Labour History

The State, Labour and the Writing of Australian Labour History

Labour History (2011), 100, (1), 83–104.


A critical literature review of the influence of the twentieth century state in Australia on labour produces a number of findings. First, the disaggregated nature of that state - with its national, state and local levels each including various state ‘arms’ - has generated a multiplicity of outcomes and a diverse literature. Second, the field largely operates within a range of perspectives - pluralist, elite and class-based - that accepts and legitimates unions and state regulation that limits employer behaviour. Third, the neighbouring fields of economic history, political science, labour law and public administration have played crucial roles in shaping what we know about particular, important topic trends. For example, labour law has most to say on the matter of individual legal rights while public administration has contributed substantially on trends in public sector employment. Crucially important too has been the field of industrial relations where sustained - often longitudinal - institutional analysis and a greater propensity to theorising contribute greater breadth, consistency and sophistication. It is really on the topic of collective labour rights - most notably the roles and behaviours of arbitration tribunals and unions - that mainstream labour history, together with historically-sensitive industrial relations, have made major contributions. This reflects the reality that compulsory arbitration - through award-making on the terms and conditions of employment - was undoubtedly the most visible, pervasive and influential mechanism through which the state in Australia affected labour.

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Author details

Sheldon, Peter

Thornthwaite, Louise