09 November 2014

How Politics and Capitalism Hold Classism in Place

This is the text of a talk given by Susan Nulsen preceding a talk by Tim McCarthy in the Fall 2014 
WomenExplore series on the theme of Class and Privilege through a Feminist Lens

Susan Nulsen was born and brought up in Australia. She moved to England for nine years after her marriage and before returning to Australia with her husband to bring up her two children. She has now been living in the US for over ten years.
That seems to be a very difficult topic to speak on from a personal point of view. I have three stories.
1) My thoughts immediately went to the Great Shearers' Strike of 1891 in Queensland which, tradition has it, led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party.
Working conditions for sheep shearers in 19th century Australia were not good. This strike began in January 1891 when members of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union refused to sign the contracts offered to them by the manager of a sheep station (Logan Downs Station) owned by the enormously wealthy Fairbairn family. This family owned, or had substantially stakes, in at least 28 properties carrying around three million sheep. The shearers were refusing to work with non-union labour. They saw a “closed shop” as protecting the wages that had been achieved through collective bargaining. The shearers insisted on a minimum rate of 20 shillings per 100 sheep. The pastoralists objected to the word “minimum”. Backed by the Fairbairn family, the pastoralists' association set out to break the union.
The pastoralists organized shiploads of strike breakers from Victoria to the south. The government deployed the military to escort these blacklegs to and from the sheep stations. The unionists were generally non-violent; their main weapon was verbal persuasion, or “suasion” as they called it. In April after one confrontation between the unionists and the military, during which a magistrate read the riot act and the troopers fixed bayonets, the Queensland Home Secretary directed the arrest of the so-called ringleaders of the strike. (The last one Bill Hamilton, was brought in on 13th April.) The thirteen arrested leaders of the striking shearers were each sentenced to three years hard labour.
Most of the 9,000 strikers were living under canvas in strike camps. The summer had been unseasonably wet, and by May, after four months of the strike, the union camps were full of wet, hungry, penniless shearers. By the middle of June most of the strikers had crawled back to work on the pastoralists terms.
A second attempt at a strike in 1894 also fizzled out. It was after this that Banjo Patterson composed the well-known song “Waltzing Matilda”. Perhaps you have heard it. The swaggie in the song is supposed to refer to a unionist shearer choosing to drown rather than being caught by the striker- hunting troopers.
The Great Shearers' Strike is a classic example of Capitalism in the form of the Fairbairn family and the other pastoralists recruiting the power of the government, in the form of the police, the military, the courts and the politicians represented by the Home Secretary, to hold down the working class shearers.
It may be a myth that the Australian Labour Party was formed then, as its predecessors were already in existence, but Labor’s understanding that social change could be achieved through parliamentary power has its roots in the shearers’ struggles of the 1890s. The symbol of Labor’s move to the political arena was a living tree, “the tree of knowledge” in Barcaldine, under which the striking shearers met.
This does not appear to be a very personal story, but the politics of a country deeply affects everyone who lives in it. Indeed I may not have been able to go to university if a Labor government hadn't abolished university fees.
2) My second story is the story of Gwalia where my grandmother and two of her brothers worked.
In the second half of the 19th century gold-fever was sweeping the world. In 1851 gold was discovered in New South Wales and Victoria. The population of Victoria, which had the richest gold fields, tripled in the following ten years. Western Australia wanted some of the same and offered rewards for finding payable gold. Some spectacular finds, as well as some disappointing ones, were made.
One promising find was made by three prospectors who named it “Sons of Gwalia” after their backers, two Welsh brothers who were shopkeepers. “Gwalia” is an archaic name for Wales. This claim was sold to a miner who was able to recruit his substantial investment of £10,000 in one month of working it. Looking for further capital he opened negotiations with a London company. In 1897 the 23 year old Herbert Hoover, who had been sent to Western Australia to look for suitable investments, recommended his company acquire it and install him as manager, which he became in May 1898.
Hoover completely redesigned the mine workings and oversaw the design of the staff and office buildings as well as the mine manager's house. In around 1911 my grandmother came to Gwalia to work as a housekeeper in this house. Her brothers followed, having been sent out from England by their parents to ensure that she return home to Liverpool.
The mine manager's house at Gwalia.
My grandmother (left) outside the house
where she lived in Gwalia.

However in his first week as mine manager Hoover increased working hours, introduced single-handed work (which made the work more difficult and dangerous), instituted shift changes at the working face (rather than at the entrance to the mine), and stopped double time on Sundays as well as bonuses for working in difficult conditions. Hoover's strategy was to cut costs by reducing unproductive work time and also by introducing contract rather than union labour. To this end he recruited a number of Italian workers whom he regarded as his allies against the unions. He wrote “I have a bunch of Italians coming up ... and will put them in the mine on contract work. If they are satisfactory I will secure enough of them to hold the property in case of a general strike and ... will reduce wages,” which is exactly what he did.
This is how Hoover as an agent of big Capital used his power to hold classism in place and keep the working people struggling.
As an afterward:
My grandmother did return home to England after her two years in Australia, while her brothers continued working at the Sons of Gwalia mine and remained living in Australia for the rest of their lives.

Hoover only lasted six months at Gwalia. He was transferred to China because he was feuding with his boss. Nevertheless he retained a personal financial share of the mine for 66 years, until it shut down in 1963, the year before he died. Sons of Gwalia became the third richest gold mine in Australia and it alone made Hoover a very rich man, although he went on to make even more from other mines. Gwalia was one step on his road to the presidency of the United States.

3) My third story is more personal.
I realize that I grew up in a bubble, a very large bubble. Like me, everyone I knew or had contact with would have said that they were middle class if they had been asked. It was only when I moved to England after getting married that I encountered a full-blown class system. I was amazed to see people who acknowledged themselves as working class and who just seemed to accept that that was their immutable status in life. I was also disillusioned of the idea that I was middle class. The upper class were the aristocrats and they were very few and far between. The middle class were generally the wealthy business owners and investors, what you or I would perhaps call upper middle-class. Being a comfortably off employee just didn't qualify. Most of the population ranked as lower middle class or working class. Class was not only determined by your income or your wealth but by your family background, the school you went to and your accent. Australians were even lower down in this caste system. This was brought home to me when I described an advertisement I had seen for a good job in Melbourne to a friend and work colleague who was job hunting. His immediate response was “But what would Cathy do?” His wife Cathy had just completed her PhD on the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. His idea of Australia was not of a place where poetry could be studied.

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 my eyes were further opened to the British class system: these remote islands were inhabited by sheep farmers but they were owned by the absentee landlords, including the Falkland Islands Co. The extreme patriotism engendered by the Falklands War bolstered Margaret Thatcher's falling popularity and enabled her to win the next election.
Mrs Thatcher, a Conservative prime minister, used her political power to crush the unions. She chose to attack the National Union of Miners. She prepared for this by building up coal stockpiles, increasing imports of coal and converting many power stations to oil. Transport companies were encouraged to employ non-union drivers. Benefits were cut for strikers and their families. A special mobile squad of police to deal with picketing was created. Finally in September 1983, she appointed as chairman of the National Coal Board someone (Ian MacGregor) who had cut 100,000 jobs at British Steel and who was known for his union-busting attitude.
In March 1984 the Coal Board announced the closure of Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire and that 20 other pits and 20,000 jobs were on a hit list. The Yorkshire miners immediately went on strike and within days the strike had spread nationally. At the peak about three-quarters of the approximately 200,000 miners were on strike. The strike was to last a full year, with brutal attacks by the police on picketers. I heard of one miner who went to take down the number of a policeman beating a striker, discovering that the police weren't wearing their numbers, and then being beaten to the extent of permanent brain-damage himself .
The strike ended when the demoralized, starving, impoverished strikers voted to return to work. Recent disclosures in the autobiography of the head of MI5 (Stella Rimington) showed that the secret service was tapping the phones of the union-leaders and involved in other “counter-subversive” activities. And cabinet documents which became accessible after 30 years reveal the involvement of the Thatcher government.
The miners' strike is an example of a government taking part in out-and-out class warfare against a segment of its own population. Today some areas still show the scars of the miners strike 30 years ago and much bitterness remains in the divided communities.
Personally, we suffered financially when we moved to Australia at the end of 1984, losing thousands of dollars in transferring the money (in devalued pounds) from the sale of our house in England to buy another in Australia. Still it was nothing compared to what many of the strikers went through.
One of our main reasons for returning to Australia was to bring up our children in a society free of the constraints and stigma of the British class system. 

—Susan Nulsen