How Labour Governs. Vere Gordon Childe 1923

Chapter VII. The Co-ordination of Union Forces by Federations

THE first institutions which attempted to bring some order into the trade union world in the Australian colonies were the Trades and Labour Councils in the several capital cities. In these the unions early began to meet together, and when sites were granted for Trades Halls joint committees of the unions were formed for the management of the institutions In 1884 the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, founded originally for this object, enlarged its scope so as to be able to deal with general questions of common interest to unionists. In other States Labour Councils were established apart from the board or committee administering the affairs of the common hall. These were the first, and are even to-day the only, permanent organisations which exist to co-ordinate the forces of unionism. But they are only consultative bodies, and their decisions cannot be enforced upon the constituent unions. Nor are they fully representative, since it is seldom that more than half the unions in any State are affiliated. Finally, they are essentially urban bodies, so that only unions which have offices in the metropolis can effectively be affiliated. That is, however, a smaller disability than might at first appear owing to the extraordinary centralisation of industry in the capital cities.

These remarks will be made clearer by a brief account of the Sydney – or, as it has been called since 1910, the N.S.W. Labour Council. This assembly meets every Thursday night in the Sydney Trades Hall. Its objects are to improve the conditions of labour, to discuss and put in force approved schemes for the better guidance and extension of Labour organisation, to prevent, if possible, disputes between unionists and employers, to uphold the rules of affiliated unions, and, in cases of need, to find ways and means for the support of the union concerned. Provision is also made in the rules for the direct representation of Labour in Parliament and the establishment of a Labour daily. District Councils may be set up and affiliated councils exist at Newcastle, Goulburn, Lithgow, and Broken Hill, but they can seldom be represented at the Sydney meetings. Affiliated unions are allowed one delegate for every 300 members or part thereof, but the maximum delegation from any one organisation is three. This limitation in practice discourages large unions like the C.&S.E.F., the Railwaymen, and the A.W.U., from affiliating inasmuch as these huge unions object to being limited to the same voting power as a relatively tiny craft union of some 750 members. The Council is governed by an Executive of eleven, assisted by a paid Secretary. All these are elected annually, though in point of fact the Secretary is always re-elected until he gets a seat in Parliament or some other position. Financially the Council is very weak. The affiliation fee is only 3d. per member per quarter, unions need not pay for more than half their total membership, and the maximum liability corresponding to the limitation in the representation granted, is 3 15s. per quarter. Thus the Council, when its Secretary and office staff have been paid, has little left over for other purposes. Even so the salaries paid were not large. J. Cochran, in 1908, received 3 10s. a week, his successor, E. J. Kavanagh, in 1911, got 5, while in 1921 Garden is paid 8.

The Council has no power to strike a levy on members of affiliated societies, still less can it call them out on strike. The Council, therefore, cannot offer any very material benefits to its component unions, and so cannot back up very forcibly the recommendations which alone it has power to make. It is, therefore, not surprising that affiliation is a matter of indifference to many unionists, and that the decisions of the Council are often ignored by individual unions. It attained its maximum strength in 1916, when 124 unions out of 199 were affiliated to it, but even then three of the biggest organisations, the Coal-miners, the Railwaymen, and the A.W.U., held aloof.

Still, the Council has from time to time attempted to exercise a restraining influence on the internal policy of unions. Several efforts, for example, have been made to prevent the formation of overlapping unions. During 1908, for instance, affiliation was refused to the Builders' Labourers' and the Rock-choppers' Unions on the grounds that their members could join an already existing organisation – the United Labourers' Protective Society. But this decision did not seriously embarrass either of the bodies affected. In fact, in that very same year when the Rock-choppers were on strike, the Council was compelled to give them moral support, and by 1913 they were affiliated, while the Builders' Labourers were admitted in the same year.

During the first half of 1911 the Council was called upon to consider a dispute between the Federated Millers and Mill Employees, which, as an industrial union, claimed to admit to membership all employees in the flour-milling industry, and the Federated Engine-drivers and Firemen. The Council in this connection went into the whole question of craft versus industrial unionism, and declared by 86 to 14 in favour of the former. It, therefore, became the duty of the Council to oppose the formation of industrial union which might conflict with existing craft associations. Yet it was powerless to prevent the formation of a branch of the A.M.I.E.U., which was even admitted to affiliation in 1916. But this was a strictly industrial union, and the Secretary had criticised it as such in his report for the first half of 1914. Several other instances could be quoted in which the Council was flouted - notably the celebrated recommendation to unions to ignore Wade's Industrial Disputes Act of 1908, and again to refuse to furnish returns under Beeby's Arbitration Act of 1918.

But despite the incompetence of the Labour Council to enforce its decisions upon its constituent unions, its moral influence has been considerable. It has given valuable service in providing a nucleus organisation by means of which industrial disputes may be guided. Any industrial trouble which an affiliated union cannot settle amicably is under the rules to be reported to the Secretary of the Council for submission to the Executive. The latter is empowered to attempt to secure a settlement, and if other unions are likely to be affected, to call them in for consultation. The Council reserves the right to withhold assistance from an affiliated body striking without first consulting the Executive or rejecting its advice, and may even suspend the offending body. But as its powers of help are small the threat is rather ineffectual. The assistance it can give is threefold.

It can, and generally does, call in the representatives of unions likely to be affected by any trouble with a view of securing their co-operation in the event of a strike. Of course, the Council cannot compel concerted action in support of a strike, but the solidarity of Labour is so real a thing in Australia that compulsion is unnecessary, and one section of the workers will readily come out to help their comrades when called upon. For example, in 1908 the Sydney Wharf Labourers, in support of their fellows at Newcastle, refused to handle the cargo carried by the recalcitrant shipowners, the Newcastle and Hunter River S.S. Co. and the Illawarra S.S. Co. The steamship owners in reply took on non-unionists, and as a result caused the whole 3,000 unionists to withdraw their labour from the wharves. The Council decided that the dispute was to be confined to the coastal shipping companies and secured the co-operation of the other maritime unions. The seamen, marine engineers, and officers left their ships. The painters and dockers and other engineering unions declined to work on the coastal companies' boats, and the trolley and dray men refused to cart their goods. By these means the Wharf Labourers' dispute was brought to a triumphant conclusion.1 Similar co-ordination in action was secured in the Hoskins strike of 1911. This trouble began at Lithgow, but iron made by non-union labour was sent to Sydney. On the motion of the Lithgow unionists the Council decided to declare this iron “black.” The Executive convened a conference of the iron trades and a defence committee under the chairmanship of the Council's President was set up, representing A.S.E., Blacksmiths, Boilermakers' Cokeworkers, Engine-drivers, Moulders, and Stove-makers.

But if, in these and other disputes, the Labour Council was successful in enlisting the active support of other allied workers in support of a union on strike, that was not uniformly the case. In 1908 the Council promised its support to the Tramway Union on behalf of two conductors who were believed to have been unjustly dismissed from the Government service as a result of reports sent in by plain clothes spies employed by the Commissioners. The drivers and conductors ceased work at 10 a.m. on October 23rd, completely paralysing the traffic of the metropolis. But the promised support of the Council did not materialise. Some 250 of the men employed at the power-house indeed ceased work, but they did not succeed in cutting off the current completely, and eventually returned to work. An attempt to involve the Locomotive Engine-drivers ended in a fiasco, and the Council itself, after an inquiry, exonerated the association on the ground that they had not been consulted before the stoppage. The Government was able to keep some sort of service going by blackleg labour, and the strike ended on the 31st with a panic rush back to work. Here it was generally held that the support given by the Council was incommensurate with its commitments to the Tramway Union, and bitter recriminations resulted. In the Big Strike of 1917 the utter inadequacy of the Council's machinery to handle a big dispute was terribly demonstrated, as we shall see anon.

In addition to rallying the forces of unionism to the support of a striking union by direct participation, the Council is the recognised medium by which financial assistance from other bodies and other States can be secured for strikers. Although itself having no funds for that purpose, appeals, backed by the Council, are sure of support from labour organisations all over Australia. For the Lithgow Strike of 1911 the Council raised by this means 2,370, from which single strikers were paid 1 per week, and married men 30s., together with 2s. 6d. for each child. The Council also paid the fines that were not remitted by the Labour Government. To the Barrier Strike of 1909 the Council contributed 4,873, while it raised 22,277, and a loan of 1,000, free of interest, from the A.S.E., for the 1917 strikers. In 1914 the northern miners, who were not affiliated to the Council, found it necessary to obtain the endorsement of that body before they could raise money in other States.

Thirdly, the Council could act as mediator between the opposing forces in an industrial dispute. The intervention of its officers has often resulted in a settlement being reached where the unaided efforts of the individual union had failed. So in 1908 their intervention secured the iron-workers' assistants the right to refuse to work with non-unionists. Again, in 1913, Kavanagh, the Secretary, was able to settle a dispute at Tooth's Brewery advantageously for the men. In the same year his decision in a case of alleged victimisation of an undertaker was accepted though adverse to the men, and he was able to settle a demarcation dispute between the boilermakers and the shipwrights at Cockatoo Naval Dockyard, for which act the Council was formally thanked.

However, the decisions of the Council's officers were not always acceptable to the unions. A dispute between the Musicians' Union and the management of one of the Sydney theatres was referred to Mr. Kavanagh for adjudication in July, 1914. He found for the management. The union rejected his decision, and for a long time resisted the plan of settlement subsequently brought forward. Even when the musicians had to accept this scheme, and all the strikers had been reinstated, a resolution was tabled for the union to withdraw from affiliation with the Council, and it took a deputation from the latter body to secure the rejection of the motion.

In addition to these services, the Council in May, 1914, established an Industrial Arbitration Department to advise unions about cases for courts or boards, prepare documents, and even conduct cases for them. The Department was well patronised at first, and gave the unions efficient assistance in the complicated legal actions which were coming to take up more and more of the time of their secretaries, and did all this more cheaply than any private lawyer. But in April, 1915, Mr. Henwood, the ex-Secretary of the Saddlers' Union, who had been officer in charge at 5 a week, resigned to set up business on his own account, and took much of the department's business away with him. After this the volume of business diminished, and the department came to an end with the 1917 strike.

The Labour Council has since been responsible for the establishment of a Labour College in opposition to the W.E.A. and also for the initiation of a Labour Research and Information Bureau. But its most important function has remained the provision of a centre where the opinions of organised labour can be formulated and a channel through which they may find expression. Though its decisions are sometimes rather academic, they have, nevertheless, considerable weight industrially. Thus the passage of the peace resolution through the Council in 1918 was the direct occasion which led to the famous Perth Resolutions of the A.L.P. Unfortunately, however, a sort of party system has developed within the Council, and now the left and right wings of the Labour Movement meet there as two distinct forces, generally voting in divisions on strict party lines, and observing a sort of Caucus system in their tactics for manipulating the decisions of the assembly.

The most obvious defect of the existing force to co-ordinate industrial activities is its inadequacy. Although loyalty to the principle of solidarity is generally sufficient to ensure the co-operation of all affected unions in any dispute through the ad hoc committees which the Council sets up, this step is generally delayed too long, and a union may find itself thus dragged into a strike, on the merits of which it was never consulted. But a much greater cause of weakness is the absence of any permanent organisation to co-ordinate the forces of labour from State to State. A large number of unions are Federal in extent; the Commonwealth Arbitration Court makes awards for all the States; many industrial disputes, from their very nature, must affect more than one State – e.g., on the water-front or in the pastoral industry, and the effects of a strike in one State may react disastrously on the workers in another – for instance, a stoppage in the coal production of N.S.W. soon leads to the closing down of the factories in Victoria, which draw their coal supplies from N.S.W. But despite the real nexus that patently cements the industrial interests of the workers in the several States, there is absolutely no regular or permanent body to control their forces or direct industrial action between State and State.

Unionists have long been conscious of this defect, for they had, as we have already seen, a very lively sense of the community of interest among the workers throughout Australia. Between 1879 and 1891 Inter-Colonial Trade Union Congresses were held regularly, and from 1884 schemes for closer organisation between the States were discussed. The earlier ones remained in the air, but in 1889 a plan for an Australian Labour Federation was approved, and again endorsed at Ballarat two years later.

The A.L.F. scheme provided for the division of Australasia into seven provinces corresponding to the seven colonies. The provinces might be further divided into districts. District Councils were to be set up to administer the latter. Over these came a Provincial Council consisting of delegates from the District Councils, and above all, there was to be a General Council. This was constituted of delegates from the District Councils – one for each 5,000 members or part thereof. The General Council would elect a President, Secretary, and Treasurer, who formed an Executive with power to interpret rules and convene meetings of the General Council. The scheme was to be financed by a levy of 4d. per month per member on affiliated union. Of this sum 1d. was to go to the General Council, 2d. was to be used for a district defence fund, and the balance was to be divided between the District and Provincial Councils for organising expenses. The powers of the several Councils were mainly deliberative, but important powers were conferred upon the District Council to ensure united industrial action.

In the event of an affiliated union being involved in a dispute which it could not settle amicably by itself it must submit the question to the District Executive. If the latter also failed to effect a settlement, the District Council was to be consulted. But the latter would not have a free hand, save in cases of extreme emergency, but must consult the constituent unions. If the latter approved by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast at a plebiscite, the Council might pledge its aid to the union concerned. In this case financial assistance up to 1 per week a member might be granted to those locked out or on strike, a levy might be struck, and the active co-operation of other unions sought. The District Council might censure in the name of the Federation any employer who showed himself a bitter enemy of labour. This censure was to be communicated to the Provincial Executive, and practically meant the declaration of a boycott against the offender. A union striking without consulting its District Council was not entitled to the support of the Federation.

This scheme never was applied as a whole, but the northern province was declared to be organised in Queensland in 189o. This body was soon able to prove its effectiveness. The shearers and shed hands refused to work with non-unionists or accept a proposed reduction of rates. The pastoralists of the Darling Downs resolved to fight, but the Council of the A.L.F., on January 11th, 1891, resolved to support the pastoral workers. When, therefore, Jondaryan shore with non-union labour they intervened. The transport workers of Brisbane under the A.L.F. refused to handle the non-union wool. A steamer was held up in consequence, and eventually the shipowners put pressure on the pastoralists to meet the union leaders and negotiate a settlement. Thus on its first test the A.L.F. secured a big victory for the bush workers.

In the same year, however, the A.L.F., in common with the majority of the Australian unions, became involved in the Maritime Strike and suffered severely from its collapse. Thereafter the Federation remained numerically very weak till the period of the general revival of attention to industrial organisation which began in Queensland about 1909. In the interval the A.L.F. had to rely chiefly on the A.W.U., the Waterside Workers' Unions, and the Boot Trade Employees. The principal craft unions preferred connection with the urban trades councils fearing to be outvoted by the big unions if they entered the Federation, and objecting to the high dues it demanded. But despite the fewness of the unions affiliated, the A.L.F. has played a magnificent part in the history of unionism in Queensland. It started the first labour paper in Australia – the Worker, which William Lane edited. It initiated the political Labour Movement, and sent out organisers all over the State to establish W.P.O.'s in every populous centre. A number of unions owe their formation to its activities. In 1890 it appointed an organiser to form a union of the women in the clothing trades, and great success attended her efforts. Similarly, the A.L.F. was able to revive the Bakers' Union and set up several unions for bush workers. In 1908 the accession of the newly-formed A.M.A. gave the A.L.F. a great impetus. At this time it was composed almost exclusively of bush unions, the only exceptions being the Boot Trade Employees and the Progressive S.C.&J.

In August, 1910, the first Queensland Trade Union Congress was held in Brisbane, and this assembly of unionists decided that the A.L.F. was too useful an institution to be allowed to die out. The principal resolution, emanating from the Boot Trade Employees, ran:

“That the time has arrived for the complete federation of all the workers of Queensland, and that as a means to this end steps be taken to secure the affiliation of all industrial organisations with the A.L.F.”

This was supported by Theodore, A.W.A., who declared that in the north they had found the A.L.F. equal to every emergency. Crampton, A.M.I.E.U. and McCosker, Printing Trades, spoke in a similar strain, pointing out how successfully the several crafts in these industries had been organised into a single body.1 A similar resolution was again carried at the second Congress held in the next year. It is interesting to note the reasons advanced at this gathering for the failure of unions to join the Federation. Harry Coyne said that in most cases the point was raised that affiliation would mean encroaching on the unions' funds, and they wanted to provide accident, out-of-employment, superannuation, mortality, and goodness knows what other funds. He never saw a great union that could be true to unionism that provided all these funds. McCosker stated that the A.S.C. & J. and other unions could not afford to affiliate because they were amalgamated with English organisations, and had to pay levies of from is. to 4s. a week. 2

By this time, however, the A.L.F. had again given a practical demonstration of its power in connection with the big Sugar Strike, organised by the A.W.A. as soon as it had absorbed the Sugar Workers' Union. Conditions in that industry had been terrible. Labourers were only paid 22s. 6d. a week for a ten-hour day in the tropical sun. The A.W.A. demanded 30s., an eight-hour day, and a modification of the oppressive agreement demanded from the cane-cutters. The A.L.F. gave the new amalgamation every assistance, appointing special organisers, opening subscriptions, and helping to organise camps of strikers. But unskilled labour could be imported from other States, and the industry was not completely paralysed. So the strike dragged on for three months. Then the A.L.F. convened a conference of Inter-State transport unions. The seamen, marine engineers, waterside workers, and storemen and packers agreed to declare sugar “black.” That would have meant either that the raw sugar was abandoned in the north or that the coastal shipping of Queensland would be paralysed. This decision was announced on August 12th, and on the 14th the strike was settled by an agreement granting a forty-eight hour week, with a maximum working day of nine hours and a minimum rate of 30s. a week, with time and a quarter for overtime for all sugar workers.

Perhaps in view of the victory thus gained the Brisbane Trades and Labour Council, in obedience to the resolution of the T.U.C., suspended operation on September 22nd, in favour of the A.L.F. The rules of the A.L.F. at this time were on the whole those already described. On the Provincial Council unions were entitled to one delegate for the first 500 members or part thereof, and an additional delegate for every further 1,000 members, with a maximum of four delegates, or on District Councils one for every fifty members with the same limitation. Affiliation fees were 4s. per member per annum. Of this 3s. went to the Worker, and entitled members to receive a copy of the journal by post every week. The powers originally assigned to the District Council were in the main exercised by the Provincial Council. It was to the latter that a union must appeal in the event of a threatened dispute. If the trouble was likely to affect other unions the Council was bound to arrange a joint meeting of the unions concerned. It was empowered to support an approved strike financially, either by striking a levy on members of the Federation or issuing an appeal.

The power of the newly-revived Federation was tested in the following year by the Tramway Strike. Then the A.L.F. called a general strike of all the unions in the State and received a magnificent response. It managed the great stoppage very creditably on the whole, and its failure cannot well be ascribed to any formal defect in organisation. But fail it did, and that failure spelt the death warrant of the organisation. In 1913 the Provincial Council decided to increase the Worker dues from 3s. to 5s. per annum. The new fees were too heavy for the smaller unions, crippled financially by the cost of the strike. By 1914 eleven unions had seceded, and as a result the Federation was formally dissolved. This result was hastened by the attitude of the A.W.U., which since its fusion with the A.W.A. had become the apostle of One Big Unionism and amalgamation instead of federation. The control of the Worker was accordingly taken over by the latter in conjunction with the A.M.I.E.U. So ended the Australian Labour Federation.

But the Federation had never been, as intended, Australian. In 1894, indeed, an attempt was made for form a branch in N.S.W., but it did not find unanimous support and was dissolved four years later. Other attempts have been made periodically to set up some sort of permanent body to co-ordinate the forces of unionism throughout Australia, but inter-State jealousies, the apathy and meanness of unionists and the problem of establishing really effective and continuous contact between centres so widely separated as the State capitals have always wrecked these excellent plans. It would be a matter of only academic interest to describe all these unsuccessful efforts, and we will therefore refer the reader to the interesting compendium of proposals collected in the appendix to Sutcliffe's “History of Trade Unionism in Australia.” Here we will content ourselves with a reference to one of the latest schemes, because its failure is so obviously due to the reaction against the conservative tradition that it forms a good introduction to the study of that revolt.

In 1913 the New Zealand workers were involved in a terrific struggle, and it appeared likely that the trouble would spread to Australia. A conference of the unions exposed to the danger – the Maritime Workers, Coal-Miners and A.W.U. was accordingly summoned to consider the position. It seems to have been the object of the promoters of the conference – especially W. M. Hughes, the President of the Waterside Workers' Federation – to restrict the aid rendered by Australian unionists to their New Zealand comrades, to monetary contributions, and to prevent a sympathy strike breaking out in the Commonwealth. That was at any rate the policy adopted. Out of this conference arose a plan for an Australian Unions' Federation. The preamble refers to “the octopus-like grip of Capitalism over the whole civilised world and the consequent inadequacy of the loose system of local control to struggle successfully against these combinations of capitalists. To meet this situation a Federation of unions or federations of unions was to be set up, the management of which would be entrusted to a Council of Twelve elected biennially by the Conference of the Federation. The Conference was to be constituted on a basis of one delegate for every 5,000 members up to a maximum of four. The voting power of each union delegation would be proportionate to the number of members in the organisations they represented, but no single union might exercise more than one-third of the aggregate number of votes to which the affiliated organisations are entitled. An annual affiliation fee of 5 was to be paid by each union, and Per capita fees might also be imposed.

The most important rule was the following:

“Every affiliated organisation shall, at the earliest opportunity, notify the General Secretary of the Federation of any dispute which may involve an industrial disturbance, or any proposed alteration of existing industrial conditions in the industry in which such organisation operates. The General Secretary shall make a record of all such matters in a special book kept for that purpose, and immediately on receipt of such notification, refer all such matters to the Council, who shall determine the course to be taken by the organisation immediately concerned, as well as by all affiliated organisations ; and such decision shall be binding upon the organisation immediately affected, and upon all other organisations affiliated.

“No cessation of work or disturbance of existing conditions (which may involve an industrial dispute) by an affiliated organisation, shall take place unless, and until the matter has been laid before the Council, and the Council has so decided.

“In the event of any industrial disturbance, or dispute or alteration of industrial conditions in which any organisation or organisations not affiliated with the Federation are concerned, the Council shall take official notice of the matter, and shall discuss and decide the attitude to be adopted by the Federation, and every affiliated organisation, and no affiliated organisation shall act, or refuse to act, in regard to such dispute except as decided by the Council.”

That pretty clearly betrays the real objects of the proposed Federation.

To what extent this pretentious scheme ever functioned is uncertain. The coal-miners and some of the waterside unions seem actually to have affiliated, and J. H. Catts, M.H.R., was appointed as Secretary. He wrote to the A.W.U. Convention of 1915 soliciting the support of that union. The comments of delegates throw an illuminating sidelight upon trade union psychology at the moment.

Harry Coyne said that the scheme was a sort of checkmate on the industrial ardour of men. Under it a big union could be prevented from taking action. Mr. Hughes had taken a clever point in this, and when he could prevent the waterside workers from coming out, he would always do so. The scheme was loaded. Grey remarked that Mr. Hughes and his apostles were seemingly going to run an apostolic government of the industrial side of labour so that peace would be preserved purely in the interest of the political side of the Movement. Lambert described the proposals as “a cunningly devised scheme by a few wily politicians to hobble, bind and shackle the unions. It was not a good thing to allow politicians to get too great a grip upon the control of industrial organisation. The day was fast approaching when a stand would have to be taken.” 1

Catts' letter was allowed to lie on the table, and nothing more was ever heard of the Australian Unions Federation. In the future the plans of Labour leaders for closer unity from State to State ran rather on the lines of amalgamation than federation. So in thirty years the industrial Labour Movement has not been able to evolve any permanent unifying organs even of a consultative nature such as the political movement has achieved.