How Labour Governs. Vere Gordon Childe 1923

Chapter VIII. The Growth of the Reaction Against Politicalism

THE remarks of the A.W.U. delegates, with which we concluded the last chapter, are symptomatic of the change which had come over the outlook of industrialists since the beginning of the century. To understand this change it will be necessary to go back several years; for the roots of the revolt against politicalism go back as far as 1907. The movement of thought in this period is not continuous, but oscillatory, varying with the political and economic circumstances of the time. Its beginnings may be associated with the realisation that the increases of wage secured by Arbitration Court awards were being neutralised by the rapid increase of prices from 1908 onward. But at this time militancy was checked by the prospect of the return of Labour Governments in the chief industrial States from which, so far untried, great things were expected, and by the disastrous results of experiments in direct action under hostile Ministries which recalled the lessons of the 'nineties.

Secondly, when a spell of Labour Governments had failed to bring any relief to the workers, but real wages continued to fall, a more marked drift to the Left manifested itself in the movement for big amalgamations on industrial lines led by the A.W.U. This tendency took on a third and accentuated phase when the popular idols of labour deserted to the enemy and Labour was left hopelessly defeated on the political field. This phase culminated in the Big Strike of 1917, and, in the light of the lesson then received, passed into a fourth when the industrial leaders came out with a definitely revolutionary programme under the banner of the One Big Union.

But as the original inspiration of political action had come from Europe, so the new industrial movement is traceable to American influences. These were the propaganda of the Industrial Workers of the World. It was this body which once more revived the doctrines of revolutionary Socialism on the industrial field which the small bodies of orthodox Socialists, who had split off from the Labour Party, had failed to keep alive on the political field. Now it is convenient to distinguish three periods in this propaganda:

Firstly, a rather academic advocacy of industrial unionism through the medium of I.W.W. Clubs and the S.L.P., guided rather by the principles of Detroit than the more extreme doctrines of Chicago.

Secondly, there came a time when the phraseology at least of these industrial unionists was taken up by recognised leaders of Australian unionism in the furtherance of amalgamations and the creation of industrial as opposed to craft unions.

Thirdly, the Chicago I.W.W. established locals in Australia and conducted an intensive campaign throughout the continent, paying no respect whatever to the established shibboleths of the politicians. This period ended with the formal dissolution of the organisation under the Unlawful Associations Act of 1916.

These three periods correspond very approximately to the first three phases of the revolt of the unionists against the domination of the politicians, but of course these phases and periods must not be taken as separated by any hard-and-fast lines. They melt insensibly into one another and frequently overlap. Nor again must too much stress be laid on their parallelism with economic changes. It is probable, that despite the statistical fall in real wages, the general level of comfort and prosperity enjoyed by the workers as a whole rose steadily throughout the whole period during which they were moving to the Left. On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind the change in the character of the workers included in the unions which came about during the epoch. This change was the organisation of the nomadic unskilled or semi-skilled workers who roam about the country districts of a new land. Now, it was just this class that the I.W.W. had been founded to organise in America, and this circumstance partly accounts for the changed outlook of the industrial movement.

The channel through which the new doctrines of industrial unionism first reached the Australian proletariat was the Socialist Labour Party, which as a socialist body dated back to the nineties, and had little practical influence. Still it was from it that the I.W.W. doctrine began to permeate the Australian unions. The leaders of the S.L.P. were among the founders of the I.W.W. in 1905. Two years later I.W.W. clubs began to spring up in Australia under the auspices of the S.L.P., but preaching industrial unionism. Among the coal-miners around Newcastle and in Melbourne these preachings had an appreciable influence. There were two points in the I.W.W. creed which were seized upon by the Australian unionist – the futility of craft unionism which divided the workers up into small sections, each out for their own hands and regardless of their mates; and the denunciation of palliatives such as wages boards and arbitration courts.

The I.W.W., even before the Chicago split, had regarded it as the aim of unionism to fight the master class. The union must be a fighting machine and nothing else. They regarded benefit funds and such like adjuncts as cumbersome and useless paraphernalia which only hindered the onward march of the toilers. Craft or sectional unionism they looked upon as organised scabbery and nothing less. The ideal union would be such that “all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, can cease work whenever a strike or lock-out is on in any one department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.” The class struggle formed the cardinal point in their creed, and it could only be ended by the workers uniting politically and industrially to take and hold what they produce. To this triumphant culmination of the struggle palliatives were only a hindrance. The diversion of working-class energies into political channels for the attainment of such was therefore deplored as a waste of time. Arbitration Courts, which served at best to maintain the status quo and offered no ultimate hope of emancipation, checked the creative militancy of the proletariat and consequently hindered progress.

The circumstances of the period predisposed the toilers minds to a receptive attitude towards these teachings. The legal delays of the Arbitration Court procedure and the frequent defeats of the workers, even when they had at length obtained a good award, on appeals to the higher courts caused many to look for better results from the old direct method The failure of the Labour Parties to gain tangible results, despite all their concessions to the middle classes, after fifteen years induced a feeling of pessimism with regard to reformist tactics. On the other hand, the older unionists, who remembered the dark days of the 'nineties and were able to recognise the positive advances gained under arbitration in comparison therewith, looked askance at the direct actionist propaganda of the I.W.W. The craft unionists, too, saw their hard-won privileges imperilled by the plan of industrial unionism; the officials of small sectional unions feared that it threatened their jobs; and above all the influential politicians deprecated revolutionary theories that would make vote-catching more difficult.

It was not, therefore, to be expected that the I.W.W. would get much countenance from the official leaders of Labour as represented on urban trades councils or at union congresses. In 1907 the Sydney Labour Council refused to hear Scott Bennett lecture on industrial unionism. One delegate said: “Those men can be heard any day, abusing trade unionism, the Labour Party, and the Council. Their object is to wipe out trade unionism and substitute their own ideas.” 1 Melbourne Trades Hall Council, however, proved more open-minded in the following year. The Executive was asked to report on a motion:

“That in view of the fact that Arbitration Courts and Wages Boards have failed to give the protection to the workers that they so much desire, the Trades Hall Council be requested to consider the advisability of organising on the lines of the I.W.W.”

The Executive brought in an exhaustive and reasoned report. They denied that Arbitration Courts and Wages Boards had failed to give “protection and relief to sweated and other workers.” On the contrary, they had “created conditions that could not have existed otherwise.” “The true ideal of the workers is not possible under Capitalism, and therefore they are bound to use that machinery which secures the best results for the time being, recognising that each step upward is a foothold not previously gained. Arbitration Courts are but aids, not finalities, in the march of industrial progress.” After enumerating the achievements of unionism the report continues: “The constitution of the I.W.W. is but another phase of the unionist movement. The distinctive badge of craftism is merged in the greater humanity.” To attain success the forces of labour should be knit into one great organisation. “When the millions of unionists are disciplined, undivided, and mobile towards achieving their ends, craftism will have ceased and brotherhood will be paramount. That this is possible your Executive is assured.” But owing to the difference in condition on the two sides of the Pacific, the Executive did not agree that the constitution of the I.W.W. was applicable in globo to Australian problems. They contented themselves with recommending a conference of the unions for the modest aim of creating a central fighting fund.

In Easter of the same year a Trade Union Congress was held in N.S.W., and thereat the following resolution was moved on behalf of the Newcastle Labour Council:

“That whereas it has been demonstrated that our present system of craft unionism is hopelessly impotent to prevent the exactions of concentrated capital; and whereas the position of the workers is year by year becoming more insecure; and whereas it is absolutely necessary that the workers should be organised industrially in order to cope successfully with combinations of capitalists, be it therefore resolved that this meeting adopts the constitution and preamble of the I.W.W. as follows”: (here follows the preamble of that body as originally adopted in 1905).

In support of his thesis the mover pointed to the success of a recent coal strike in Newcastle, which he attributed to the fact that the union was organised industrially. Another delegate declared that craft unionism had outlived its usefulness. Individual unions were beaten almost every time. Palliatives had failed. The exploitation of the labour of women and children showed an alarming increase. Effie (Coal Trimmers) declared straight out that political action had failed, but Harry Holland (Tailoresses) declared that the motion did not mean the abandonment of political action. (As a matter of fact the first I.W.W. preamble expressly states that “the toilers must come together on the political as well as on the industrial field,” but adds later, “without affiliation with any political party” – probably, however, referring simply to Republicans or Democrats, as the more syndicalist preamble of 1908 expressly omits the word “political.” ) The supposed syndicalism of the I.W.W. was the chief objection advanced against it. Nulty, of the Barrier A.M.A., afterwards a red-hot centre of industrial unionism, asked: “After so many years of hard work, do you propose to knock the political Labour Party on the head? To adopt the preamble would kill it. Its principles originated in America which is fifty years behind the times as far as the Labour Party is concerned. It is the objective of the Socialists who are always trying to divide the ranks of labour.” W. G. Spence, M.H.R., President of the A.W.U, spoke in a similar strain. If they liked, the unionists could elect a Labour Government, and if they joined together as they should they could get what they wanted. The I.W.W. preamble meant strikes and nothing but strikes, and in some cases to take possession. But when they took possession, what then? They must capture the law-making machine. Division would only please the capitalists who were getting alarmed at the progress of Labour in politics. Morrish, an ex-Socialist, also contrasted Australian and American conditions. In the U.S.A., he pointed out, there was no Political Labour Party. On the other hand, E. J. Kavanagh, Secretary of the Labour Council, maintained that there were only two known ways of closer organisation-by federation or by a labour council. He recommended the unions to affiliate with his Council. The I.W.W. proposition was in the end turned down by a two to one majority, and a resolution carried in its place in favour of a Federation of Labour. Nevertheless, the I.W.W. idea was still working. In July the coal-miners in N.S.W. and Victoria federated. Previously there had been three separate federations in N.S.W. – the Northern on the Newcastle-Maitland field, the Western with its headquarters at Lithgow, and the Southern on the Illawarra coast. Each of these worked under separate awards or agreements, so that low wages under a two-years'-old award in one district could be used as an argument for keeping down wages in another. Again, during a strike on the northern field industry might be kept going by coal from Lithgow or Illawarra. The Federation would be a far more formidable fighting machine, and that is what its founder, Bowling, intended it to be; for he was a professed adherent of the I.W.W. The Tram Strike in Sydney is further evidence of the effect of I.W.W. propaganda. At least Holman attributed the strike to the intrigue of an I.W.W. section who wanted to compass the fall of the Labour Party.

Next year there was quite a body of opinion filled with the idea of a general strike, and the I.W.W. influence in the northern miners' lodges was unmistakable. The Broken Hill miners were on strike or locked out that year, and their leaders had been arrested for sedition and committed for trial. Now Wade transferred the scene of the trial from the Barrier to Albury. The unionists regarded this action as evidence of an intention on the part of the Ministry to secure a conviction by hook or by crook, and the northern miners desired to resort to direct action to prevent a perversion of justice. At the Trade Union Congress, which opened in Sydney a few days before the trial, Peter Bowling secured the suspension of the standing orders to protest against the change of venue. Having carried the protest, Congress went into camera to consider a further motion of Bowling's that in the event of a conviction all Labour bodies should be asked to cease work until a fresh trial in fairer circumstances was granted. In supporting this motion for a general strike, Biggers (Northern Coal Miners) said that the men in prison looked not to the Parliamentary Labour Party, but to the industrial organisations. They wanted One Big Union. However, Congress would have nothing to do with the general strike. Later on, at the same gathering, Bowling made a bitter attack on the Labour Party. That Party, he said, exercised a deadly influence. The legislation they aimed at would create small farmers and middle-class capitalists - the biggest obstacles that were known. Members of the Labour Party dare not come out on the platform as advocates of the cause of Labour. In the Tram Strike they had led the union men to turn traitors. Their policy was always peace at any price. The P.L.L. started out as a socialist movement and then went back and back. Until the workers were organised industrially, they could not have a true reflex in Parliament. To the substantive motion in favour of closer unity between the industrial and political movements he moved as an amendment:

“That at the present stage of industrial unionism, it is undesirable for it to be asked to take part in any political movement that exists to-day.”

This amendment was not seconded, the Chairman ruling that in the principal motion political movement did not necessarily mean the P.L.L.

But the feeling in favour of direct action which was growing up soon found expression in a great upheaval in the coal-mining industry. The opposition of the industrial unionists to arbitration was seconded by the northern colliery proprietors who had fought the Industrial Disputes Act in every conceivable way. Even justice Heydon had complained of their determined obstruction.1 A number of unionists had been victimised, and the best places were, it is alleged, given to blacklegs. So to settle these and other grievances the Northern Colliery Employees' Federation decided on a strike on November 7th. The decision took the public by surprise, but the plans of the men had been well laid. There were two mines on the field whose owners were not in the association or “vend” with the remaining proprietors. The Federation had arranged for the continued working of these two mines on a co-operative basis, the miners sharing in the enhanced price to be created by the shortage and using their earnings for the support of their striking comrades. An agent, probably of the miners, is supposed to have made a contract with one of the “vend” proprietors for 670 tons of coal on November 3rd, and subsequently resold this coal during the strike at 50s. a ton, thus earning a substantial profit on the transaction.

On November 10th only the two co-operative mines were working, the supplies available were strictly limited, and the men seemed in an invincible position. On Tuesday a conference was held between the miners and the waterside workers, led by Hughes, to complete the hold-up. On the same day the Premier, Wade, proposed a conference between the parties, the men returning to work in the interval. That proposition the miners immediately rejected. The proprietors treated similarly a subsequent proposition for a conference without resumption of work. Then Wade began to show the direct actionists what political action could do. First the railways were instructed to refuse to haul coal except for locomotive purposes. That made it impossible to realise on the coal cut from the two co-operative pits and cut off the strikers' source of revenue. On the 30th the Government commandeered all coal at grass in the State at a fair average value – i.e., without taking into account the increment in value due to the shortage created by the strike. So the miners' clever plan for providing themselves with the sinews of war was effectually checkmated. At the same time industries were closing down and throwing men out of work owing to the lack of fuel. The use of gas and electricity was rigorously restricted. Moreover Bowling and two fellow officers of the Federation were arrested for conspiring to cause a strike contrary to the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act.

The last-named event brought to a head division, which had long been brewing, in the strike congress of miners and transport workers which was sitting. Hughes, in view of the near approach of the Federal elections, was working for peace and was doing his best to keep the watersiders and other unions from direct participation. Bowling, on the other hand, wanted a general strike. On December 12th these quarrels came to a head. Hughes said some bitter things of Bowling, and thereupon the miners walked out of the congress and announced that they would continue the fight on their own.

Wade seized the opportunity to take exemplary action. On December 16th he secured the suspension of the standing orders, to allow of the passage through both Houses of Parliament in a single sitting of a Bill to amend the Industrial Disputes Act. The Coercion Act, as this hurried amendment was called, was indeed a remarkable piece of legislation. Strikes or lock-outs in connection with the production or distribution of a necessary commodity – i.e., water, coal, gas, or any article of food necessary to human life, were placed in a special category. Any meeting to instigate, aid, control, or maintain such a strike was declared unlawful. Participation in such a meeting exposed one to a penalty of twelve months' imprisonment. (This clause was clearly directed against the strike congress.) The police were authorised to break into any building where they suspected that such an unlawful meeting was in progress. Furthermore, for instigating or supporting an illegal strike or lock-out a penalty of twelve months' imprisonment might be imposed. The administration of these clauses would be in the jurisdiction of the Industrial Court, and under the principal Act no appeal from its findings or sentences lay to any higher court. Hence the accused under this section was deprived of the right of trial by jury-there was no jury in the Industrial Court – and might be sentenced to a long term of imprisonment without the right of appeal to the verdict of his peers. This wonderful measure was passed through the Assembly by the aid of a liberal use of the closure. Labour members were thus deprived of the chance of supporting Mr. Bowling, and had to content themselves with marching out of the Chamber in protest.

As soon as the Bill became law, the strike leaders were again arrested, and this time bail was refused. So they had to stay in gaol till they were sentenced to eighteen months each. Under these circumstances the strike gradually collapsed. The political action of the employing class had proved more effective than the industrial action of the workers. The politicians, led by Hughes, scored a distinct victory over the I.W.W. in the defeat of the workers. The debacle damped the enthusiasm of the direct actionists and encouraged unionists to concentrate once again on capturing the Legislature. Thus the Coal Strike marks the close of our first phase of revolt as far as the southern States are concerned.

It was not till Labour Governments had begun to demonstrate their incompetence to fulfil their own promises that the I.W.W. again began to spread. And when it did, it was a new I.W.W. – an Australian branch chartered straight from the extremist section at Chicago. But before dealing with that phase we must describe the events that had been taking place in Queensland.