How Labour Governs. Vere Gordon Childe 1923

Chapter VI. The Industrial Labour Movement

FOR three decades the Labour Movement has been dominated by the idea of political action. The forces of Labour have been concentrated on the effort to capture the parliamentary machine, and the trade unions have been made subservient to the political Labour Parties. But while this is the distinguishing characteristic of the period, there have been periods of revolt against the supremacy of politicalism occasioned by the shortcomings of that policy, its slowness and at last its evident bankruptcy. Such revolts on the part of the industrialists have generally manifested themselves not only in outbursts of direct action, but in a tendency to reorganise the whole structure of unionism on an industrial basis. Before, therefore, attempting to describe these signs of revolt, it becomes necessary to describe in somewhat greater detail the structure of the industrial movement in the period under review.

The industrial organisation of the Australian workers, of course, antedates the formation of political Labour Parties by some fifty years. The origins of trades unionism in the southern continent are shrouded in the mists of obscurity. When, however, it is remembered that among the early convict settlers were the Dorchester labourers transported under the Conspiracy Laws for organising for industrial action, it is not surprising that the seeds of unionism should have borne fruit at an early date in the colony's development. Under the convict system, of course, no unionism was permitted, but even before 1840 benefit societies arose among artisans resembling the embryonic organisations from which English trade unionism sprang. By that year the industrial activities of these bodies was sufficiently noticeable to induce the Legislative Council to pass a drastic Masters and Servants Act aiming at the repression of unionist activity.

The first definite union, of which permanent traces survived was a branch of the Operative Stonemasons Society, founded in Melbourne in 1850. In 1851 the Typographical Association was formed in Sydney, and during the next year prominent members of the A.S.E. who had left England owing to victimisation planted a branch of their society in their new home. The formation of other unions followed, but these were restricted to the skilled craftsman in the cities, and being modelled on and often affiliated with English organisations call for no further description here.

An extension of trades unionism occurred in 1861 when the coal miners of the Newcastle district met together to formulate claims for better wages and to demand better legislation for the ventilation of coal mines. The Hunter River Coal Miners' Protective Association then inaugurated, continued in a rather informal manner from that date. Still, that did not bring unionism to the country districts. And it was the organisation of the bush workers that formed the peculiar problem for the Australian union leaders. The vast army of bush workers, recruited from the unsuccessful prospectors and other immigrants in the days when alluvial workings no longer paid on the goldfields and were replaced by deep mines owned by capitalists and employing an army of wageworkers, presented a problem in organisation which had not previously been tackled in any country. These workers were mainly nomadic, working now in the mines, now in shearing sheds, now on railway construction works. They were, therefore, a body of semi- or unskilled, workers, but the conditions in a new country put a premium on strength and endurance, self-reliance and adaptability as much as on technical skill. The field was, therefore, a promising one.

The first successful organisation among these out-back toilers was the Amalgamated Miners' Association of Victoria. The association organised the miners employed on the several goldfields of that State. Local unions had at first arisen with the object of securing reductions in working hours and preventing the introduction of Chinese labour. These local bodies amalgamated after a conference at Ballarat in 1874, but the organisation was not put upon a sound footing till 1882. It was then reorganised and a benefit section established. From that time the A.M.A. extended its operations beyond Victoria, and successfully organised metalliferous miners in other States, including those employed along the great silver-lead lode of Broken Hill on the N.S.W. border. Later on, however, the A.M.A. restricted its sphere of operations to Victoria and Tasmania. The N.S.W. Barrier, A.M.A., and the unions formed in South Australia continued to exist as separate entities, while the bulk of the other miners in N.S.W. formed the Federated Mine Employees' Union.

The next section of the rural workers to become unionised were the shearers. Peculiar difficulties confronted those who wished to organise these workers. Miners worked at a definite field, and operations were continued all the year round, so that there was every likelihood of the miner having a more or less fixed location and address near the mine. Not so with the shearers. Men would gather from all over the continent to a big shed on the vast station of some pastoralist, stay there for from three to six weeks till the sheep were shorn, and then scatter again to different sheds. The stations are separated by enormous distances, so that organising is difficult. On the other hand, the isolation is not altogether adverse to organisation. These large bodies of men gathered together on remote runs have one topic of common interest – their industrial condition. There are no distractions in the way of churches, music halls, or race meetings to divert their minds from their grievances.

The shearers had plenty of grievances. The accommodation which the squatter provided was of the roughest sort, consisting often simply of tiers of bunks, made out of rough-hewn saplings, in a tin shed, and remember that the shade temperature out West often reaches 115 degrees. The only provisions obtainable had to be purchased from the squatter himself, who sometimes charged excessive prices. The water supply was not always adequate. The shearer was bound by contract to see the shed cut-out, though he could be discharged at any time by the owner. He was paid by piece rates – so many shillings per hundred sheep, and there were devices by which an unscrupulous employer could and often did rob the toiler of part of his earnings.

Now, many members of the A.M.A. used to work in the sheds during the season, and these spread the gospel of unionism among the pastoral workers. After many unsuccessful attempts the Shearers' Union was formed in 1886. The immediate occasion was a proposal by the pastoralists to reduce rates by 2s. 6d. per 100 at the beginning of the season. To resist this reduction, organisations were formed at Ballarat (Victoria), Bourke, and Wagga (N.S.W.), which amalgamated in the following year under the name of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union. A separate union was formed in Queensland, the Q.S.U. In 1890, the shed-labourers or roustabouts, who do not shear but work under the shearers, picking up the wool, etc., and the station hands were formed into a separate organisation. But in 1894 these two sections of the pastoral workers amalgamated, so that the A.S.U. became a strictly industrial union with branches in N.S.W., Victoria, South Australia, and New Zealand. Finally, the Q.S.U. was absorbed in the larger organisation in 1904, and the A.S.U. changed its name to the Australian Workers' Union.

In view of the immensely important ro1e which that union was destined to play, it will be well here to outline the scheme of organisation adopted to handle this large body of men who had no permanent work-place, but who roamed about from one end of a continent to another. The constitution of the A.M.U. took as its model Robert Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. For organising purposes the continent was divided into eight branches, two in Queensland, two in N.S.W., one in Victoria, which also included the southern corner of N.S.W. and Tasmania, one in South Australia which took in the trans-Darling part of N.S.W., and one in West Australia. The supreme government was vested in an annual convention, which met in Sydney every January, and was composed of delegates from the branches elected by a plebiscite vote of the members on a basis of one delegate for every 2,000 members, together with a General President and a General Secretary, elected each year by ballot of the whole membership. It was for convention to lay down the general policy of the union for the forthcoming year, to receive the reports of the officers and to determine the remuneration to be paid them. The reports of the debates of Convention are published verbatim in the Worker, and a printed report is sent to every member of the union. Between conventions an Executive Council had general authority. It consisted of the General President and Secretary and a Vice-President representing each State together with one councillor from each branch. Provided three States were represented seven constituted a quorum. This Executive had considerable powers; it could suspend officers or councillors, vary or suspend rules, and strike a levy by a two-thirds majority. It was the body responsible for submitting cases to the Federal Arbitration Court.

Nevertheless a large degree of local autonomy was left to the branches. The latter were governed by a general meeting which could be called by notice in the Worker. Fifteen constituted a quorum – rather a small number considering that the branch membership might easily run into several thousand. Subject to the decisions of Convention the branch meeting was the supreme governing authority in the branch, and elected members of the branch committee. The branch officers, however – Chairman, two Vice-Chairmen, and Secretary, as well as delegates to congresses, were elected by plebiscite. The branch committee, consisting of these officers and the committeemen elected at the general meeting, had power to suspend any branch officer, subject to review by the branch meeting, and to choose the branch representative on the Executive Council. The committee also had charge of disputes with employers subject to the directions of the Executive. The remuneration of the Secretary and Organisers was to be determined by the branch meetings.

An important person in the A.W.U scheme is the “shedrep.” The first thing done when a team of shearers and shed hands foregather at a shed was the election of a shed-representative. He was obliged to communicate with the branch Secretary, and with the assistance of two committeemen would see that only unionists were working at the shed by holding a show of tickets. He also conducts any negotiations with the station owner, collects fines and levies, and forwards to the Secretary the numerous resolutions carried at the shed for submission to the Annual Convention.

The A.W.U. constitution made provision for the taking of plebiscite votes of all members on any question. There is a Parliamentary Fund not exceeding 1s. per member for organising to assist in the return of pledged Labour candidates. In fact, the union had been from the first a strong supporter of the Labour Party. Its objects included: “(d) to gradually replace the present competitive system of industry by a co- operative system,” and (g)” to endeavour by political action to secure social justice.” Many officers of the A.W.U., notably W. G. Spence, M.H.R., who was General President from 1898 to 1916, and Donald Macdonnell, who was General Secretary from 1900 till his death in 1912, have been returned to Parliament in the Labour interest, and the union has ever been closely connected with the Party organisation. It has also been a pioneer in Labour journalism, founding and owning the Sydney Worker, and, through the A.L.F., sharing in the control of the Queensland Worker. One of these papers is posted each week to every member of the union.

Successful organisation for the remaining classes of bush workers came much later. In Queensland the main impulse in that direction came from an organisation of miners about 1908 – the Amalgamated Workers' Association. This union was originally just one of a number of small unions of miners modelled on the Victorian A.M.A., but it extended its operations first to cover all the miners in the north and then to include navvies and other bodies of hitherto unorganised workers. The history of this body is, however, so closely bound up with the One Big Union Movement that it will be convenient to postpone dealing with it until a later chapter. Another section of the rural and nomadic workers of Queensland was organised about the same time.

Till 1905 the sugar industry had been worked entirely by coloured labour, but in that year the Federal Government began deporting the kanakas who had hitherto worked in the cane-fields in the interests of a White Australia, and so white labour came in to take their places. The cutting of the cane and its milling is seasonal work, the two operations being carried on contemporaneously. The harvest lasts from July to October, and within this period the cane must be cut and, as soon as possible, crushed into raw sugar. Any interruption in the process seriously threatens the value of the crop, and, therefore, growers have sought to ensure continuity of work in their contracts with the cutters and labourers. The former work in a gang which is paid by the piece, so much per ton of cane cut, but both cutters and mill hands sign contracts as a rule for the whole season, and the conditions imposed by masters accustomed to servile coloured labour were extraordinary. However, as soon as black labour had begun to disappear, attempts were made to organise the sugar-workers. That was especially difficult, inasmuch as many of them just came up from the south for the season to engage in other occupations. By 1908 the Bundaberg Union had about 400 members, and that at Mackay, further north, some 468. Thereafter the several local unions joined forces in the Amalgamated Sugar-Workers' Union. By 1910 that body claimed over 2,000 members.

It was, however, obvious that the attempt to organise such migrants into sectional unions was almost impossible and profoundly uneconomical. They had no fixed trade, but were cane-cutters one month, miners another, and shearers or navvies in a third. To cater for such migrants a composite body was needed, and to the leaders of the A.W.A. belongs the credit of seeing this. The A.W.A. extended its sphere of operations, taking in all classes of general labour and absorbing the A.S.W.U. en bloc. It was no longer necessary. for the bush worker to join half a dozen unions in earning his living through the year, as he passed from the cane-field to the railway construction works, and thence, perhaps, to the mining camp or the saw-mills. One ticket covered all these occupations. At the same time a single organiser could look after the cane-cutters, navvies, miners, lumbermen and others working in a single district, which formerly several distinct organisers had to traverse in the interests of their several distinct unions, each attending only to one section of the workers whom they met.

The success of this experiment in Queensland proved that the type of organisation set up by the A.W.A. was the only one really adapted to cater for the nomadic bushmen. Hence, at a later date, the A.W.U. took in not only the Queensland A.W.A., but also the several sectional organisations of bush workers formed in the south – the Rural Workers' Union – harvesters, wheat porters, etc. The Australian Carriers' Union, the Rabbiters' Union, and later still the Railway Workers' and General Labourers' Union in N.S.W., and the United Labourers' Union of South Australia – navvies and construction workers – and the F.M.E.U. the metalliferous miners. But these developments will be described in a later chapter.

While a special form of union organisation was being thus evolved for the bush workers of Australia, the introduction of compulsory arbitration exercised a profound influence on unionism in general. In the first place it gave a notable filip to the formation of unions. In N.S.W. in the two years following the passage of Wise's Act (1901) no fewer than 111 new unions were registered as compared with twenty-six in the preceding ten years! Many of the new unions were created to assist the worst-paid and hitherto unorganised workers in approaching the court. A large accession to the number of women unionists was incidental to this process. On the other hand, the legal recognition of unionism by the Arbitration Act prompted the employers to promote “yellow” unions to keep the bona fide organisations of the wage-earners from the court, or to secure the registration of agreements favourable to the employers. We have already referred to the most notorious of such bogus unions – the Machine Shearers' Union – which kept the A.W.U. from securing registration under the N.S.W. Act for several years. But the safeguards contained in the laws have generally been sufficient to prevent such “boss-controlled” organisations getting a footing, save when the genuine unions have put themselves out of court by participating in illegal strikes, e.g., after the 1917 debacle. On the other hand, the popularisation of arbitration has of late years led to the formation of unions among purely brain-workers, such as journalists, teachers and bank clerks.

The creation of the Commonwealth Court of Arbitration and Conciliation in 1904 exercised a further modifying influence on trade union structure. Under the constitution this tribunal can only take cognisance of disputes extending beyond the limits of a single State. As a consequence Federal or Inter-State unions are in a better position to approach the Commonwealth court than those which confine their activities to a single State. Since, therefore, at that time some States had no wage-regulating machinery at all, the existence of the Commonwealth court stimulated the formation of all-Australian unions. These in most cases took the form of federations of existing State unions, which still left the State branches with considerable powers of local autonomy, since they had to conform to the several rules of the respective State Trade Union Acts whose protection they still desired to enjoy.

Hence we may distinguish four main types of unions in Australia, each of which might be sub-divided according as the organisations comprised under it are purely local, Statewide or Federal in their scope.

(1) Craft and occupational Unions (boiler-makers, clerks, etc.). Industrial unions. Composite or mass unions. Single shop unions.

The first type need no further exposition here. It is found all over the world, though in Australia the sub-divisions of occupations, especially in cases where they are based not on a diversity of apprenticeship training, e.g., in N.S.W., Municipal and Shire Employees, Local Government Overseers and Local Government Clerks', Australian Clerical Association, Public Service Association, have been carried rather far in some instances.

Industrial unionism is the rule on the railways, in mining, in the meat trade, and to some extent among boot-workers. On the railways, in addition to the usual clashes with the Locomotive Engineers, and the employees of the shops as well as small sectional organisations, industrial unionism has to contend with peculiar difficulties in certain States. For instance, in N.S.W., the railways and tramways are under the same management, and, therefore, the industrial union formed to embrace all the employees of the Railway Commissioners – the Amalgamated – had to include also tramwaymen. But the trammen were organised in a federal union of their own, which, as far as the employees of other tramway systems are concerned, aims at a Commonwealth award. The railwaymen being employees of a State instrumentality could not come under the Federal court, and so in N.S.W. the two unions inevitably clashed. In Queensland, on the other hand, the Railway Commissioner is also charged with construction of new lines, and the Q.R.U. has come into conflict with the A.W.U. as to the disposal of these construction workers. In N.S.W. there are at present thirteen different unions catering for railwaymen, not counting the craft unions, whose members work in the repair and construction shops. When the Queensland Court of Industrial Arbitration desires to make an award for all the employees of the Commissioner no less than twenty-six different unions have to appear before it!

In coal mining the organisation is based on a federation of local lodges. Originally there were three local federations in N.S.W., one for each of the great coalfields of the State. These linked up in 1908 into a federation of federations, and later on the whole was reorganised so as to take in the miners of Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland. The Barrier Branch of the A.M.A. has also affiliated with this federation, which is known as the Coal and Shale Employees' Federation. There are, however, even in this industry, a number of craft or sectional organisations outside the federation, such as the engine-drivers, the deputies and shot firers, and others.

The Amalgamated Meat Industry Employees' Union is a Federal union which allows great local autonomy to its several State branches. This is essential, owing to the diversity of conditions in the industry from State to State. In N.S.W., for instance, most of the killing is done near the big cities, and is carried on all the year round. In Queensland, on the other hand, there is an enormous seasonal export trade which requires the concentration of a special army of workers round the big export works who may drift away again at the end of the season. In the latter State the A.M.I.E.U. is a strictly industrial union covering all classes of meat workers, wholesale and retail, as well as fellmongers, and all the various types of labour employed in the big canning and freezing works-tinsmiths, packers, freezing-room hands, as well as slaughtermen, the only exceptions being the members of the A.S.E. and the F.E.D. & F. Less perfect industrial unions exist for painters, furniture trades employees, boot-workers, and a few others. But in general the movement towards industrial unionism, except in the first two instances, has been associated with a conscious movement away from political action, and will, therefore, be described later.

The same remark holds good with regard to the formation of composite or mass unions as exemplified in the A.W.A. in Queensland, and in the A.W.U., after its amalgamation with the last-named body. The structure of that union has already been described.

The single shop union is very often a yellow union. For instance. the employees of the B.H.P. Co.'s steel-works at Newcastle have been formed into the Australian Steel Industry Employees' Union, which is definitely a tame union attached to the one firm mentioned. Its rules contain special provision against a strike under any circumstances. But though several other unions of the same type have similar ends in view, that does not hold good in every case. The Lithgow Small Arms Factory Employees' Union, while formally falling within this class, is not really a bosses' organisation. In some cases unions of this type merge into industrial unions – as, for instance, the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage Employees' Union in N.S.W.

Such a variety of forms of organisation naturally creates a state of chaos in the industrial world. The 581,755 unionists of the Commonwealth are divided up among 394 organisations. In N.S.W. alone it takes 217 unions to organise 243,176 members. Often two different unions cater for exactly the same class of worker – as, for instance, the Amalgamated and the Progressive Societies of Carpenters and Joiners (these have at last amalgamated in 1921). Craft and industrial organisations cause endless overlapping, while sectional and occupational unions fight among themselves – the A.C.A. opposed the registration of the Bank Officers, and still fights with the Public Service Association. There has been no central authority in the trade union world to control the formation of unions or check these abuses. On the industrial field Labour has failed to achieve anything like unity even within the borders of a single State. Between the States there is no co-ordinating force whatever.

Yet for thirty years Labour in Australia has been trying to achieve the same unity on the industrial front as it has achieved in the arena of politics, but it has so far signally failed. This endeavour has followed two main lines – through federations or through amalgamation under the inspiration of the One Big Union idea. The first line of policy has meant no break with the tradition of constitutional and political action, and has, in fact, been bound up with that policy. The amalgamation movement, on the other hand, is definitely associated with a revolt against the traditional policy, and signifies an inclination to break with the conservative compromising methods of the Labour Party, and the subordination of unionism to politics. Before proceeding, therefore, to give an account of the latter movement, it will be well to summarise briefly the organs created or projected with the object of co-ordinating the forces of unionism without affecting the ideals or methods of the Labour Movement.