My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner
Another of the vocal, active but far less radical members of the early, reformed union, was A.WHEELER. He was well-known and active in the Union and among the positions he held was that of delegate, together with R. Mahony and W.Joselin, to the fledgling Federal Union, in 1916 and 1917.
In 1916, the Secretary, Mahony, read to a Union meeting a letter from the Barker Defence Committee which requested the Union to carry a resolution protesting against the sentence imposed on the Editor of the IWW paper Direct Action (Tom Barker) for its anti-war contents. Sloan immediately moved to comply with the request and advise the Minister for Defence that
In the opinion of this meeting the sentence passed on Tom Barker is unjust and not in harmony with our democratic aspiration and we demand the case be quashed in the interest of justice and democracy.
Wheeler then moved as an amendment that the letter from the Defence Committee be "put in the waste paper basket", but this paltry attitude was quickly disposed of and Sloan’s motion carried. (Minutes, 1/5/1916.) (see also Appendix 3(b))
At the same meeting, an argument developed over a dispute at Cockatoo Island between the Union and the Professional Painters. The Vice President, Joselyn, who was employed at the Island at the time, and was also the delegate, tendered his resignation over not being consulted when the men were called out on strike. Wheeler, who was also employed at the Island and who called the men out on strike, immediately moved that the resignation be accepted, but the meeting rejected this. But Joselyn insisted on his resignation being accepted, and Wheeler challenged him to contest the position at the next meeting, which Joselyn accepted. (Minutes, 1/5/1916.) The end result was that, at the meeting on 15/5/1916, Wheeler defeated Joselyn for the position of Vice President by 59 votes to 45.
In the mid-year elections, Wheeler defeated Sloan by 102 votes to 51 for the Presidency, but both he and Joselyn were elected with Mahony as delegates to the Labor Council and to the new Federal Council of the Union. (Minutes, 24/7/1916.)
When a request for financial assistance was received from the Workers Defence Committee, in its defence of the twelve IWW men arrested under Hughes’ War Precautions Act, the President, Wheeler, ruled the letter out of order "as it was against the constitution of the Union". Harley rose in anger against the ruling, declaring
That every man in jail were members of the working class. That the President was an autocrat. These men had done everything for the benefit of the workingclass. He therefore moved dissent from the President’s ruling.
The dissent was carried on a show of hands by 50 to 35. At this the President closed the meeting "on account of repeated interruptions".(Minutes,27/11/1916.)
In December, T.Sawyer moved for someone to replace Wheeler as delegate to the Trade Union Congress but then changed his mind and withdrew to allow discussion on Wheeler’s action in closing the November meeting. H.I.Standen charged that Wheeler had
entirely ignored parliamentary principles and majority rule in refusing to allow business matters to come up for discussion. That he showed unwarranted arrogance by deserting the meeting thereby causing a complete suspension of business, conduct unbecoming a union man and an official.
A round robin signed by 37 members condemning the action of the President in his display of autocratic power and dictatorial conduct at the previous meeting and be it further resolved that this Union takes direct action against President Wheeler and also takes steps to abolish the offices of President and Vice President as unnecessary offices and elect a chairman at each successive meeting.
Standen insisted that
he had no brief for the IWW but that the communication from the defence committee was the property of the Union and as such should be discussed.
When put to a vote, the motion was defeated. (Minutes, 11/12/1916.)
Later in the meeting, when nominations were called for official positions, Wheeler was unopposed for President.
Despite Wheeler’s attitude towards the IWW, when the matter was the subject of correspondence from the Water and Sewerage Employees Union in the new year, he made no effort to prevent its consideration or the motion of support for the IWW which followed. (Minutes, 8/1/1917.)
A fortnight later, it was reported to a meeting that 40 members at Garden Island had carried motions declaring
The case was dealt with later in the month, when a Special Meeting, from which Wheeler stepped down as President, allowing the Vice President to Chair it, heard evidence to indicate that O’Connor was not responsible for sacking men, but had simply carried out the Foreman’s orders. He was "exonerated from all blame". In Wheeler’s case, the Secretary, Mahony, advised the meeting that Wheeler was the President of the Union but not the job delegate and he, too, was "exonerated from all blame". (Minutes, 30/1/1917.)
During the War, Hughes’ attempts to introduce conscription met with strong opposition from the unions and union officials were kept busy attending meetings, conferences, demonstrations, etc. It was often the case that Wheeler forwarded an apology for failure to attend a Union meeting because he was attending an anti-conscription gathering. The meeting would then accept that he was "unavoidably absent".
At the Branch elections at the beginning of 1918, Wheeler was once more elected as President, defeating Sloan by 36 votes to 14; and in June, he was re-elected after defeating McDonald for the position. When Mahony was absent on Federal Council business, Wheeler acted as Secretary, on occasion attending Wages Board hearings.
On another occasion, when he was Acting Secretary, he raised no objection to a decision to sign a letter of protest on behalf of the Union against the sentence of six months imposed on a member of the IWW (Vince Marshall) under the War Precautions Act (See Appendix 8(7))). (Minutes, 16/9/1918.)
At the end of the year, a Transport Workers Federation (of maritime unions) was formed to become active from 1st January, 1919, and Wheeler was elected as its secretary, while continuing to work as a Painter and Docker.
The election of officers in January 1919, saw Jack McDonald defeat Wheeler for the position of President.
In March, Wheeler made his views plain with regard to the One Big Union concept. A Special Meeting was convened in the Temperance Hall in Montague Street to consider the OBU issue. Wheeler and Talbot proposed
that this Union turn down the OBU scheme. He (Wheeler) stated he favoured the system of Arbitration as against the direct action method. We had means in Australia of expressing our views and recording our opinion on any matter.
After a lengthy debate, the motion was put and defeated by 80 votes to 70. (Minutes, 17/3/1919)
At the next meeting, when Joselin tendered his resignation from his position on the Federal Council, because "he had not the time to devote to the matter", Wheeler was elected in his place.
For the election of officers in January, 1920, Wheeler was elected Returning Officer.
Wheeler, as Secretary of the Transport Workers Union (the group of maritime unions), reported to the Union on business transacted by the group including the Government decision to grant relief to waterfront workers who were unemployed as the result of a strike by Marine Engineers. (Minutes, 19/1/1920.) From that time, he presented reports from the group, but did not appear to play an active part in Union affairs.