arbitration Court/Commission was responsible for regulating wages and conditions and settling industrial disputes in the Territory. Thirdly, the majority of workers in the Territory were from elsewhere and they brought with them the ideas and practices of the union movement from other parts of Australia and the world.
    Date of Award2001
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorDavid Carment (Supervisor)

    Cite this