My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner
The Union and:
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My sincere gratitude goes to the Library Council of New South Wales for its grant under the C.H.Currey Memorial Fellowship, making it possible for me to carry out the research presented herein.
My thanks go also to the staff of the State Library, particularly in the Mitchell Library for the assistance given me in my research work.
Thanks, too, to the members of my family who have been a tower of strength in supporting me over the long period of strain and recovery from brain surgery and loss of my greatest supporter and encourager, my wife, Ruby.
Acknowledgement is made of the use of photographs from the following sources:
This work applies to the Union in New South Wales, with its official office building and hall at 36 Mort Street, Balmain, which was also the Head Office of the Federal Union. Use of the terms "the Union" and "the Branch" refer to the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union, New South Wales Branch.
With the extinction of the Union in the early 1990s, the building was taken over by a firm of architects which was not permitted to totally destroy it, by reason of a conservation order protecting it from demolition. This arose through the Leichhardt Municipal Council adopting the writer's proposal (when Mayor in 1989-90) to apply to the Heritage Council for the necessary protection. Thus the main envelope of the building has been maintained together with the facade which carries the Union's name set in concrete above the front awning.
Incidentally, some years earlier, in 1981, the Leichhardt Municipal Council adopted the writer's suggestion to name two new streets in Balmain after two people associated with the Union, Charles Hart, who was its President in the 1890's and Jacob Garrard, who, though not a member of the early Union was the selected by Balmain unionists, before the founding of the Labor Party, as a Labor-type representative for Balmain. Information on the two men is contained in the writer's first part of the Union's history, With Banner Unfurled.
This second stage of the Union's history is based essentially on the Minutes of the organisation's meetings from the beginning of 1900 to 1932. No other records or documentation exist, since all correspondence (incoming and outgoing) was destroyed during the Second World War years, when the Union was under the control of members of the Communist Party. As well, the long-time Branch and Federal Secretary, Bob Mahony, apparently did not keep any personal records or, if he did, they were taken over after his death by some person or persons unwilling to make them available for study. In this regard, the family of the late Jack McMahon, one-time Minister in a State Labor Government, were purported to have come into possession of some of Mahony's papers, but when approached, they refused to indicate whether this was the case.
The Minutes are quoted from extensively, for two reasons: firstly, to indicate the wide interest in local, national and international affairs; and secondly, because the minute-takers recorded the essence of much of what the members had to say on various issues and it seemed appropriate for the members' own forms of expression to appear rather than the writer's.
(Being Part 2 of the history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union.
Part 1 published under the title, "With Banner Unfurled".)
I don't care if the cause be wrong
Or if the cause be right ---
I've had my day and sung my song
And fought in the bitter fight.
In truth at times I can't tell what
The men are driving at.
But I've been union thirty years
And I'm too old to rat.
(Henry Lawson, 1891)
Now that the Ship Painters and Dockers Union is all but totally extinct, now that its members are scattered to the four winds and the seven seas, now that unionism in Australia approaches extinction as the powerful force for fostering and protecting workers' interests, now that compulsory unionism is fast being replaced by compulsory non-unionism, now that the machinations of Hawke-Keating-Kelty are finding their eventual, logical expression in the Howard-Reith ruthless emasculation of unionism --- it seems appropriate to endeavour to record some of the history of one small brotherhood of workers which did its utmost to foster, improve and protect workers' interests and the essence of genuine unionism.
Herein may possibly be found some of that essence, stemming from the traditions established by the Eureka Stockade events and later by the strikes of the 1890s, in the mateship which is expressed in this small Union's motto: TOUCH ONE, TOUCH ALL! It is that basic feature of unionism which the phony unionist Hawke, et al, had no appreciation of and therefore had no qualms about destroying through the legislation on amalgamations, etc. Never mind the apparatus of unionism, buildings and all the paraphernalia of offices, it is the spirit of unionism which found its main expression and inspiration in the wide variety of groupings of workers, it is that spirit which has been undermined and in great measure replaced by anti-union, anti-social individualism. Those who legislated small unions out of existence and those who gave effect to the legislation, have a lot to answer for when the history of this period is written. (IW, 1996)
I am honoured to publish this text on the internet. It brings alive the spirit of radical democracy in the trade union movement. Through this history, we see the lives and hopes of working class men and women in the first 30 years of the Twentieth Century. It is a valuable resource to present and future historians of the labour movement and radicalism in Australia.
Issy Wyner is well qualified to write this history, as he has had a long involvement in the Federated Ship Painters' and Dockers' Union first as a rank and file member, then as Secretary and President of the Union. In 1983 Issy Wyner published With Banner Unfurled (Hale and Iremonger, Sydney), a history of the early years of the Balmain Labourers' Union, the direct antecedent of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union. The Australian Trade Union Archive biographical entry on Issy Wyner says:
Born in 1916, Issy Wyner joined the Federated Ship Painters' and Dockers' Union of Australia in 1939 and eventually became its Secretary in 1974 and later its President. In more recent years Issy Wyner has been closely involved in local politics. He was a councillor and Mayor of Leichhardt Council and, with his late comrade Nick Origlass, was associated with some of the celebrated struggles in that area over, among other things, health centres, urban and industrial development and the third runway at Sydney International Airport..
Issy Wyner was first influenced politically by Jack Sylvester, a member of the Painters and Dockers Union, a communist and one of the founders of the Trotskyist Left Opposition in Australia. For much of his life he has been closely associated with Trotskyism and with fellow activist Nick Origlass; as well as a long involvement with the Labor Party in Balmain; and as a councillor and mayor of Leichhardt Council. Always there has been a concern for the exploited and the oppressed, and to implement open democracy in the organisations he is involved in.
Nick Origlass and I have been mates for some 60 years. When I say mates, I mean not only on a personal level, but as close associates in politics, unionism and local government, where we have striven for the underdog; for the unprivileged; for the exploited and the oppressed; and against exploitation of every kind, in all its capitalist and imperialist forms and especially those which endanger the earth and its peoples.
He could see further, deeper and with greater understanding than any other person I have known, including Jack Sylvester, the first person to influence me in political understanding in my youth.
For more information see Issy Wyner's oration at the funeral of Nick Origlass, May 21, 1996
In 1998 Issy Wyner was awarded the C H Currey Memorial Fellowship, worth $20,000, by the Library Council of NSW to carry out research for his "timely and important project", My Union Right or Wrong, A History of the New South Wales Branch of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1930. (see State Library of NSW article)
I commend this book as an important piece of radical social history in Australia.
Takver, January 2003