Footsoldiers for capital:
The influence of RSL racism on interwar industrial relations in Kalgoorlie and Broken Hill

By Dr Sarah Gregson, PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, 2003

Back to home page: Australian history: Towards a Marxist analysis

This new thesis is a major contribution to the debates over racism and class in Australian history. Sarah Gregson looks at attempts to mobilise racist sentiment amongst the multicultural workforce of Kalgoorlie and Broken Hill between the first and second world wars. Rather than racism being a "natural" response by Australian workers to the presence of "foreigners", she finds the RSL and employers as prime movers. Even more significantly, while the racist mobilisations did have some successes—for example, the Kalgoorlie riot of 1934—socialists and union militants managed to maintain a significant level of class solidarity and internationalism.

The full thesis is available below, in exactly the same layout and pagination as submitted. It is in pdf format. The synopsis is as in the thesis itself.

Sarah Gregson can be contacted at:


The historiography of Australian racism has principally 'blamed' the labour movement for the existence of the White Australia policy and racist responses to the presence of migrant workers. This study argues that the motivations behind ruling class agitation for the White Australia policy have never been satisfactorily analysed. To address this omission, the role of the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) in race relations is examined. As an elite-dominated, cross-class organisation with links to every section of society, it is argued that the RSL was a significant agitator for migrant exclusion and white unity in the interwar period.

The thesis employs case studies, oral history and qualitative assessment of various written sources, such as newspapers, archival records and secondary material, in order to plot the dynamics of racist ideology in two major mining centres in the interwar period. The results suggest that, although labour organisations were influenced by racist ideas and frequently protested against the presence of migrant workers, it was also true that mining employers had a material interest in sowing racial division in the workplaces they controlled.

The study concludes that labour movement responses to migrant labour incorporated a range of different strategies, from demands for racist exclusion to moves towards international solidarity. It also reveals examples of local and migrant workers living, working, playing and striking together in ways that contradict the dominant view of perpetual tension between workers of different nationalities. Lastly, the case studies demonstrate that local employers actively encouraged racial division in the workplace as a bulwark against industrial militancy.

The thesis

Title pages
Synopsis (as above)
Introduction: Foot Soldiers for Capital: why focus on the RSL?
Chapter 1: Workers, Racism and the RSL: a review of the literature
Chapter 2: Plotting the Ebb and Flow of Racist Ideology: a discussion of theory and methodology
Chapter 3: 'Australia's Picked Citizens': the RSL in the interwar years
Chapter 4: Kalgoorlie in context
Chapter 5: Kalgoorlie between the Wars: a mine of racism?
Chapter 6: Broken Hill in context
Chapter 7: Broken Hill between the Wars: the RSL in a 'union town'
Conclusion: Racist Ideology: the end of history?

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This page updated 7 June 2003. For feedback email