My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner
Below are some of the newspaper clippings which Bob Mahony kept in a school exercise book.
(a) Unfurling The banner
The Worker, for 3rd October, 1903, reported on the unfurling of the Painters and Dockers Union banner, at the Oddfellows' Hall, where the meeting was presided over by Mr. Hugh Wilson. Present were
Minister O'Sullivan and Labor Member Storey; President Riley and Secretary Thrower, Sydney Labor Council; Vice-President E.A.Smith and Secretary Alan McDougall, Eight-Hour Committee; and many other leading trade unionists . Minister O'Sullivan, who unfurled the banner, claimed that trades unionism had done more than all the kings and philanthropists the world has known for the betterment of humanity. In England the movement was progressing, and the workers were now receiving more generous treatment than ever before. At next election a strong effort would made to put down trade unionism. He advised the workers to solidly support the great cause of labor. He had but little doubt that the men would be true to themselves. It was for the women to see that they were true to the men and that the cause of labor triumphed. If the Taff Vale decision were upheld, unionism would have to go the wall. He referred in scathing terms to the action of the Victorian Government in making it almost penal for labor to unite. They would have at the next election to shut out sectarianism altogether and fight for labor representation only.
The reference to women being loyal to "their men" , was typical of the views concerning women in the early years of the twentieth century when, even though they had won the right to vote, apparently they had not won the right to think for themselves. Nevertheless, women solidly supported their husbands in the fights to win greater recognition for unions and greater improvements in wages and working conditions. Their support, in the face of extreme sacrifices, was a major element in the workers’ many industrial disputes.
The mention of sectarianism in this context is not explained, but it was also taken up by the President of the Sydney Labor Council, in his speech to the gathering as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, on 29th September, 1903:
....Australia has led the way in socialistic legislation, and was a beacon light in this respect for the older countries. In regard to sectarianism he would remind them that as far as Parliamentary elections were concerned it mattered little what a man's creed was, for Parliament was not a religious institution.
Mr. J.Storey, M.L.A. and others also addressed the gathering.
(b) The Jos Creighton Issue
The Australian Star newspaper, on 16th December, 1904, reported on the expulsion of Creighton and his application to the Arbitration Court for deregistration of the Union:
The Registrar of the Arbitration Court to-day delivered judgment in the matter of the Ship Painters and Dockers' Union of Port Jackson, industrial union of employees, and in the matter of the application of Joseph Creighton, of 35 Mort Street, Balmain, painter and docker, for the cancellation of the registration of the said union.
The Registrar said: Certain matters respecting the exclusion of one Joseph Creighton from the Ship Painters and Dockers Union .....having been brought before me by Creighton, I have heard evidence on behalf of Creighton and the union for the purpose of determining whether or not there are sufficient grounds for making application for the cancellation of the union.
It appears that Creighton, until his expulsion, had long been a member of the industrial union. In January last Creighton entered into an arrangement for the performance of certain work on the barque Miltenburn, then lying at Mort's Dock. I have heard a good deal of rather conflicting evidence as to what the arrangement was, but I have little doubt that Creighton agreed with Mr. Christie, acting on behalf of the Mort's Dock Co., to have the work performed for a certain price.. In order to carry this agreement into effect Creighton arranged with two men to perform the work with him, and he paid these men the union rate of wage, 10½d per hour, retaining himself, apparently, the balance of the whole price agreed upon. Creighton contends that though he received more than the men, he worked overtime, and earned only the union rate. On the whole, however, I think that the contention of the union is correct, and that Creighton took a contract, and virtually for the time being became an employer. For this action he was expelled from the union at a general meeting of the members. The question then is whether or not this proceeding of the union was such as to make it proper for me to apply for cancellation. Although in my opinion, the position of an industrial union in relation to persons seeking to join it, or to its members, is different from that of a trade union or voluntary association in regard to persons similarly situated, the Industrial Arbitration Act having imposed upon industrial unions restrictions in regard to membership which did not bind trade unions, I think it must be admitted that circumstances might arise which would render expulsion from an industrial union justified. The character or actions of the member might be of such a nature as to fully support any such action by the union. For example, he might be a convicted felon or have long pursued a course of conduct inimical to the interests of the union as a union of employees. I cannot, however, come to the conclusion that the action of the union can in this instance be supported.
There is no evidence that Creighton on any occasion, other than the one in question, became an employer (assuming that I am right in finding that he did so act in the case of the Miltenburn), and I think that whatever considerable powers of expulsion this union possessed as a trades union, it went beyond any powers of expulsion it may possess as an industrial union in excluding Creighton from the union, and from his opportunity of earning a livelihood at his trade for this one action. I see no reason to doubt that the union intended to act fully within its powers, and that as a body it acted from the laudable motive of preventing what it considered to be an action which might lead to an inroad upon its recognised terms and conditions of work, but it would, in my opinion, be unfair and dangerous to hold that any man could be excluded from a union, especially one which had a right to preference of employment, for acting as Creighton did on this occasion.
I feel compelled, therefore, to state that the circumstances seem to me to justify an application for cancellation of the union, but I will hold my application for a fortnight in order to give the union an opportunity of reinstating Creighton if it thinks fit after this expression of my opinion. It is admitted that Creighton was more or less intoxicated at the meeting which expelled him, and that in consequence he behaved with certain impropriety, but this does not seem to me to be sufficient to prevent my making the application, and so barring Creighton from his chance of admission to his trade, the instance of misbehaviour being an isolated one, and perhaps the fact of the charge laid against him occasioned it.
It is unfortunate that application was not made to me by Creighton at an earlier period, but he had given an explanation of the reason of the delay, which, under the circumstances, I must hold to be adequate.
(c) The Arbitration Act, 1904
The Sydney Morning Herald, of 9th February, 1905, carried a review of the operation of the new Commonwealth Arbitration Act, during 1904:
The Court of Arbitration last year heard and determined 12 industrial disputes the hearing of some of which occupied several weeks. The decision of the Court in these disputes affected directly 145 employers and 4443 employees. The Court in all these disputes except one applied the common rule to persons not parties to the disputes, but engaged in like trades and industries. The awards of the Court, therefore, affected a large number of employers and workmen not belonging to industrial unions.
The Court dealt with nine applications to make industrial agreements filed with the registrar the common rule....... it also determined more than 170 matters (often very lengthy) affecting the relations of employers and employees or the status of unions, such as applications by the registrar for cancellation of the registration of unions, .....penalties for breaches of awards, proceedings to stay variations of industrial conditions, applications for leave to prosecute,....interpretation of awards....
(d) Common Rule Rejected
A clipping from a newspaper, unnamed and undated (among the few pieces kept by Bob Mahony), reported the rejection by the Arbitration Court of an application by the Wool and Basil Workers Union for common rule coverage affecting one objecting employer who was not party to the industrial agreement. Application of a common rule meant that all employers whether respondents to an award or not, were still covered by that award. The judgment of the High Court put the matter outside the Arbitration Court's jurisdiction, and the President of the Arbitration Court handed down judgment rejecting the union's application:
The High Court...... had said that before the Arbitration Court could apply the common rule it must exercise judicial discretion as to the conditions in connection with which the common rule was to be applied. It must judicially determine and adopt as its own award and judgment the industrial agreement which it was sought to make a common rule. In the .... case now under notice the Court did not make the industrial agreement an award of the Court, but simply made it a common rule. The High Court having said that the Arbitration Court had no jurisdiction....to apply the common rule, the question now arose whether the Court should proceed any further in the present application for an interpretation. He and his colleagues thought that the Court had no jurisdiction in the matter...
The Sydney Mail, 10th May, 1905 carried an article entitled "A Valuable Invention and a New Local Industry --- Paint That Defies Corrosion", and states in part:
Ever since iron began to be used largely in shipbuilding, inventors have been striving to secure an anti-rusting, anti-corrosive paint which would preserve the fabric of the ships from the inevitable decay. Various inventions have been tried with varying degrees of success or non-success, until about 18 months ago two Sydney inventors hit upon a happy idea. The result is "Biturine Manufacturing Company".... The first experimental application of biturine to a steamer was to the Oceanic Company's mail steamer Ventura, 18 months ago. It proved so successful that the company entered into a contract for £1500 with the inventors. That has since been extended to £15,000, for which they are doing thoroughly from stem to stern the three mail steamers - -- Ventura, Sonoma and Sierra --- engaged in the San Francisco-Sydney trade. When the Sonoma was last in Sydney her funnels were painted with the glossy black "biturene solution". Once more in harbour, after her trip to America and back and the smoke-stacks do not show even a blister....
After the experiment on the Ventura, one was conducted on the Manly ferry steamer Kuringai. That was 15 months ago. First the bunkers were treated, later the holds, fireboxes, etc. That treatment has stood so splendidly that a contract, in course of execution, for the whole of the Port Jackson Company's fleet followed....
The difficulty hitherto with regard to anti-rusting and anti-fouling solutions has been the necessity for constant renewal. The claim made for the new media is that they will not require renewal, as they have a resisting capacity for as long as 10 years..... The inventors claim that the "biturine solution" is an "ultra powerful bituminous coating" which, applied in the same manner as paint, "hermetically seals the pores of iron and steel and will last four times the life of ordinary paint.... The solution is applied cold after the iron surface has been thoroughly cleaned, but the biturine enamel is applied hot, and is, where properly applied, guaranteed for years. It is described as a permanent coating for bunkers, tank-tops in holds, floors, peaks and tailend shafts, protecting against the disastrous effects of corrosion, and rendering chipping and scaling absolutely unnecessary under all circumstances."
(f) Re Mahony's Letter to the editor of The Australian Star
The following letter, published in the Star, 23rd July, 1906, carries Mahony's handwritten note:
Copy of Letter in Star of July 9th 1906. did not reply because I had fully explained the case in previous letter.
Sir,--- With the letter signed "Mort's Dock" in your issue of 3rd instant I can cordially agree, and I would like, with your permission, to answer a few of Secretary Mahony's statements in his answer to same, being myself one of the 600 poor, unfinancial standbacks.
Mr.Mahony states he has not got an award of the Arbitration Court. Why then the circular, and why send names of unfinancial members to employers, and why threaten to summons for recovery of arrears in the Arbitration Court?
Mr. Mahony goes on to say the union was formed before the Arbitration Court existed, viz., at a public meeting held at the Town Hall, Balmain. I challenge him and his officers at the present time to convene a public meeting at the Town Hall, Balmain, and ask the people whether the union should longer exist. The answer would be "No!"
Is Secretary Mahony not ashamed to hear that the majority of the members of the union don't average 5s. a week, though they are to be found daily, from 7.30 till 5, in the dock paddock? Two weeks ago some men were wanted at the Government Dock, Cockatoo, and before starting were asked if they were financial unionists. It's hard lines when a man earning only 5s. a week has to pay threepence a week out of that sum before he can go to work. I say that law is cruel which allows men to be kept out of a few hours' work because they can't pay up their union dues.
The opening attack by the anonymous "Mort's Dock", and Mahony's response were not in Mahony's small scrapbook. However, they are as follows. First, the Australian Star, in its evening edition of Thursday, 3rd July, 1906, published, under the title:
Dockers and Painters --- and Financial Members
Sir, --- Will you kindly allow me space in your valuable columns to point out our grievances and the hardships we are under by being compelled to belong to a "union by the Arbitration Act"? The work I follow comes under the Dockers and Painters Union of Port Jackson.
First there are 800 members in the union, who were compelled to join by the Arbitration Court award and pay 5s. The foreman at the different works --- Mort's Dock especially ---- where the largest portion of this work is obtained, does not employ a man until he becomes a member of the union.
Second, at the present time, work being so slack 600 out of the 800 are unfinancial, being unable to pay 3d. per week, work or not.
Third, there is a secretary receiving £3 a week, and if an unfinancial member gets a job his duty is to get his employer to put on a financial member and put off the unfinancial member. (see circular appended.)
Then follows the "circular", issued to members thus
Ship Painters and Dockers Of Port Jackson, Industrial Union of Employees. Telephone address No.276, Balmain. Office 45 Mort Street, Balmain, June 4th 1906.
Dear Sir, You are hereby notified that the NEW INDUSTRIAL AGREEMENT IS NOW IN OPERATION and your particular attention is called to the PREFERENCE CLAUSE whereby FINANCIAL MEMBERS shall have preference OF EMPLOYMENT. You will therefore see the necessity of keeping yourself financial on the books.
Yours fraternally, R.Mahony, Secretary
To this patently anti-union letter, in which the writer insists on referring to the "Dockers and Painters", when the genuine members called themselves by their registered title, "Painters and Dockers", Bob Mahony responded on 5th July, published in that evening's edition under the heading:
Ship Painters and Dockers Union of Port Jackson
The Secretary in Defence of the Union
Sir, --- Would you allow me sufficient space in your columns to reply to certain statements made in yesterday's issue by a person signing himself "Mort's Dock", pointing out several alleged grievances he and others are suffering?
In the first place, he stated that there are 800 members in the union who were compelled to join by the Arbitration Court award and pay 5s. However, we have not got an award by the Court, but have always settled our disputes by amicable agreement with our employers, and if this man knows anything about the matter at all he should know the history of the formation of the union, for he infers that he had followed the occupation previous to its formation.
Now sir, the union was formed long before the Arbitration Act, and was the outcome of a public meeting held in the Balmain Town Hall, and duly convened by the Mayor, the most prominent speakers on behalf of the formation of a union being Mr.H.Wilks, M.H.R. at the time M.L.A.; Mr. S.J.Law, M.L.A., Mr. Sam Smith, M.L.A. and Alderman Williams, who all spoke strongly against the unfair conditions the men were working under. Over 300 names were handed in that night to join. Rules were drawn up, the first working rule being that no member was allowed to work with a non-member.
Since the Arbitration Act came in force this rule was amended to bring it into conformity with the Act, when suddenly "Mort's Dock" wakes up and thinks that something new is being done, and immediately blames the Arbitration Act, such Act having nothing whatever to do with the matter, as preference was gained before the Act came into operation. Furthermore, all our differences are settled by agreement which I think would hold good in Equity without an Arbitration Act. So you, sir, will see that your correspondent has not studied the facts, otherwise he would not make such a wild statement.
He also states that 600 out of 800 are unfinancial. Now, if he attended the meetings he would know different.
Furthermore, he states that they are unfinancial through being out of work. Does he not know that if any member is unfinancial through unforeseen circumstances the union in all cases remits the arrears and gives him a clear card?
However, if, as he alleges, there are 600 unfinancial members who object to the preference rule, why did they not vote against it? He knows as well as every other member of the union that that clause was carried unanimously at a special summons meeting of the union (as it has been on all occasions), and if he had any objections why did he not take a manly course and oppose it?
He also asks you, sir, for advice for himself and 600 other unfinancial members. Does he not know that under the Arbitration Act which he complains so much of, that the rights of unfinancial members are protected, they having equal rights with financial members in the making of rules to govern their working conditions, and when working conditions are under discussion this man, together with every other member of the union, is summoned to attend?
The foregoing facts will clearly demonstrate to you, sir, that "Mort's Dock" has not put the case fairly before you, and I have no doubt he belongs to a class that will take all the benefits that may be gained by unionists but are not prepared to pay for them.
"Mort's Dock" also makes a statement that men could all get a crust before the union started. Now, the very fact that the public of Balmain took the matter up is a sufficient reply to that. An increase of 2s. per week and other improved conditions have only lately been gained by the union, in which this man will share, but does not like to pay for. In conclusion, I would like to point out to you, sir, that the rules of the union are administered with common sense, and no arbitrary course taken against any of its members.
Yours, etc., R.Mahony, Secretary, of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union. Balmain July 4, 1906.
(g) The Shame of Being a Scab
Amongst Mahony's newspaper clippings is a leaflet under the above title, giving no information on who issued it, and stating that it was "Lenin's appeal to the British Workers --- A Highly Important Manifesto", apparently written during the twelve months which followed the Russian Revolution in 1917. In part, it states:
Are you a trade unionist?
If not, why not?
Did you find the conditions of life in field or factory so pleasant that you had no desire for any improvement? Did you find your employer so obliging, and ready to give you what you asked, that you did not think it necessary to take other measures to get what you wanted? If so, then you have been more fortunate than most workers, for that is not the usual experience.
If you are a trade unionist, do you thoroughly understand the reason of your membership of a trade union? You know that the employer does not employ you for love; you know that, if he can, he will press your wages down to the lowest level; you know that when you are organised, you are better able to get your demands accepted than when your employer has to deal with each man separately. Even so, your employers have resisted your demands, and you have been compelled to come out on strike.
You have learned that masters are no friends of workers.
You have learned the need for working-class discipline and loyalty; for you will agree that there is no more contemptible creature than a blackleg.....
Indicative of the long-lasting hostility to scabs, or as the employers preferred to call them, "loyalists", is the case taken by the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen's Association, concerning "Loyalist Labour" at Cockatoo Island", in 1918, before the Federal Shipbuilding Tribunal, case No.6 of 1918:
This an application to remove certain "loyalist" workmen from their positions, and to replace them by members of the applicant association.
Mr. Pearce (for the FEDFA) stated that considerable dissatisfaction existed among members owing to the employment of non-unionists. He claimed that under the Agreement members of his Union should have preference. The Union was willing to admit these workmen to membership and give them equal opportunity with other members for any work which might be available. He asked the tribunal to direct that the "loyalists" be removed from their positions and remarked that such a course would be in conformity with that taken by the Williamstown (Victoria) authorities, who replaced "loyalist" workmen with members of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union.
Subsequent inquiry by the Tribunal elicited the information that action on the lines suggested by Mr. Pearce had been taken at Williamstown. In that case, however, the work was of a purely casual nature, and the arrangements made with the Union provided for "loyalists" being given an equal share of whatever work was being done.
Crane drivers at Cockatoo Dockyard were permanent employees, consequently any attempt to regulate the employment of "loyalists" and unionists on the lines adopted at Williamstown would prove impracticable.
The Tribunal held that it had no power to order the dismissal of "loyalists".
With a view, however, to giving effect to the spirit of the Agreement and with a desire to remove as far as possible anything likely to lead to discord among the workmen, the Tribunal recommends ---
1. That the "loyalist" workmen now employed as crane-drivers at Cockatoo become members of the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen's Association.