How Labour Governs. Vere Gordon Childe 1923

Chapter IX. The Amalgamation Movement

WE must now turn back a few years to examine the course of events in Queensland. In 1907, after the failure of an unorganised strike at one of the mines on the Irvine Bank field in North Queensland, a small union under the name of the Amalgamated Workers’ Association was formed. At first it was closely modelled on the Victorian A.M.A., but after a short time the benefit section was omitted, and the union became simply a fighting organisation. Then it began to go ahead rapidly. Branches were formed on two adjacent fields: Stannery Hills and Herberton. In May, 1908, the enterprise of E. G. Theodore, a young man already widely versed in Socialist literature, effected an amalgamation between the A.W.A., and the unions of the workers at O.K. Smelters and the Mungana Mines, also in the same district. The six branches of the organisation were represented on an executive which met at Irvinebank. So far the union was just an organisation of miners, but it soon enlarged its sphere of membership with fruitful results. In the August of the same year there was much discontent among the navvies engaged in building the Chillagoe Railway. Hearing of the trouble, Theodore, the organiser of the A.W.A., hastened to the camps, got all the navvies to join the A.W.A., and in return secured for them the support of that union in a strike for better conditions. After a month’s stoppage the A.W.A. officials negotiated a settlement, giving practically all the men demanded.

This victory demonstrated the value of a composite organisation. Alone the navvies would probably have been easily starved out; with the financial and moral support of the miners they were remarkably successful. When the first annual conference of the amalgamation met at Chillagoe, on February 10th, 1909, four new branches had been formed, and the membership stood at 1,348. But the Executive had been forced to move from Irvine Bank to Stannery Hills, owing to the victimisation of the Honorary Secretary. The paid organiser, Theodore, had to stay at head office doing the clerical work instead of travelling about enrolling fresh members. Conference, therefore, decided to make the Secretary a fully paid officer “beyond the reach of victimising mine managers.” W. McCormack was elected to the post at a salary of 200.

In the following year this enterprising organisation set up a Labour daily in Cairns, the seaport that gives access to the far northern mineral fields. The main energies of the organisation were, however, devoted to putting its organiser into Parliament. It is said that Theodore and McCormack tossed up to see who should run for the Woothakata seat. Theodore won both the toss and the seat. But in July, 1910, an epoch-making step was taken that transformed the A.W.A. from a small miners’ union to a powerful organisation pregnant with novel ideas. In North Queensland there were a number of small and not very strong unions operating among bush workers – the Amalgamated Sugar Workers’ Union, two local bodies of miners and general labourers, each called Amalgamated Workers’ Unions, at Charters Towers and Townsville respectively, and the Western Workers’ Association covering the same class of toilers around Hughenden. Theodore and McCormack conceived the plan of amalgamating all these bodies into one.

On July 23rd a circular was sent out as below:


“Benefits. – It will enable us to keep in touch with the nomadic workers of the north who are continually roving from one industry to another, which makes it difficult for unattached unions to cater for their necessities or gain the full advantages of their continuous membership.

“The large expense of management of so many different unions would be considerably curtailed by having one effective control. We could employ permanent organisers who would be able to concentrate their efforts at the various centres at the most opportune times.”

This circular indicates the spirit in which the A.W.A. leaders approached the question. They were eminently practical men and accurately gauged the feeling of the workers of the north. Their scheme was not based on any abstract theory, but it did, in fact, resemble the efforts of the industrial unionists of America, and in support of the plan the arguments and literature of the I.W.W. were used.

The amalgamation scheme was endorsed by the A.L.F. in Brisbane, and they sent an organiser to co-operate with the A.W.A. officials in popularising the proposals. On September 21st a further circular was issued from Chillagoe, over the signatures of W. McCormack, General Secretary, A.W.A., and A. J. Fraser, A.L.F. Organiser. It betrays American influence quite clearly as the appended extracts will show:

“Recognising the difficulty of handling large bodies of men who are divided up among a number of small unions, each acting independently, and that the majority of the members of these small unions are engaged in the mining, railway construction, and sugar industries, and as general labourers, it is proposed to amalgamate the whole into one composite body whose power through amalgamation to enforce better conditions will be increased a hundredfold.

“The formation of trusts to control markets shows clearly that our opponents are organising their forces into one composite body, and if we are to have a chance of success in resisting attacks and conserving our rights, we must have our forces organised likewise.”

The arguments about economy and simplicity were also repeated. Theodore used his member’s pass to preach the doctrines of industrial unionism. The same gospel was propagated by Crampton and Anderson of the Butchers’ Union. Thus Anderson writes to the Worker, of November 26th :

“Many workers are asking, Why all this talk about forming one grand union of unions? ... Craft unionism is now of no avail. Towards the end of 1908 the Ironworkers’ Assistants went out for a reasonable wage. While they were out the rest of the employees, organised in craft unions of their own, remained at work materially assisting the iron-masters. Were they not scabbing on the Ironworkers’ Assistants just as flagrantly as if they had stepped into their jobs? So with the Moulders’ Strike which has now lasted sixteen weeks, while engineers, ironworkers’ assistants, and boilermakers, have been working all the time.”

The amalgamation conference met on December 10th, 1910, and endorsed the proposal. The unions paid 80 per cent. of their assets after meeting all liabilities into the general fund. The constitution of the new composite union largely followed that of the A.W.U. Queensland was divided into three districts, afterwards sub-divided so as to make five in all. The districts had a sort of organisation of their own, but on the whole the tendency of the organisation was towards the centralisation of management. The highest authority in the union was the annual conference consisting of a President, elected annually by plebiscite, a General Secretary similarly elected, whose term of office was, however, three years, and delegates elected from the districts on a basis of one for every 1,000 members, with a maximum of four. Conference controlled the general policy of the union, and elected two Vice-Presidents, who, with the President, General Secretary, and District Secretaries formed the Executive.

The latter was vested with enormous power. It could suspend the rules or policy of the Association, impose levies, and had the management of the General Fund, into which 80 per cent. of the revenue obtained by the branches from the sale of tickets was to be paid. It also had control of strikes. The members of the A.W.A. were pledged to stand by any member victimised, but only provided the Executive approved the action for which he suffered. All industrial agreements required the endorsement of the Executive, and it alone could provide financial assistance for a strike, which must come out of the general fund or from a levy. No members were permitted to strike without the consent of the District Committees save in trifling matters or emergencies when a branch meeting might, by a two-thirds majority, take action without awaiting the sanction of the District Committee. Similarly, the resumption of work must await the sanction of the District Committees. Some power was indeed left to the branches which would be formed in centres such as mining townships, camps, and so on. They could, for instance, retain up to 20 per cent. of the proceeds of the sale of tickets. But the district organisation, though nominally representing the branches, was entirely subordinated to the General Executive, whose endorsement was even required for the nomination of the District Secretary before his name could go to the poll of members of the district.

The membership dues were fixed at 1 per annum, but the tickets of certain other unions were recognised. No coloured alien, except a Maori or American negro was eligible for membership. Provision was also made for the issue of political tickets to persons not eligible for general membership – e.g., farmers or housewives.

Such a scheme of organisation plainly left great power in the hands of the Central Executive, who had almost absolute control of the funds of the organisation and might act autocratically with little cheek from the rank and file. But as a fighting machine it was highly efficient. Yet its aims were not revolutionary. Besides “protecting the interests of the workers in the regulation of conditions of labour,” the AW.A. only professed to “assist in the movement for the socialisation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange,” and “to gradually replace the competitive system of distribution by a co-operative one.” In not one clause of its Aims or Constitution does the Amalgamated Workers’ Association betray serious I.W.W. influence. Its scheme of organisation was highly empirical, and took as its model not the industrial unionism of the States, but Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated as already adapted by the A.W.U. So likewise Messrs. Theodore and McCormack did not worry about prefixing pompous Marxian statements to their practical efforts, but accepted the traditional Socialism of the Australian Labour Party and the A.L.F., on the strength of which they hastened to get into Parliament. Still the A.W.A. actually pursued a militant policy and exhibited a great spirit of solidarity, which was well exemplified in the Sugar Strike of 1911.

Contemporaneously with the reorganisation of the A.W.A. went the expansion of the Butchers’ Union into the Amalgamated Meat Industry Employees’ Union. That body traced its history back to 1880, but its operations had been limited to the retail butchers and slaughtermen in the metropolitan area. In 1906 it joined the Inter-State organisation, and appointed Gilday as permanent Branch Secretary. just about that date the meat export industry of Queensland was being opened up, and the butchers conceived the idea of organising all classes of labour, skilled and unskilled alike, employed in or about the meat works, into one body. During 1907 it had enrolled some 800 members in South and Central Queensland, and had secured for them improved conditions by conference with the masters. Then Crampton was elected organiser. He proceeded to the big new meat works in the north and did magnificent work. Unionism was then weak in that part of Queensland. In the meat works it was absolutely taboo. When the managers refused Crampton admission to the works he splashed across the tidal flats and crawled in through the thick jungle. Conditions inside were indeed bad, but the men and boys followed the union organiser barefooted across the mud to hear the gospel. Through such efforts a new state of affairs was established in the north. By 1910 Crampton was able to announce that the contract system was abolished at the two big works. He reported that the tendency was towards the breaking down of sectionalism and the adoption of a form of organisation that would include all branches of labour in one fold on the lines of the A.W.U. and the A.W.A. At the Trade Union Congress in Brisbane he announced that his society had 98 per cent. of all classes of workers in the trade within the union. The skilled or “aristocracy of labour,” he added, came forward to help their unskilled fellows. A system of limitation of work was then inaugurated. At the Annual Conference amalgamation with the A.W.A. was suggested, but as the union was already affiliated with the A.L.F. the question was postponed for the time.

By the end of 1912 the butchers had secured an agreement with the meat export companies providing for preference to members of the union. And, in fact, once organised, the meat workers were in a strong bargaining position, for, as we have seen, a stoppage during the operation of the works means the almost total loss of a considerable quantity of valuable and highly perishable products. The use of the power thus placed in the hands of the workers was in the hands immediately of the “Board of Control” established at each meat works. This apparatus is the best and most efficient instance of organisation “on the job” to be found in Australia. The Board consisted of delegates from each department of the works – slaughtermen, tinsmiths, freezing-room hands, and so on-together with a President, Vice-President, and Honorary Secretary. It could be speedily called together at any time, and had full authority to deal with any dispute which would affect only the particular works under its jurisdiction. It could even make agreements with the management, but its actions were subject to a certain general oversight by the State Executive. The departmental delegates were responsible for the maintenance of union’s rules in their section of the works, and also for the collection of fines and levies, of which they were allowed to retain 5 per cent.

During the operation of the preference agreement, all labour required at the works was engaged through the union, who sent men in turn according to their position in the unemployment roll. When a new band was sent down by the union office to the works he would report not to the foreman, but to the departmental delegate. Similarly, if a worker was going to take a day off, he was compelled to report it to the delegate. The latter through the works representative notified the District Secretary by ’phone, and he sent down next day the next man on the unemployed register. These Boards of Control were able to usurp the functions of management to quite a large extent. But in practice their exercise of control was purely negative-restriction of output and other defensive measures-they never showed any inclination to assume the responsibilities of management.

The Board of Control was thus the basic unit in the structure of the A.M.I.E.U. Above it came a District Council consisting of the representatives from the boards at the several works and the other sections – fellmongers, retail employees, etc.– together with officers elected by plebiscite, and above these State and then Federal Executives and Delegate Conferences.

There were thus two militant unions in Queensland organised on industrial lines – the Amalgamated Workers’ Association, and the Amalgamated Meat Industry Employees There remained the Australian Workers’ Union. This body was also, as we have seen, an industrial union confined to the pastoral industry. These three organisations formed the mainstay of the Queensland A.L.F. during the period 1910-1913. But in that period the question of a fusion of these three bodies became the central issue for industrialism. Even at the 1909 Convention of the A.W.U. A. Rae had moved a demand for the amendment of the Federal Arbitration Act under which the shearers worked, to enable a union embracing different occupations to register. That, he explained, would enable the union to fulfil its original intention of 1892, and to take in farm labourers, navvies, and other allied workers. The majority of A.W.U. members were general labourers when not following the pastoral industry (which, of course, is seasonal), and it seemed anomalous that they had union protection for a part of the year only. The General Secretary, however, thought that it would be impossible for one man to obtain a knowledge of all sections and yet do justice to the whole. Still Rae’s motion was carried by 14 votes to 10.

Nevertheless the effective overtures for amalgamation did not actually come from the A.W.U. The hands of the latter were forced by the wildfire spread of the A.W.A. after the expansion of 1910. That body distributed broadcast pamphlets on industrial unionism, and the work of Theodore, McCormack, Lane, and Crampton created a fervour of industrial solidarity and class-consciousness throughout the northern State. It infected the shearers and shed hands till the A.W.A. officials were able to threaten the older pastoral union with the absorption of the Queensland branches of the A.W.U. if the latter did not join hands with them first.

The general atmosphere is illustrated by a resolution moved by Sherry (Queensland Railway Employees’ Association), at the second Queensland Trade Union Congress in August, 1911:

“That it be a recommendation to the Australian Labour Federation to alter its constitution so as to put the principle of the solidarity of labour into actual practice by supplanting the federation with an industrial workers’ organisation.

“Under the A.L.F. constitution,” he remarked, “sectional or craft unions could affiliate with it, and at the same time it allowed complete autonomy to those unions. Would not the result of that policy be the tying up of those unions by various agreements? He wished to see an organisation which would abolish all trade or craft barriers like the A.W.A.– to see the distinction between skilled and unskilled workers removed.”

H. Coyne, on the other hand, reminded Sherry that there would be no A.W.A. then but for the A.L.F. having sent out C. Collins to organise. But Anderson, too, thought that the great object was to amalgamate into one great union under the A.W.A.

However, delegates were still under the spell of federalism, and that principle carried the day against amalgamation.

But while the spirit of militancy was thus expressing itself formally in the amalgamation movement, it also found material embodiment in a great industrial upheaval. The unsuccessful issue of the latter incidentally gave its deathblow to the A.L.F. and left the way clear for amalgamation to become the sole principle for industrial reorganisation. The historic Brisbane General Strike arose as follows:

The city of Brisbane and its suburbs are served by an electric tramway system owned, not by the State or Municipality, but by a company. The local manager was an American named Badger, who displayed the most intense hostility to unionism. However, during his absence in 1911, the Federated Tramway Employees’ Association, which was trying to establish the existence of an “inter-State dispute,” so as to come before Mr. justice Higgins in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, formed a branch among the employees of the Brisbane trams. But on his return Badger began to take steps to smash the union. The exhibition of a notice at the depot forbidding employees to wear the union badge while on duty brought the conflict to a head. This issue was included in the plaint already filed before the Commonwealth Court, but the tramwaymen of Brisbane felt it necessary to offer immediate resistance to Badger’s attack, and at a meeting on January 15th, 1912, resolved to continue to wear the badge in defiance of the management, after receiving assurances of support both from the Federal Council of the Association and from the Australian Labour Federation. On the 17th this decision was put into effect. The manager promptly dismissed the men, whereupon all the tramwaymen left their posts, sometimes leaving their cars standing in the streets. But the number of highly skilled men affected was small, and most of the strikers could be replaced by non-unionists. Within a week Badger had a small and heavily overcrowded service running in spite of hostile demonstrations.

So the A.L.F. had to display its support in a practical manner. After a preliminary meeting of the Council on the 21st a general meeting of unions was held in the Trades Hall on Monday, 28th. Amid the greatest excitement the thirty-six unions represented came to a decision which was announced to the public through Press notices the next morning.



“The Combined Unions’ Committee of Brisbane and District, at a meeting held on Monday, 28th inst., resolved: ‘That this meeting of delegates representing 43 unions, recognising that the action of the Brisbane Tramway Company in prohibiting its employees from wearing a badge, the symbol of their unionism, constitutes an attack on the principles of unionism and on the spirit of Statute Law, Federal and State, resolves:

“ ‘That a GENERAL CESSATION OF WORK take place on TUESDAY, THE 29TH INST., at 6 p.m., unless a satisfactory settlement be arrived at; and further:

“ ‘That this resolution be forwarded to the manager of the Brisbane Tramways Co. at once.’

“The Committee desire the public to know that they are anxious, and will in every manner assist to have hospitals, benevolent, and such institutions fully provided with stores and other requisites necessary to effectually carry on same during this dispute, and carters, etc., supplying these may obtain the necessary permits on applying to the undersigned.

“We also desire it to be known that we will not in any way interfere with the measures taken to safeguard the public health of the community, such as sanitation, etc., but all work in which the above 43 unions are engaged must cease in the terms of the above resolution.

“On behalf of the Combined Committee,
“J. HARRY COYNE, President. J. A. MOIR, Secretary.

“January 28th, 1912.”

This proclamation created considerable alarm among the business community, but left Badger unmoved. Accordingly on the appointed day the General Strike began. Next day the shops and warehouses remained closed and the waterfront was deserted. There was a general rush to the Trades Hall for permits to handle perishable goods. The strikers held a mass meeting, when Coyne emphasised the necessity for preserving order and obeying the law, and then marched in procession round the city. The trams had ceased running, but the hold-up of a non-union carter provided a lively incident.

On this fatal day the Strike Committee made the really decisive blunder. They called upon the railwaymen, or, at least, allowed them, to come out. Up to this point the Government, for all its real hostility, had been preserving an attitude of almost benevolent neutrality. So far had they gone, indeed, that the Railway Commissioner had agreed not to ask railwaymen to sacrifice their union principles by handling the coal belonging to the tramway company stacked at Normanby. That almost meant joining in the boycott of Badger’s firm. Moreover, they had exerted pressure on the manager to meet the men, and had even managed to get Badger and the union officials into the same ministerial office. But when the Queensland Railway Employees’ Association withdrew the porters, shunters, and signalmen, the Ministry saw that public support would be lost to the strikers, and so came out into the open.

Announcing their intention of preserving order, the Government brought in mounted police from the country districts and enrolled special constables from among the ranks of the infuriated bourgeoisie and the farmers who were cut off from their markets by the transport hold-up. Public houses were closed and police patrolled the streets. A few trains were kept running during the day, but at night the service was entirely suspended. The strikers, on their part, preserved excellent order. A Vigilance Corps was organised by the Committee to prevent pillaging or disorder. The permit system was extended and improved, and the Courier foamed at the mouth over the spectacle “of respectable business men craving permission from a surly boot-maker to carry out certain necessary operations.” The delivery of victuals was, of course, entirely suspended, but suitable provision was made by the Strike Committee for the supply of necessaries – e.g., 40,000 loaves “baked under strictly union conditions.”

On Thursday the Strike Committee decided to call out unionists in the country. On the same day the Police Commissioner informed the Committee that no further processions of strikers would be allowed, but that the Traffic Act would be enforced. So next day, when the strikers assembled as usual, the leaders, in accordance with their policy of keeping within the law, discouraged any attempts at a march. Still a clash between the police and the huge crowd was not to be averted, and the former found some excuse for a baton charge. Some damage, both moral and physical, was inflicted upon the crowd.

Encouraged by the success of the proceedings of “Black Friday,” as the day of the baton charge was named, the Government decided to put a stop to all public gatherings of strikers, and issued a proclamation on February 5th prohibiting “unlawful assemblies.” With regard to the Vigilance Corps the Police Commissioner informed Mr. Coyne that the police were the proper guardians of order and would tolerate no interference in these duties from other bodies. The railway shopmen at Ipswich, who had been called out on the 2nd, were given till the 5th to return or else forfeit all their rights as civil servants. Meanwhile the Employers’ Federation had been busy and had got together sufficient scabs to overcome the total paralysis of the city’s life that had been achieved during the first days. On Monday at noon, welcomed by cheers from the disgruntled professional c asses, the trams started once more to run over the rusting rails.

The strike was now in reality defeated. On Wednesday, February 5th, the shopmen at Ipswich decided to return to work while the Strike Committee told the country unionists to go back and earn money for the support of the strikers. But it was not until the 16th that the Strike Committee ventured to make overtures for a conference with the employers. In the Strike Bulletin they then announced that they were actuated by the following considerations:

“(1) The vital principle around which the whole battle has been waged, viz., the recognition of the union, has been practically secured.

“(2) A proper respect for the Arbitration Court.

“(3) An earnest desire to see business operating once more in all directions.”

These “reasons” were so palpably false that it is not surprising that the Employers’ Federation recognised in the Committee’s overtures a confession of defeat, and flatly refused to meet the men. After that nothing could stem the rout. On the 18th the Typographical Society and the hotel and café employees returned to work in a body, and on March 4th even the miners voted to abandon the struggle. Next day the strike was formally declared “ off.” The nett result of the General Strike, therefore, was the crippling of unionism in Brisbane, and the defeat of Labour at the next elections. The tramway unionists were indeed awarded absolute preference, and the right to wear the union badge by justice Higgins, but by that time Badger had eliminated all unionists from his system, and the union had died in Brisbane.

Historically it is more significant that the A.L.F. was discredited by this disaster, and the unions so weakened that they could no longer afford to pay the Federation dues. This indirectly gave a filip to the negotiations between the A.W.U. and the A.W.A. These negotiations had already resulted in the adoption of a resolution at the instance of Bowman for a plebiscite of the A.W.U. on the question of “enlarging our field of operations by embracing all kinds of organisations.” The mover cited to the 1912 Convention the success of the Railway Workers and General Labourers’ Union in N.S.W. and Victoria and the United Labourers’ Union in South Australia. Another delegate complained that at present he had to join as many as four unions in earning his living through the “off” season. Lambert, too, wanted the whole of the bush workers in one solid organisation. Blakeley and others, however, desired to restrict the amalgamation to primary producers and exclude bodies like the A.W.A. and the UX.U., which included navvies and such classes of labour.

The A.W.U. consulted eminent counsel, and were advised that the amalgamation was now quite possible without endangering their legal status before the Arbitration Court, thanks to an amendment of the Act passed by the Fisher Government. Accordingly a conference of unions was summoned to meet in the Trades Hall, Sydney, on July 6th, 1912. The bodies represented were the A.W.U., A.W.A., Rural Workers’ Union, Carriers, and Rabbiters. The last three were struggling organisations, and the vested interests of their officials did not amount to much. On the other hand, the A.W.A. chiefs, Theodore and McCormack, were already provided with safe seats in the Legislature, and were devoting themselves to the pursuit of political rather than industrial ambitions. Thus the most formidable obstacle to any amalgamation, the vested interests of paid officials, did not stand in the way of this particular plan. But it soon became evident that the A.W.U. delegates were terrified lest they should endanger the position of that union under the Commonwealth Arbitration Act and imperil the pastoral award. They were indeed satisfied that they could safely include other pastoral and rural workers, but boggled at miners and navvies. But Theodore was determined that the A.W.A. must be taken in as a whole. He denied that the latter would want to go for an award covering all its sections. “The miners in Queensland,” he went on, “have no desire to go to the Court for an award. They are entering into this amalgamation to assist in closer unity, and more to make for industrial solidarity than for any particular gain through legislation.” The A.W.U. delegates continued to harp on the arbitration question. “Unless,” said Barnes, “there was something to safeguard the interests of those working under an award, it would be unwise for the A.W.U. in any way to jeopardise what they had won from the Court.” Grayndler pointed out that outside Queensland the miners and meat workers had already separate organisations, and a departure from the principle of only bringing in allied callings might lead to complications. A conflict with the southern unions might lead to the cancellation of their award. At last McCormack declared:

“While arbitrations might be good, it was not entirely great, and that position should be considered. He would not decry wages boards or arbitration, but the Arbitration Act had not done such a vast amount of good that they should block the organisation of certain workers because. on account of technicalities, these workers could not come within the limits of the Act. With the exception of the sugar workers, he did not know any section of the A.W.A. that contemplated an appeal to the Court. They must consider the general labourer, or some other body would. If the three sections were not included, the A.W.A. would have to drop out.”

“Lundie, too, argued that while the miners might not be immediately allied with the A.W.U., they were all fellow wage- slaves, and there was a community of interest right away. Many shearers work at mining during the off season. He had no false ideas about the Court, and if the workers could get what they wanted without its aid, good luck to them.”

“Grayndler admitted that all workers had identity of interests, but feared that the time had not yet come for the beautiful scheme of the I.W.W. First group workers in allied industries into amalgamations; if allied industries were departed from, it was open for registered organisations to object.”

A further difficulty was in respect of organisation. All were agreed that a uniform ticket, giving admission to all industries at one price, would be an irresistible attraction and a real boon. But as to details there were wide divergencies. President Spence wanted as little alteration as possible. Theodore, on the other hand, was convinced that an alteration of the A.W.U. methods was essential. “Finance was the vital matter. The A.W.U. branches had control of finances and only paid a capitation fee to head office. The A.W.A. branches merely retained a small amount and paid the bulk into the Executive.” He and McCormack had worked out a hierarchical scheme of General Conference, General Executive, State Boards of Management, District Branch Committees and Industrial Branch Committees. Conference would consist of the General Secretary and President, both paid and elected by plebiscite of the whole membership, one delegate appointed by each State Board of Management and delegates elected by each District on a basis of one to every 2,500 members. The Central Executive would consist of the paid officers and the representatives of the State Boards of Management. The latter would be composed of a Chairman, appointed by Conference, the State Secretary, elected by plebiscite, and the Branch Secretaries, who would in turn be elected by plebiscite within the branch. The novelty lies in the industrial branch which would have jurisdiction over all members of the union employed in a particular trade or industry. Such branches would not be local, but were to work in harmony with the district branches. Financially 20 per cent. of the revenue from the sale of tickets was to be retained by the sub-branch in any centre. The balance to be handed over to the branch. Of this sum a district would retain 5 per cent., an industrial branch 25 per cent. The surplus would go to the State Board which must hand over quarterly to the General Executive 5 per cent. of the gross revenue from the sale of tickets within that State.

The whole scheme, as worked out by Theodore and illustrated by circular diagrams, clearly betrayed I.W.W. influence. Still it was a hybrid between the established system of geographical divisions and the industrial departments of the I.W.W. Its details came in for much criticism, but in principle the A.W.A. won all along the line. Conference eventually disbanded without settling anything, but after agreeing to take a plebiscite of the members of the unions concerned on the general question of amalgamating on the basis of a uniform ticket.

The Conference reassembled on January 6th, 1913. The ballot had resulted as follows:

Carriers For18,4173,34955684

The new Conference was enlarged and included the following bodies:

Union.No. of DelegatesMembers
Carriers 22,500
Timber Workers118,000
Fell, Wool and Basil11,800
Rabbiters1 1,800

In his opening address President Spence traced the history of the A.W.U., and explained how the recent amendment of the Federal Arbitration Act enabled them to expand their organisation. How far they could go he did not yet know, but he wanted to interfere as little as possible with the working machinery of the A.W.U.

Theodore complained that the President believed in the maximum of local autonomy. His experience in the A.W.A. led him to believe that the more power in the hands of the central body the greater the general success. He then referred again to finance and went on. The A.W.A. had organised the employees of the Chillagoe Railway, but it would have been absurd to give such a group full autonomy. The A.W.A. had organised many callings – e.g., the shop assistants and carters – who were organised separately in other States. The advantage they were able to offer was the backing of a solid union operating on the spot, though in other industries. This had given the unionists confidence and power in enforcing their demands. He agreed to autonomy for a body like the A.M.I.E.U., but not for all organisations. On that basis the cooks and the shed hands in the A.W.U might want autonomy as separate bodies.

The carriers, however, demanded autonomy, pointing out that they were not always purely wage-earners as in many cases they provided their own plant. So, too, the timber workers’ delegates stressed the difference in circumstances between the several States. Lundie, on the other hand, objected that the industrial spirit of the age was in favour of the broader expression of unionism, the rank and file were in favour of it, but there were officials who kept them back. That was the case in South Australia. Still McCormack probably came closer to the mark when he said that “the great appealing force” would be the “uniform ticket.”

The details were left to a sub-committee, and their report was a clear win for the A.W.A. The latter was allowed in practically intact, and merely augmented by the pastoral workers of Queensland. The three A.W.U branches previously working in that State were fused into one, sub-divided into five districts as in the old A.W.A. Unlike other branches of the A.W.U, it was to have a complete set of officers of its own and a separate branch executive, while instead of the annual general meeting of the branch, provision was made for a delegate meeting in Queensland. So the whole framework of the A.W.A. organisation was embodied in the constitution of the A.W.U as far as Queensland was concerned. In the other States the old machinery was retained.

Thus the first step was taken towards the creation of a pan-Australian amalgamation of unions. The A.W.A. had launched the A.W.U on a course of practical One Big Unionism. The President expressed the opinion that the amalgamation would lessen the risk of industrial troubles since employers would be more circumspect in dealing with a vast body of 100,000 organised workers than they would be with isolated organisations. He told the A.W.U Convention, which met immediately thereafter on the 22nd, that the importance of the step just taken could not be over-estimated, for it showed that the union had a good idea of the true position and of what would in the near future have to be faced by organised labour. “Powerful organisations must displace the craft unionism that had prevailed in the past. The huge combinations that were now arrayed against the people must be met by powerful organisations on the part of the workers. Combine must be met with combine. All talk about ‘the old good relations between employer and employee’ was bunkum. Just as there could be no harmony between good and evil, so there could be no actual harmony between people whose interests were in conflict and who were therefore utterly opposed to one another. The worker had nothing in common with Capitalism, and the fight, begun long ago, would continue until Capitalism as an institution was overthrown.” He went on to forecast the absorption of other unions in the A.W.U.

All of which looks as if even Spence had discovered the I.W.W. Theodore, too, told the winding-up conference of the A.W.A., that the new amalgamation would not be governed by the Arbitration Court.

As there was some jealousy among the officials of both unions in Queensland, Dunstan had to be brought from South Australia to take the Queensland Secretaryship.

Once launched on its career as the One Big Union, the A.W.U. forged ahead rapidly. The timid and conservative officials soon found that their forebodings about the Court were unfounded, and that their jobs were not imperilled, but their prestige and power increased. Next year the butchers made overtures. The Queensland Branch at the January meeting approved the step. Crampton urged amalgamation in a lengthy report. After dwelling on the dangers to the workers from the approach of the beef trust, he continued:

“I do not ask that you should organise to prevent the development of the combine-that is impossible. But I ask you to span the gulf that separates one industry from another and assist industrial democracy to march stride for stride with the ever-conquering and irresistible combine. My idea of organisation is that a man should unceasingly strive to break down craft barriers, embrace every opportunity to link up the forces of labour, and pay no attention to the industrial humbug who raves about a union losing ‘prestige’ through being swallowed up in a larger whole. . . . Skilled workmen should not clamour for the cream of industry and compel the unskilful to bear the burdens.”

In this spirit the branch rejected a proposed agreement with the federated engine-drivers for common action, and recommended the latter to join the A.W.U. The Federal Conference of the butchers endorsed the amalgamation plan and ordered a ballot of the members. Meanwhile a conference was held between the A.M.I.E.U. and the A.W.U. on May 15th, and drew up a draft scheme of organisation. Practically the plan outlined by Theodore in 1912 was adopted-the creation of an industrial branch. It was proposed within each local (State) branch to set up a Meat Industry Section governed by a sectional Council, and an independent Secretary. The Section would also be separately represented on the branch executive, but not on the Annual Convention. Sections were to enjoy local autonomy, subject to the supervision of the branch executives. At the Annual Conference of the meat workers (A.M.I.E.U.) in June, 1915, it was found that the voting had been as follows:

.. QueenslandN.S.W.TasmaniaVictoriaS.A.
For amalgamation2,2861,40791404126
Against amalgamation713704219161

Conference decided to permit those branches which had voted in the affirmative to join the A.W.U. But at the last moment Crampton and his colleagues stopped the Queensland branch from entering the amalgamation which they had energetically advocated eighteen months before. They had discovered that the A.W.U. was merely a machine for getting officials into Parliament.

However, the timber workers, bakers, and shop-assistants in Queensland actually did link up with the A.W.U in that year. In igi5 the great union included among its aims: “To strive for One Big Union of the Australian workers.” In 1916 the Federated Mining Employees’ Union proposed to amalgamate. This union had replaced the old Amalgamated Miners’ Association in the southern and western States, except at Broken Hill-and, of course, on the coal-fields. The first agreement prepared by the officials provided for the formation of a Mining Industry Branch with the right to hold independent conferences, make its own bye-laws, and secede, after a ballot, upon three months’ notice. The A.W.U. Convention, however, refused to ratify this scheme, delegates complaining that the miners wanted to retain all their present powers in a kind of federation with the right to draw out. The A.W.U stood for amalgamation, not federation. On the other hand, the Railway Workers and General Labourers’ Association in N.S.W. was admitted with the status of an industrial branch. Even this meant a considerable modification of the existing geographical structure of the A.W.U. You now had an industrial division cutting across the established regional branches, and separately represented at Convention and on the Executive. The navvies were given just those privileges as had been enjoyed by a territorial branch, and so got rather less than the miners had demanded. But even so some delegates objected that this was federation rather than amalgamation. But they had to agree to the argument that you had to give away something in order to get the O.B.U.

Some time later the F.M.E.A. came in, not, however, as an industrial branch, but as an industrial section within the branches on the same terms as had been offered to the A.M.I.E.U. But dark rumours of corruption hang about this amalgamation. At any rate the Barrier A.M.A. refused to accompany the other metalliferous miners, but decided instead to link up with the coal-miners in the C. & S.E.F.

The year 1916 marks the culminating point of that phase of the amalgamation movement which was headed by the A.W.U The last big union to come in was the F.M.E.A. Thereafter the movement, which in 1914 had looked as if it would quickly absorb the majority of the unions in the continent, was abruptly arrested. The cheek was due to the very same force which had given its initial impetus to the amalgamation-the I.W.W. The impulse to One Big Unionism in the years 1908-16 was increasingly due to the doctrines of industrial solidarity associated with the American organisation. Coming actually into Australia, that body exerted a still stronger influence, for instance, over members of the R. W. & G.L.A. in N.S.W. But after the 1916 Conference of the A.W.U the Australian organisation of the I.W.W. openly threw its whole weight against the Big Union. To understand this we must go back a few years and trace the events which dictated this hostility and which gave it such weight.