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My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner


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William O'Keeffe

Among the most vocal and active members of the Union, from the time of his joining, was WILLIAM O’KEEFFE, accepted as a member at the meeting on 20th April, 1925, after leaving the Sheetmetal Workers’ Union. He soon gained a reputation for being able to recite any rule in the Rule Book, which he never ceased to do at meetings. For some reason unknown to the writer (who came to know him in later years), he also came to be known as "Dirtbox"` O’Keeffe.

With less than 12 months’ membership in the Union, O’Keeffe nominated for the position of President in the December half-yearly elections.

The Secretary took the point that Mr. O’Keeffe was not eligible to run for office according to Rule 6 as he had not been a working member for a period of twelve months or more.

The President ruled that because O’Keeffe had joined the Union before the revision of Rules he was eligible.

O’Keeffe stated that he had resigned all office in the Sheet Metal Workers Union and he was not representing anyone on the Labor Council.

The President ruled that the nomination was in order.

Apparently, the President’s ruling went unchallenged. (Minutes, 28/12/1925).

Undeterred by his novice standing as a Painter and Docker, O’Keeffe entered the debate on a proposed agreement worked out by the Labor Council’s "Jock" Garden, for Painters and Dockers on strike at Mort’s Dock. He opposed acceptance of the agreement, which provided for permanent hire, and which the meeting decided to accept. (Minutes, 5/1/1926)

At the half-yearly meeting, a week after this issue, the President questioned O’Keeffe on whether he held office in any union or whether he represented another union on the Labor Council. To this questioning, O’Keeffe responded that he had resigned all offices he had held in the Sheet Metal Workers Union and that he did not represent anyone on the Labor Council. Weston then ruled, as he had done at a previous meeting, that O’Keeffe’s nomination was in order. (Minutes, 11/1/1926)

But, Bill ("Snowy") Davis then asked whether O’Keeffe’s nomination failed to comply with the Rule requirement for nominees to be working members for at least twelve months. To this, the President replied that his previous ruling must stand, since O’Keeffe was not a member of the Union when the Rule was changed. However, the President expressed concern over the fact that, at the Labor council meeting he had spoken to O’Keeffe who had stated that he was a representative of the Sheet Metal Workers Union, which O’Keeffe now claimed was stated in jest. From this statement Harry Simon moved and Albert Fisk seconded

That Mr. O’Keeffe’s name be removed from the Ballot papers.

And the meeting carried the motion.

O’Keeffe joined the moves for establishment of a union office on the Sydney side, when another member (R.Robinson) moved for an "Assistant Secretary or Vigilant Officer" to be appointed for the Sydney side. As on other occasions when this matter was raised, it was defeated, but this time on an amendment, which deferred its consideration for three months, carried by 75 votes to 15. (Minutes, 25/1/1926)

A radical proposal from O’Keeffe came before the meeting in March, when he proposed that

all meetings shall be opened for the transaction of business at 9.30 a.m. and terminate at 12.30 a.m.

Such a change would have meant that the meetings would have been held during working hours and thus would be stop-work meetings. Undoubtedly, the aim was to overcome members being obliged to attend meetings which were late in finishing and thus made work the next day more onerous, one of many reasons why members did not attend meetings. However, an amendment succeeded against O’Keeffe’s motion, for "the matter to stand over until the Court decided the issue regarding 44 hours". Since it was uncertain when the 44 hours issue would be resolved, this decision seemed equivalent to a defeat for O’Keeffe. (Minutes, 23/2/1926).

In the midst of the strike at Mort’s Dock, when "Jock" Garden’s solution failed to resolve the issue, a Special Meeting in May sought to finalise the matter when O’Keeffe asked the President who had given instructions to call the meeting

as according to the constitution the Management Committee should have been consulted and he was of the opinion that the officials should be censured.

This led to a debate around an instruction issued by the Labor Council for the Shipwrights and the Painters and Dockers to work a 44-hour week including work on Saturday morning "if necessary". The end result of the whole issue was a decision to no longer listen to the representative from the Labor Council and

That no member of the Trades and Labor Council be heard until next December. (Minutes, 21/5/1926).

A condition which was to become general in future years, was raised by O’Keeffe, on the subject of payment of wages. He moved that an approach be made to Mort’s Dock management

for a different system of payment (payment in envelopes supplied by the bank and the amount to be stated thereon). (Minutes, 14/6/1926)

It had always been a matter for concern, when men were paid in a manner which made it difficult to challenge wrong payments. In later years, the envelope was to contain other information, such as the base wage, special rates and overtime, tax deductions. But, at that early stage, O’Keeffe’s motion was carried and the matter left with Mahony to deal with.

O’Keeffe was a member of the Labor Party for some years and the Union had elected him as alternate delegate to Jack McDonald for attending ALP conferences, etc. He belonged to the Balmain Branch of the Party where he was elected as Returning Officer for the pre-selection ballots to determine candidates in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. In that capacity, he wrote to the Union with a request for the use of the Union hall for the pre-selection purposes and the meeting on 27th June, 1927, granted the request.

Ever involved with Union activities, O’Keeffe was elected as the Union’s Auditor (the general practice of unions in that period being for the auditing of union books to be done by elected members.) In that capacity O’Keeffe presented a report on the Union’s finances and suggested that a new system of receipting members’ contributions should be introduced. The system he suggested was that in use in Victoria, where duplicate receipts were printed, one part being attached to the Membership Card and the other retained for auditing purposes. It was decided that his suggestion should be examined by the Management Committee. (Minutes, 11/7/1927)

To ensure that the matter was not forgotten, he gave notice of a motion to introduce the duplicate receipt book system and to set union contributions at six shillings per quarter payable in advance. However, some time went by before the matter came before a meeting, and in that interim, O’Keeffe was appointed as Collector "for the whole of Mort’s Dock, including Rosney’s Gang" (Minutes, 17/10/1927.)

Being the Union’s Auditor was not acceptable to the whole membership, as indicated by the incident in 1928

At this stage Mr.E. Murphy and Mr. P.McDonald entered the Hall. Mr.P.McDonald wished the suspension of standing orders to take exception to the appointment of W.O’Keeffe as an Auditor, owing to him being an official collector of the Union and that he would be auditing his own books. The President ruled that he was not auditing his own books but the books of the Secretary and that he had been appointed by the Branch the previous meeting…..

Mr. Murphy also took exception to Mr. O’Keeffe. The President requested him to retire owing to the state in which he was in, under the influence of liquor. Mr. Murphy stated that he would leave it in the hands of the Branch whether he was under the influence of liquor or not. When the President again informed him to retire he made use of a filthy expression, but later apologised to the President. The President accepted the apology. Mr.Murphy then began to fight with another member. The President insisted on him retiring from the meeting. He did so. (Minutes, 9/7/1928.)

At the same meeting, an attack was made on some of the members of the Management Committee who seemed to have been missing meetings without offering apologies or excuses. In the midst of the debate, O’Keeffe moved that in future, officials be required to sign an "appearance book every meeting night", and the meeting carried this.

O’Keeffe then moved the motion of which he had given notice at an earlier meeting,

That the Sydney Branch of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union withdraw its affiliation from the A.L.P.

This drew the ire of ALPers like the Secretary, Jack McDonald and Bill Swadling, and when put to a vote, it was defeated, on a division, by 23 votes to 16. Though a small meeting, the vote was indicative of a strong sentiment of disaffection with the Labor Party and the Labor Government of the day.

Still in militant mood, in August, O’Keeffe raised the matter of unemployed members rostering for work. His proposal, seconded by Jackson, was simple and limited to one yard, but nevertheless expressed the essential principle on how to overcome many of the problems experienced by individual members and by the Union in the existing non-system. He moved

That a ballot of members be taken for the purpose of bringing into force the Rotary System of Employment at Mort’s Dock.

In presenting his motion, he argued that

owing to the unfair methods adopted in the selection of men a number were getting a great amount of work and that others were getting practically nothing at all, also that the membership of the Organisation was getting greater and the work was becoming less, and he thought that the Rotary System would be the fairest way of distributing the work.

This evoked a wide debate, with the more nervous types visualising dangers from what was a radical step in industrial relations. But, undoubtedly, O’Keeffe had opened the way for the general roster system which was eventually introduced almost 20 years later. His proposal was carried by the meeting and arrangements set in train to conduct the ballot before the end of the month. (Minutes, 6/8/1928.) (See, too, chapter on Unemployment which includes re the Roster)

Without giving any reason for doing so, in October, O’Keeffe tendered his resignation as Collector at Mort’s Dock. The resignation was accepted "with regret".

O’Keeffe’s generally militant approach to issues confronting the Union, was extended to the attitude towards a union with which there was a continuing hostility, when he moved to support the Operative Painters Union in its demand for members to be picked up at their Union Office

instead of having to seek employment on the waterfront. they having to stand outside the wharves for hours on the off chance of picking up a job.

While the meeting carried O’Keeffe’s motion of solidarity with the Operative Painters, it must have been done with a wry smile and remarks about Painters and Dockers being subjected to this type of indignity for many years, during which they made so many efforts to civilise job-seeking, often with little or no support from other unions. (Minutes, 14/9/1931.)

In another direction, he moved that use of the Union Hall be granted to the Women’s Vanguard, free of charge, "for the purpose of holding a dance to assist the local unemployed women and girls". His motion was carried, although the law forbade use of unlicensed premises for commercial purposes. This, however, was circumvented by the simple device of making no charge for entry but requesting a donation to the cause. (Minutes, 14/9/1931.)

When the Union decided to be represented at an anti-fascist conference, O’Keeffe was elected, together with E.Murphy, as its delegates. (Minutes, 12/10/1931.)

Among the indignities heaped on unemployed workers seeking Government assistance was a new set of regulations introduced which required completion of an application form containing questions concerning the applicant’s personal history. The Labor Council had decided to send a deputation to the Government to protest against the new system. O’Keeffe reported that the ALP was also sending delegates to join the deputation and suggested that the Union should also participate and the meeting adopted his motion. (Minutes, 26/10/1931.)

With the announcement by Charles Weston that he was resigning as President and from all other positions in the Union, and setting off for England where his father had died and left his mother without support, O’Keeffe defeated four other candidates (including Bill Swadling) for the positions of President and delegate to the Federal Council of the Union. On his election he announced to the meeting that

he would do his best to carry out the positions without fear or favour to any particular section. (Minutes, 29/2/1932.)

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