My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner
The Union’s interests and concerns ranged over a wide canvas, not always directly connected with unionism but always within its general philosophy of humanitarianism, egalitarianism and support for democratic values, the needs of the underdog , the under-privileged and the unprivileged. Thus, it took a position on issues such as
The issue of free speech before, during and after the First World War was one among many concerns for the Union, particularly, when a Labor Government took action to deny people this simple right. Freedom of speech has been denied to people throughout history and has continued to be a major issue for as long as there have been organisations and individuals seeking to give expression to their views on capitalism, socialism, communism, national or local independence, unionism, etc.
In 1908, Talbot raised at a Union meeting, the matter of a Bill before Parliament to amend the Public Amusement Act of 1897, the main provision of which was aimed at curtailing public gatherings. He pointed out that Sections 17, 18 and 20 were the most drastic and he brought the matter up to show the "kind of legislation they were getting from the present Government". (Minutes, 17/8/1908.)
The following year, Talbot found it once more necessary to raise concerns over the Theatres and Public Halls Act
By certain provisions of this Act lectures were stopped on Sunday nights, certain schools that were held on Sundays where children were taught intellectual subjects were also stopped. A concert could not be held…. In fact nothing could now be held on that night…. Move that our delegates be instructed to bring the matter before the Labor Council for the purpose of protesting against the Act. carried. (Minutes, 2/8/1909.)
In this instance, the Labor Council, at its next meeting adopted the Union’s call for protest and
The press had taken the matter up and had criticised the action of the Council and the mover of the resolution and considered they did not have sufficient knowledge on the matter. (Minutes, 16/8/1909.)
Two months later, Talbot once more reported to a meeting, as one of the Union’s delegates to the Labor Council, that it had decided to send a delegation to the Premier on the provisions of the Public Halls and Theatres Act, and he had been elected as one of the delegation. (Minutes, 25/10/1909.)
Among the many free speech issues which came before the Union was the occasion in 1913, when member Ostler, also a member of the IWW, asked the Union to instruct its delegates to the Labor Council to bring before the Council
a resolution strongly protesting against the interference with free speech. He pointed out that a number of persons had been arrested for speaking in the street and had been jailed for doing so.
Ostler’s motion was carried, and there was undoubtedly a great sourness at a Labor Government which could act in this manner. (Minutes, 10/3/1913.)
During the War years, many gaolings occurred of members of the IWW and Socialist organisations, for anti-war expressions (on which see chapter on the First World War.) The use of such legislation as the War Precautions Act and other draconian laws, to stifle free expression, made for hostility by all forms of labor organisation, industrial and political, and soured relations between such bodies and Labor parliamentarians who, as in the case of restrictive industrial laws, forever promised repeal of such legislation but never kept to such promises when in power.
During the War, too, the Union joined in decisions to provide bodyguards for Labor Council and other anti-war speakers in the Sydney Domain who came under attack by pro-war and pro-conscription activists.
Among the many war-time outrages against freedom of expression was that of Father Jerger, on which the Labor Council, on 21st March, 1918, adopted a motion from E.Judd:
That Council protest against military law superseding civil law and the interning of citizens without a civil trial and pledge itself to cooperate in any lawful movement to secure the release of Father Jerger of Marrickville or any other citizen interned without a civil trial.
When presented to a Union meeting, the Council’s decision was endorsed. (see Appendix 8(14).)
In another case, the Union gave its support to Paul Freeman, a member of the Australian Socialist Party, who, on being deported to America on three occasions, returned to Australia each time and, during May 1919, refused to leave the ship and began a hunger strike. The Union supported the case financially and with a call for a full legal inquiry. (Minutes, 10//6/1919.) (see also Appendix 8(9).)
After the war, too, within the Union’s general view on freedom of speech, there occurred the case of Dr. J.Thompson. A Union meeting considered a letter from the Labor Council in which the Union was asked to carry a resolution "protesting against the proposed action of the BMA to expel Dr.Thompson" and the request was complied with. Dr. J.R.M. Thompson had some years earlier given lectures on alcohol in its social and scientific aspects, in the Socialist Hall and elsewhere. The Labor Council minutes say little about his expulsion from the British Medical Association, simply stating that it was "for his activities in the Farr case" and that the Council was "prepared to cooperate with all other organisations to secure the deregistration of the BMA in N.S.W." (Minutes, 12/9/1921.) The Farr case concerned the right to declare a person insane. (see Appendix 8(15) In 1923, the Union donated £1.1.0 to Dr. Thompson’s appeal to the Privy Council. (Minutes, 30/7/1923.)
Freedom of speech had another definition in 1923, when arrests were made for a street meeting. On receipt of advice from the Labor Council of the arrest of Jack Lang and others, the Union decided
That the following resolution be forwarded to the Premier: That this Branch condemns the action of the Magistrate in fining Mr. Lang 2/6d. and allowing time to pay for breaking the law by blocking traffic in Martin Place and fining the (unemployed) speaker on the unemployed question £1 or 14 days hard labour. (Minutes, 13/8/1923.)
Attacks on freedom of speech were many, and the Union gave its support to victims of this form of oppression whenever cases were presented to it. This included rendering financial support for the wives and families of two men in gaol for nearly a month in Adelaide on the principle of freedom of speech. (Minutes, 28/11/1927.)
In a similar vein, the Union entered its protest, through a motion from Swadling and W.Davis,
against the action of the City Council in having cancelled its contract with the Friends of the Soviet Union for hire of the Sydney Town Hall for a social and dance to celebrate the 13th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution. (Minutes, 10/11/1930.)
At its meeting on 22nd August, 1927, the President advised the Union meeting that two delegates from the Labor Council, Kavanagh and Lyons, had applied to be heard "on the appeal of Sacco and Vanzetti, they having the authority of the International Defence Committee", and the meeting agreed to allow each speaker 15 minutes. Following the addresses by the two delegates, a motion was moved
That a hearty vote of thanks be accorded Messrs. Kavanagh and Lyons and that this Branch cease work for 24 hours in order to take part in a demonstration of protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
The motion was lost by 37 votes to 56 and it would appear that this decision was determined on the basis that the call to demonstrate after the event may have seemed pointless, the two Italians having been executed that day. Even so, it is difficult to appreciate why a union which was always so open-hearted and supportive of any protest against outrages against political activists in any section of the labor movement, should fail to record its disgust and anger at this case: one of the most blatant and venomous attacks on freedom of thought and expression in the history of the labor movement.
[NOTE: Possibly one of the most damning indictments of the American justice system and, in fact, of American capitalism in its various social aspects, was presented in the novel written by Upton Sinclair, published in 1928. The two humble Italians, Sacco and Vanzetti, members of an anarchist organisation in Boston, were put to death on 22nd August, 1927, the day on which the Labor Council sought to give an Australian expression of outrage and hostility to the frenzied frame-up and execution of the two men. Sinclair, in that period, was possibly a writer as powerful and condemnatory of the brutality, hatred and vengefulness of capitalism as Zola and Dickens in an earlier era. (see Appendix 13(f))
In 1913, it was Talbot who raised at a Union meeting the question of hanging, and his motion was carried by the meeting
This Union protest against the decision of the Government to hang the man Wright. (Minutes, 28/7/1913.)
Three years later, R.Webster, presented to a Union meeting a petition against carrying out the death sentence in the Tottenham Murder Case and the meeting agreed that members should sign the petition. (Minutes, 11/12/1916.) (see Appendix 3 (e) re this case.)
Governments were still chary about repealing laws on execution and, in 1922, the Labor Council sent to unions a petition expressing opposition to capital punishment which a meeting adopted for signing by the secretary on behalf of the Union. (Minutes, 6/6/1922.)
In 1923, the Labor Council considered the question of establishing a Labor paper. A scheme was proposed in 1909 to establish a company based on union shares for the purpose of issuing an evening newspaper. Sporadic discussions of the scheme proceeded for a few years, but nothing eventuated from it all, and in the 1920s there were calls for return of the monies invested in the non-event. In his book, The Bitter Fight, Joe Harris noted
The AWU and some other unions struck Labor Daily levies and nearly £175,000 was collected; the outbreak of war in 1914 postponed the scheme. The aim was to join together the New South Wales Labor Daily, Queensland’s Daily Standard, the South Australian Daily Herald and others into a nation-wide chain; however, increased costs, lack of advertising, and internal disputes closed down these labor dailies one after the other,
E.Dwyer Gray had been appointed as the editor of the paper, if it were to get off the ground, but ended in some disgrace (which the Labor Council minutes do not record), as he indicated in an address to the Labor Council meeting
"I stand before you as a dismissed disgraced Editor of Labor Dailies".
And he emphasised the fact that he had placed his case in the hands of the Committee…he would abide by the decision of the Committee . He said the Council should support the Labor Dailies only on two conditions
1st. That the Constitution of Labor Dailies should be altered
2nd. That the Policy of the paper should be defined. (Labor Council Minutes, 28/6/1923.)
In August, 1923, the Labor Council debated a motion from H.Denford on the issue of Labor papers and Dwyer Gray’s position. The motion called for levies from all unions for the Labor Daily; support for Dwyer Grey; return of levy moneys collected if the unions did not fully support Grey’s proposals aimed at more democratic control of the newspaper (Labor Council Minutes, 9/8/1923.) The Union supported the Council’s stand but the matter was not immediately resolved due in part to difficulty in getting unanimous support.
Some two years later, Dwyer Gray and Arthur Rae were involved in a legal dispute, the costs of which were covered by subscription lists sent out by the Labor Council to all unions, and the New South Wales Branch of the Union made a donation of £2.2.0 to the cause. Dwyer Gray was a strong anti-conscriptionist and, expressing an advanced viewpoint on democratic procedures, at a Federal Conference of the Labor Party in 1926, his proposal to include the initiative-referendum in the Party’s platform was adopted.
Arthur Rae was a one-time organiser for the AWU and was one of the first 36 Labor members elected to Parliament in 1891, representing Murrumbidgee. In 1910 he was elected as a Senator until 1914, and again was a Senator from 1918 to 1935. He died at the age of 83, in 1943. He was one who, at the 1915 Federal Conference of the Party, supported a proposal for the people to have the right to recall a politician by a petition of his/her constituents.
Until a dispute arose over treatment of its employees, the Union gave frequent support to the Sydney Industrial Blind Institution. Treatment of the blind workers brought down the wrath of the Labor Council and the Union adopted a similar stand until the position was rectified.
In 1923, the Labor Council advised unions of the problem with the Blind Institution in William Street, Street which was
refusing employment to Messrs. J. Sharp, G. Scott, F. Lucas such refusal being on the grounds of their identity with a Trade Union known as the Association for the Advancement of the Blind. The Council requests all affiliated & unaffiliated bodies to refrain from contributing or supporting the above institution until the three men are re-employed by the Institution. (Minutes, 3/12/1923.)
The Union meeting decided to comply with the Labor Council’s request. A fortnight later, the Union was advised that the Labor Council called on unions to adopt a motion and forward it for inclusion in the ALP’s Agenda for its conference and the Union meeting adopted the proposed motion which read
That the State Labor party nationalise the affairs of the Sydney Blind Institution subject to the provision of direct union representation on the governing board. Further that the minimum living wage prevailing in the State be paid to all blind adult employees. (Minutes, 17/12/1923.)
Some three years later problems continued to arise, and correspondence was received at a Union meeting from the Blind Institution and from the Chief Secretary’s Department
regretting that the Union endorsed representations made from the Association for the Advancement of the Blind without hearing both sides.
The Secretary reported that Mr. Hedge of the Blind Institute had interviewed him in the presence of the President and Mr. Terry (Management Committee) and had explained the working conditions and rates of pay given to blind workers….The President….suggested the information should go to the Labor Council for all unions to be informed….(Minutes, 23/2 1926.)
The meeting adopted the President’s suggestion.
But in March, the Blind Institution invited members to inspect its arrangements for blind workers, but it was decided to defer this until the Labor Council lifted its boycott on the Institution.
In 1927, the Association for the Advancement of the Blind wrote requesting the Union to adopt a resolution in similar terms to the proposal put forward in 1923 and the Union meeting on 4th April, 1927, agreed. However, nothing was achieved and in 1931, the Blind Workers Association wrote to the Union requesting it to purchase three tickets for a dance "to try and raise sufficient funds to aid those blind men who have been victimised by the Sydney Industrial Blind Institution". The President and two members of the Management Committee offered to buy the tickets and this was agreed to. (Minutes, 31/8/1931.)
In 1919, a serious influenza epidemic caused emergency arrangements to be put in place throughout the State of New South Wales from the end of January when the first cases were discovered. All theatres and other public places for entertainment, conferences, meetings, etc. and schools were closed until further notice. Municipal councils were required to set up inoculation depots. Movement about the city called for the use of masks which many people objected to, but were found essential as the number of deaths mounted with each fresh report and it soon became fashionable to be seen in public with a face mask.
The Union’s scheduled meetings were deferred and on 3rd March it was reported that an important conference on the One Big Union had to be postponed owing to the restrictions.
Another meeting of the Union was not held until 15th May, 1919, and the Secretary then reported that that was the first opportunity to meet after the restrictions were lifted a week earlier. The effects of the epidemic were solemnly and sadly recorded in the number of deaths of members and the Secretary read out the list of members taken with the killer ‘flu for whom Funeral Fund payments had been made to their respective families: W.Lambert, C.Elliott, Jno Peterson, Ben Barton, E.Simmons, C.Millard, Terence Johnson, William Johnson, William Simmonds, A.J.Knowles, H.Moffatt, Art Kingston, W.Stone, S.Turner, J.J.Brigdon, George Bale, Art Corrick, Gregory Ryan, W.McCulloch and Gregory Regan.
In June, a Benefit Committee which had been elected to handle the Union’s decision to raise funds for the families of ‘flu victims, reported that it proposed to hold an Art Union and Concert. The Art Union prize was to be a gold watch valued at £25, tickets would be sixpence each and tickets for the concert 1/- each. It was proposed that the proceeds be shared equally among the affected families. The tickets were sent out to other unions and responses came from the Blacksmiths, 1/6d; Storemen and Packers, 2/-d; Timberworkers, 10/-d. But the Builders Labourers and the Boot Trades Unions returned the tickets without any comment. (Minutes, 18/8/1919.) No report on the end result of this fundraising was recorded other than a letter of thanks from Mrs. Alf Tipper who had received £50.8.0, being her pro rata share of the proceeds of the Benefit.
Together with the bashing of members of the Union, like the case of Jack Sylvester, reported herein separately, decisions were taken on other cases, such as the following arising from correspondence from the International Class War Prisoners Association which sought support for a protest "against the class biassed action, judgments and anti-working class actions in sending members of the working class to gaol":
That this Branch of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union protests against the imprisonment of Shayler and Huggett and the 21 Clovelly men and that we demand their immediate release. We also protest at the police batoning the workers in the demonstration on Friday November 7th. Also the Unemployed Women’s Procession. This resolution to be forwarded to the Labor Council and the Chief Secretary. (Minutes, 24/11/1930)
Later in the Depression period, the Union debated the issue of police brutality occurring under a State Labor Government, when a motion was moved:
That this Union protest against the police brutality at Redfern, Bankstown and Newtown and that we condemn the action of the Social Fascist Labor Government in allowing their police thugs being used against members of the working class who were protecting unemployed workers from being evicted. (Minutes,22/6/1932.)
On this occasion, however, the motion, moved by members of the Communist Party (Ted "Bolshie" Hill and E.Murphy) was defeated, by reason of the use of the stupid, abusive epithet, "Social Fascist", invented by Stalin and his controllers of the Soviet Union, which suggested that Labor and Fascism were twins! Swadling and other members opposed the motion and instead, took up a suggestion from Bob Mahony who addressed the meeting on "fundamental principles and suggested that the resolution might be altered to protesting against the evictions". The decision included sending a copy of it to the Chief Secretary as head of the police and to the Labor Daily. It was clear from the acceptance of Mahony’s proposal that Hill’s motion would have been carried, had it not been loaded with the Communist Party’s outlandish epithet.
The Union’s support for Labor, as with many unions and workers, was severely strained by various actions of Labor Governments during the Depression. Scullin’s cut in the Old Age Pension was as unpopular as Lang’s 1/- in the pound tax. While Swadling and others sought to arrange for a deputation to meet the Premier, introduced by the local Member, John Quirk or Bob Mahony, this was defeated in favour of "Bolshie" Hill’s amendment
That this Organisation oppose wholeheartedly the 1/- in the £ tax bill and seek the cooperation of other Organisations to carry similar resolutions and same to be brought before the Labor Council. (Minutes, 8/12/1930.)
Among matters brought before Union meetings throughout its first thirty years of existence, were
Support given to the Labor Council in its call for the Government to reduce tram fares on Sundays and holidays. (Minutes, 27/2/1915.)
Two delegates were elected to a Labor Council committee looking at proposals for workmen’s dwellings. (Minutes, 2/3/1907.) At a later meeting, a donation was made towards defraying the cost of its investigations. (Minutes, 30/3/1907.)
Support given to the bakers in its fight to defeat attempts to return to night baking. (Minutes, 25/9/1922.) In 1923, the Labor Council called for a protest against the anti-Labor Fuller Government which the supported the employers moves by
giving instructions that no action has to be taken against any Master Baker who violates the Bread Act and asking that a letter of protest be forwarded to the Government against their lax administration of the Bread Act. (Minutes, 13/8/1923.)
The Union supported the Labor Council call concerning footboards on trams when it decided
That this Union being of the opinion that it would be to the advantage of Tramway Employees and the General Public (in the safety first principle) to have the present footboards of Tram cars abolished and hearing that it is contemplated by the department to build a large number of cars, we suggest that they be built on the corridor principle. (Minutes, 13/8/1923.)
The footboards ran along each side of the tram and the conductor, to collect fares, walked along the footboard. It was a dangerous and unhealthy practice in hot, wet, cold or windy weather. They were a boon for youth and for the younger unemployed who could "scale" the trams, that is, ride without paying fares, by riding on the opposite footboard to the one on which the conductor collected fares. If the conductor got too close, they could jump off the moving tram. The writer still carries a scar after missing his footing when jumping off a moving tram, and ripping his elbow which required stitching. Eventually, "toast-rack" trams and all forms of external footboards were eliminated, being replaced by the corridor trams where conductors could walk through the tram without being exposed to weather conditions.
In 1925, the anti-Labor Bruce Government introduced amendments to the Immigration Act to provide for the deportation of supposed non-Australians. The first victims, for whom the amended Act was introduced, were the two officials of the Seamens'’ Union, Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson. They were held personally responsible for the major Seamen’s strike (in which the seamen were defeated). The Union complied with a Labor Council request to support a "plan of attack" on the Federal Government’s attempt to silence workers’ leaders. Kylie Tennant, in her Evatt: Politics and Justice, wrote
An amendment to the Immigration Act was necessary, a state of emergency must be declared, and a deportation tribunal set up so that anyone foreign-born and associated with the seamen’s strike might be deported….a Deportation Board of three was set up, consisting of a solicitor, a former policeman and an accountant….Lang refused to give the Commonwealth any help. The Deportation Act, he said, was ‘monstrous and a disgrace to our statutes". When Walsh and Johnson, four months later were arrested, he refused to allow the State to act, and the Commonwealth police, created by Hughes, were called in for the occasion. Then Lang refused to allow Walsh and Johnson to be lodged in a State jail. They had to be taken by the Commonwealth police to the naval establishment at Garden Island….The case was finally argued before the High Court….In his challenge to the Commonwealth on the legality of the Deportation Act Dr.Evatt made seven points….A majority decision freed Walsh and Johnson.
A meeting of the Union in September, 1925, adopted a call by the Labor Council to support a "plan of attack" on the Bruce Government for its attempt to silence workingclass advocates. (Minutes, 21/9/1925.)
In 1922, Bill Swadling reported as a delegate to the Labor Council on consideration being given by the Council to a Red Flag Congress. (Minutes, 13/2/1922.) To what extent this Congress was related to earlier events during the War and shortly after, was not indicated. But Hughes’ War Precautions Act, under which men were gaoled for flying the red flag, had become ineffective by the time of Swadling’s report. No report on the Congress was recorded. (see Appendix 12(a).)
The Union gave consideration to loss of work on public holidays when the Secretary, McDonald, reported to a meeting on
The serious inconvenience to the members of the Union as they actually lost two days, as the general Award provided for Anzac Day and the Consent Award, Prince of Wales Day.
It was decided that application be made to the Court to change Prince of Wales Birthday to Anzac Day as the Award public holiday. (Minutes, 16/4/1928.) Judge Beeby amended the Award for this purpose. (Minutes, 30/4/1928.)
Over the years, the Painters and Dockers supported many formations expressing opposition to various right-wing or pro-war activities. Thus, during the First World War, it stood against conscription, allowing the use of the Union Hall, free of charge, to those campaigning against conscription (Minutes, 21/1/1918.)
At an earlier time, support was given to the Balmain Branch of the Anti-Military League, with a decision
That the members of this union are not in favour of compulsory military training. (Minutes, 6/5/1912.)
An anti-war demonstration organised by the Labor Council was supported and all members asked to attend. (Minutes, 22/7/1929.)
During the Depression, the Union Hall was let to the Anti-Imperialist League for a public meeting to express opposition to warmongering and it was decided to affiliate with the organisation and invite a speaker to address a meeting of the Union.(Minutes, 1/9/1930.)
In the following year, E.Murphy and W.O’Keeffe were elected as delegates to an Anti-Fascist Conference. (Minutes, 12/10/1931.)
Early in the Union’s new existence, in another form of "anti", when correspondence was received from the Chinese and Asiatic League advising of its intention to "wait on" the Premier "for the purpose of further restricting the Chinese", the letter was simply received without comment. (Minutes, 5/9/1904.) And, a few years later, when the Labor Council sought a donation towards the costs incurred by the Anti-Chinese League, the Secretary, Mahony, advised the meeting
That we were not connected with the League and therefore could not be responsible for debts incurred by them --- he had pointed the matter out to the Secretary of the Council when it was decided to let the matter stand in abeyance. (Minutes, 10/6/1908.)
There was sympathy, too, for the Chinese when a letter was received from Chinese seamen concerning the shooting of students and seamen during the British seamen’s strike in Australia. (Minutes, 24/8/1925) Strangely, the official history of the Seamen’s Union, by Rowan Cahill, contains no reference to this aspect of the strike. As well, Chinese seamen in Australia made a donation through the Labor Council towards the strike and this was reported in the Labor Daily. (see Appendix 12(e) and 12(f).)
Among the hazards of employment of Painters and Dockers was that of bubonic plague recorded under Chapter 5, Hazards, etc. But what was referred to as the white plague, tuberculosis, could also be regarded as a hazard in the industry.
In September 1923, a Union meeting received a report from the Labor Council concerning what was referred to as the Spahlinger treatment for tuberculosis and the meeting decided
That this organisation urge the Federal and State Governments to use every endeavour to secure the Spahlinger treatment for tuberculosis which is pronounced a cure for the White Plague. (Minutes, 10/9/1923.)
This followed an earlier decision in July 1923, to donate a half guinea (10/6d.) to the Anti-tuberculosis Dispensary in Balmain. In April, 1925, the Union made a donation to the Labor Council’s appeal for finance for the Village Settlement for Consumptives.
The 1923 decision concerning the Spahlinger treatment for TB was further pressed in 1925 when a request from the Labor Council to write to the then Minister for Health, G.McCann, MLA
That the State Government enter into negotiations with Spahlinger with the object of getting his serum for the benefit of sufferers of tuberculosis in New South Wales. (Minutes, 24/8/1925.)
In the following year, the Union decided to take up a collection for a member "who has been ordered into the Waterfall Sanatorium", the home established for TB sufferers. (Minutes, 1/11/1926.) In 1928, the Union was advised of one of its members admitted to the Sanatorium at Waterfall as a patient "at present unfit to work". (Minutes, 15/10/1928.)
In 1929, a meeting donated £2.2.0 to the Picton Lakes TB Settlement, in Picton, N.S.W., which proposed to publish a "Book of Fame" covering all who had assisted in the establishment of the home. (Minutes, 21/1/1929.) And in April, an invitation was received and accepted for the President and Secretary to attend the official opening of Picton Lakes Settlement.