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My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner
2003

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Appendix 12: The Red Flag, The Bay Boats, The Police Strike, Labor Daily Dispute, Volumnia Dispute, Chinese Seamen solidarity


  1. The Red Flag
  2. The Bay Boats
  3. The Police Strike
  4. Labor Daily Dispute
  5. Volumnia Dispute
  6. Chinese Seamen solidarity

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(a) The Red Flag

The fact that Swadling's mention of the Red Flag Movement is simply noted in the Union's Minutes for 1922, makes it difficult to determine whether the Movement that he referred to was related to the outrages in 1918-19.

In The Bitter Fight, Joe Harris took note of the history of the Red Flag prisoners

The red flag had since time immemorial symbolised the discontent of the downtrodden, the revolt of "the rabble". It was carried in the ranks of the followers of Jack Cade in his march from Kent to London; it was flown by the American revolutionaries at Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775 British sailors raised the red flag at the mutiny on the Nore in 1789, and it as carried during the French revolutions and became the banner of the Paris Commune in 1871.

Red became the colour of the Australian labor movement --- red banners and emblems being carried in the course of many strikes and demonstrations, and figuring in the poetry of Henry Lawson, the bard of the labor movement.

A ban on the use of the red flag except to signal danger, was introduced under the War Precautions Act in September 1918. The red flag, even though it was a traditional emblem of labor was accused of being a sign of disloyalty, a sign of support for Bolshevism and all that it was said to stand for, nationalisation of women and all!

.......In August 1918 the Reverend Rowe tried to incite soldiers to tear the red flag from the Brisbane Trades Hall. Union officials addressed the men, and Lambert English, a moderate, said that the movement against the red flag "was engineered by the capitalists to bring workers to fight each other". The soldiers abandoned the move......

The Brisbane Industrial Council decided to hold a demonstration on Sunday 23rd March over the continuation of the War Precautions Act......The Industrial Council had agreed to the police demand that no red flags be flown, but the four hundred marchers (including one hundred Russians) decided to ignore this......

The following night a five thousand strong crowd, many of them organised by an ex-servicemen's organisation, made its way to the Russian Workers' Association rooms in Merivale Street, South Brisbane. Armed foot police barred the way. Pistols cracked, palings flew.....

Thirteen had been arrested, charged, and jailed for offences under the War Precautions Act for the demonstration on 23 March. The sentences ranged up to six months' jail........There was a big campaign for the release of the "Red FLag" prisoners....The occasion of the signing of the Peace Treaty resulted in an amnesty and ten of the prisoners were released; the remainder were released later after a big remission of sentence.

Eric Fry, in his collection from various writers, on "a dozen rebels and radicals of nineteenth century Australia", entitled Rebels and Radicals, writes about Monty Miller, one of the greats of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) in Australia, who was still standing up for workers' rights in his eighties. [The Evening News, on 18/11/20, noting Miller's death, referred to his having fought the soldiers in the streets of Ballarat at the time of the Eureka Stockade.]

In Brisbane he showed his old courage. The flying of the red flag, the traditional symbol of the labor movement, had been made illegal under the War Precautions Act. On a Sunday afternoon in March 1919 trade unionists and socialists carried red flags in a demonstration demanding that the War Precautions Act be repealed now that the war was over. They were attacked by Police, thirteen of them were arrested and jailed. Monty Miller was a conspicuous figure in the march, although now he had to be helped along. Round his hat was a big red flag, at his neck was a red tie and in his buttonhole a red badge.

It was the last time he was to stand forth to confront the enemies of his class. Death came in November 1920 after much pain, stoically endured. In accordance with his wishes an open lorry carried to the cemetery his plain wooden coffin draped with a red flag, on which lay his Miner's Right. His epitaph can be simple --- "Monty Miller, Australian Worker".


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(b) The Bay boats

There were five "Bay" boats built in England on order from the Hughes Federal Government which had placed the order, worth some 5,000,000, without reference to the Parliament. They were a proud addition to the Australian fleet. The first, the "Moreton Bay", was launched in September 1919 and named by the wife of the Premier, John Storey; the second, the "Largs Bay", was followed by "Hobson's Bay", "Esperance Bay" and "Jervis Bay".

These were Australia's finest ships of their time..... By the time that all five ships were settling into the run, the Navigation Act was being fully implemented in Australia, to bring Australian conditions of shipboard service to the forefront of almost all nations.... The crews of each numbered about one hundred and seventy-five persons with a slight variation per ship.....

Before the "Hobson's Bay", the third of these ships, reached Sydney in April (1922), the (Hughes) Cabinet had taken measures to prevent the Line being dictated to by the unions: the ships would be laid up if the master did not have effective choice of men..... There was at the time a particularly militant Sydney Branch of the Seamen's Union, led by Jacob Johannsen (alias Johnson --- both names appeared at different times). The dictation of terms by the unions caused ripples on the waters already ruffled by difficult trade winds. Any attempt to challenge the management, or to subvert the course of discipline or order, was classified, as 'Job Control'. The term received wide application by management, the Government and the press alike, and was a factor that beset the Line throughout its comparatively brief lifetime. ....

The "Esperance Bay" was the last but one of the Line's ships handed over to the British buyers..... In the first week of August 1928 the last ship, the "Ferndale" was handed over in London.

There was then no longer an Australian Commonwealth Line of steamers. (Build a Fleet, Lose a Fleet, by Capt. R.McDonell, pp.202-215


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(c) The Police strike

Brian McKinley, in his A Documentary History of the Australian Labor Movement, 1850-1975, quotes from the press of the time:

With dramatic suddenness the city was left completely without police protection last night. The 29 constables detailed for night duty declined to parade at 10 o'clock....The decision of the meeting was communicated to the men on duty work, and they expressed sympathy with the cause of dissatisfaction --- the introduction of the system of special supervising senior constables. (Argus, 1 November, 1923) . . . . . . . .

From the indignation at the reflection that a trusted body of men should so comport themselves, many citizens passed to nervous apprehension at the possibilities of the situation. (Argus, 3 November, 1923)

. . . . . . . .

A depot has been opened at the Melbourne Town Hall for the enrolment of loyal citizens as special constables. Many volunteers have already offered their services. (Argus, 3 November, 1923.)

. . . . . . . .

After mature consideration the Government has come to the final decision that it is impossible, in the interests of the public welfare, for it in any circumstances to reinstate any of the strikers. These men have been false to their oaths, have violated their trust, have deserted their posts, and have left the city at the mercy of the lawless elements in the community..... (Mr. H.S.Lawson, Premier of Victoria, Argus, 5 November, 1923.). . . . . . .

The sudden resolve of nearly 1,000 members of the Police Force to refuse duty came as a surprise to the Government. This militant action by the rank and file was even an eye opener to the Industrial and Political Labor Movement. The oblation of the spies commonly known as spooks, who watch the uniform men from behind trees and doorways, was more than the men could stand....

Many trade unionists are wondering how the Industrial Movement was drawn into the dispute....In past industrial disputes the police have always been used to defeat the workers when fighting for better conditions. The bad conditions and low rates of pay compelled the police, as a last resort, to use the weapon that has so often been used by the workers.... (Labor Call, 15 November, 1923.)


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(d) The Labor Daily dispute

In an 8-page pamphlet issued by the journalists who were dismissed from the paper declared

The strike of the Literary Staff of the "Labor Daily" was precipitated on Tuesday, January 6, by the action of some members of the Board of Directors in dismissing directly five members of the Staff and in dismissing by subterfuge one other (E.Dwyer Gray). This precipitate action by the Board was the outcome of its policy of irritation against certain Staff members, objection to Shop Committee organisation, and its contempt for the terms of the A.J.A. Award generally, over a period of months.....

At 5 o'clock on Wednesday, January 7, the Chapel (or Shop Committee of the Literary Staff, which had only been established after fights within the Australian Journalists Association and against the Directors) assembled, declared.....

"That all members of the Chapel who have not been dismissed shall cease work at mid-day to-morrow unless all notices of dismissal have been withdrawn, including the notice sent to Dwyer Gray; and that if no favourable answer is received by the Chapel by that time the Printers' Chapel be asked to refuse, in sympathy with this decision, to set copy; further, that if no favourable reply is received by 12 noon the Father of the Chapel communicate the facts to the Labor Council".

The pamphlet listed the Board of Directors as A.C.Willis (President of the A.L.P. and Secretary of the Coal and Shale Employees'); E.C.McGrath (Vice President of the A.L.P. and Secretary of the Printing Industry Employees' Union of Australia); J.M.Baddeley, M.L.A. (Coal and Shale Employees' Federation); J.T.Lang, (Leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party of N.S.W.) D.Rees (President of the Coal and Shale Employees' Federation). It then set out the story of a letter, purporting to be signed by the Secretary of the A.J.A., which it claimed to be false, asserting that award rates and conditions applied to the staff. As well, it was claimed that orders had been issued that the press matter on the Waterside strike should be toned down and forbade the use of the word "scab".

Jock Garden, Secretary of the Labor Council, on 15th January, 1925, issued a 4-page pamphlet, in which he supported Dwyer Gray's position, particularly in relation to the Paper's editor, Spedding, who had issued to Gray a written order

to write a certain article, which Dwyer Gray felt he could not do without a dereliction of duty to the working class and to the Directorate. Dwyer wrote the article he thought should be written....and supplied Spedding with a written refusal to wite as directed, and his reasons for that refusal....

It might be added that for his work, since September 29 Dwyer Gray has never received award rates, although he has claimed his award rights from the Board.

In another 4-page pamphlet, the Labor Council, over the signatures of J.Beasley and J.Garden, set out its reasons for declaring the "Labor Daily" black including the appointment of Spedding as Editor over "men who had suffered for the working class, and others who knew the Working-class Movement". Spedding, it asserted, had no working class knowledge or training in workingclass journalism. It pointed out that the Miners' Federation had been the major contributor to the financing of the paper and declared

Let the Board call mass meetings of the Miners and allow Messrs. Willis, Baddeley and Magrath to put the case for, the Board, and Messrs. Baddeley, Garden and Dwyer Gray for the Council

We know what the verdict will be.


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(e) The Volumnia Dispute

The British vessel, Volumnia, on charter to the Australian Government, was declared black by the Seamen's Union, after 23 members of its crew were gaoled in Western Australia. Other vessels chartered by the Commonwealth Line to carry accumulating cargo in Britain to various Australian ports, were also declared black. Efforts were then made by the shipowner to transfer the cargo from the Volumnia to the Eromanga and Dilga, two Australian ships. This caused these vessels to be caught up in the bans. The Eromanga was later docked at Cockatoo Island for repairs and the Painters and Dockers refused to work on her.

Upon arrival in Sydney from Melbourne, during the day Mr. W.Raeburn, general secretary of the Federated Seamen's Union, issued a statement the tone of which is conciliatory, and tends to clear uncertainty as to the intentions of the union towards the Eromanga and Dilga....

"There has been much talk about the policy likely to be adopted by the union respecting the Eromanga because she is berthed alongside the 'black' Volumnia to take the latter's cargo", said Mr. Raeburn.

"That the fears expressed on the subject are without foundation is apparent when one refers to the attitude adopted by the union in the parallel case of the Commonwealth Lines chartered vessel Clan Monroe and the Erriba some months ago. On that occasion the Commonwealth Line became panic-like in its doubts whether the Erriba would be tied up by the union owing to her having taken the Clan Monroe's cargo. When the time came, however, the vessel got away with a union crew without any trouble whatever. We are in favour of the retention of the Line, and are opposed to the action of the present Government in disposing of it."

Reports that relations between the seamen and other members of the Marine Transport Group were strained owing to the action of the former in refusing at the beginning of the week to supply a crew after the group had lifted the "black" ban were denied by Mr. W.Seale, chairman of the group, yesterday. (Sydney Morning Herald, 9/4/1925)

This issue became urgent for the Painters and Dockers Union, when Sir John Quick declared to Mahony in the Court that the hearing of the application for a new Award was suspended until he received assurances that the members would work on the Eromanga. Mahony later announced to the Court that his members had agreed to work on the ship. However, the position became exacerbated when Mort's Dock advised that Court that Painters and Dockers were refusing to work on the black ship Volumnia. As well, the shipowners complained about the ban on vessels of the Newcastle and Hunter River company and Mahony was obliged to once more chase the New South Wales Branch for assurances that work would proceed on these vessels. When these assurances were given, the manager of Mort's Dock announced that he would not need to pick up any men for the work on the Volumnia as he already had men working on it.

Mr. W.R.Schwilk, representing Mort's Dock and Engineering Company, said.....With regard to the labor now employed on the Volumnia, the company had waited until last night before it had got any offer, and in the meantime the company had arranged with a body of returned sailors and soldiers to do the work. The company could not see its way clear to dismiss these men.....

Mr. Mahony said that when Mr. Silk asked the union to supply labor he said that he would discharge the men who were now working on the Volumnia. Mr. Silk had gone back on his word..... (The Sun, 18/4/1925).

It is unfortunate that the history, The Seamen's Union of Australia 1871-1972, by Rowan Cahill, gives no details on the Volumnia dispute, particularly why so many of its crew were gaoled in Western Australia.


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(f) Chinese Seamen Solidarity

Another interesting sidelight on the British seamen's strike was the report in the Labor Daily of 2nd September, 1925:

Another remarkable contribution reached the (Labor) council office. It enclosed 10 from the Chinese seamen on vessels in the harbour at present.

"We note with great pleasure the courageous stand the British seamen are making against the reduction of wages by the capitalistic owners" stated the letter

"We Chinese seamen who have been working under the most deplorable, bloodsweating conditions only lately slightly improved by a militant struggle on our part, can full appreciate the object of your fight against capitalism....."


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Last modified: January 19, 2003

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