How Labour Governs. Vere Gordon Childe 1923
THE most permanent and solid result of the three years' intensive propaganda of the I.W.W. was the creation, on a new basis, and backed by the official leaders of labour, of a movement towards industrial unionism. The attempt to make the I.W.W. itself the One Big Union by a policy of “white-anting” existing organisations was from the outset doomed to failure; for it incurred the hostility not only of political and industrial “bosses,” but of genuine industrial unions as a whole, like the Coal and Shale Employees, the Railway Unions, and so on. To have any chance of success, movement for closer unionism must have support from some of the official spokesmen of the industrialists. Even in America the I.W.W. itself sprang from the Western Miners' Union. In Australia there was no inherent reason why industrial unions like those just named should not support a general scheme for closer unity. The success of the A.W.U.–A.W.A. project, although purely empirical and following unscientific lines, showed the possibilities of amalgamation. But their exploitation required both the fertilisation of I.W.W. theory and the dissipation of the I.W.W. threat to established organisations.
In fact, as early as 1916, a positive step towards the creation of an all-embracing industrial union was taken in N.S.W. On September 2nd a conference met in Sydney Trades Hall, presided over curiously enough by Phil Adler, Secretary of the Blacksmiths. The leading spirits in this plan were also prominent members of the industrial section of the Labour Party. Claude Thompson, Secretary of the Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Servants' Association, proposed the substantive resolution:
“That this Conference affirms the principle of One Big Union for the whole of the workers.”
To this Pattinson, representing the southern coal-miners, moved as an addendum:
“based on industrial and allied trade lines.”
Mass unionism, he said, had been a failure wherever tried. By “mass unionism” he meant presumably the system of amalgamation then advocated by the A.W.U. A.C. Willis, Secretary of the Miners' Federation, was also against mass unionism.
“Every unionist should be a member of an industrial union, though the trades should be departmentalised. The wages board system had been useful to smaller organisations, but on the whole had only provided enough oil to keep the human machine in working order.”
But it was soon obvious that the delegates held very divergent views. O'Reilly (Hairdressers) moved an amendment recommending the industrial grouping system. The delegate of the Canister Makers said that federations and amalgamations had failed. Over all the differences, however, emerged a weariness of the tactics of politicians, natural in view of their treachery on the conscription question. In the end Thompson's resolution was carried by 58 votes to 2 with ten abstentions.
A committee consisting of Willis, Bowling, and Pattinson (Miners), O'Brien (Furnishing Trades), Lenehan (Progressive Carpenters), Rutherford (Saddlers), and Mrs. Kate Dwyer (Women Workers), was elected to formulate a concrete scheme. As might be expected the committee never came to any conclusion. Lenehan was a conservative representative of a conservative craft union. Mrs. Dwyer was an old battler in the political movement, who had little sympathy with the newer unionism. Willis and Bowling were irreconcilable personally, and O'Brien was looking for a seat. But the advantage of a solid organisation and the crying need for closer unity received practical demonstration during the next twelve months.
In November, 1916, the most efficiently organised, daringly defiant, and completely successful coal strike was carried through without a hitch by the C. & S.E.F. The issue was clear-cut; the eight hours from bank to bank, to which were added minor demands about wages; the men knowing what they wanted, decided to get it, and stand no compromises; the moment was well chosen as there were no large reserves in sight; the stoppage was complete, every coal miner in Australia downing tools simultaneously; the whole thing had been carefully worked out in advance, and was intended to demonstrate the efficiency of the recently-formed federation.
The men were not to be sidetracked by talk of patriotism or German gold. They scornfully rejected the first offer made by Hughes at a compulsory conference which he convened by the powers of the War Precautions Act. The Prime Minister then offered an immediate hearing of the miners' grievances by the President of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court if they would go back to work in the interim. The federation's officers, however, knew Higgins, J., and what they could get from him, and would not hear of going back on the eight-hour shift. Eleven days later a special tribunal was appointed under the W.P. Act, with judge Edmonds, of N.S.W., as chairman, and vested with power to raise the fixed selling price of coal as well as to adjust the hours and pay of the miners. The men's leaders undoubtedly knew what the decision would be before they accepted the tribunal, and even so they did not resume work till the judge had given a favourable decision on the hours question, so that they only resumed on the hours that they demanded.
Later on the judge awarded increases of from 10 to 15 per cent. to the miners, and allowed the coal-owners to increase the selling-price of coal to a somewhat larger rate. The awards of the special tribunal were by regulation given the same force as awards of the regular courts under the Arbitration Act. In fact, the tribunal was just a screen. It preserved the form of arbitration, but its award was, in its main features, merely the registration of an agreement secretly arrived at between the parties and the Government. In this case it had taken the miners about three weeks to prove their power, and in that time they had paralysed industry throughout the eastern States. The war emergency no doubt helped them, but probably they would have had the community at their mercy in any case, as the stocks were low. This conflict was a dramatic illustration of the value of direct action in the hands of a solid and all-inclusive organisation effectively led. The victory gave Willis immense prestige; for he was supposed to have planned the whole campaign.
The antithesis – the uselessness of a strike, however widespread and popular, when the forces of labour lack organisation and unitary control – was cruelly demonstrated the next year. In the Great Strike of 1917 there was as much solidarity as in the Coal Strike. The craft unionists and the unskilled fought loyally side by side. But there was no directing plan animating the whole, and the solidarity was often misapplied. The whole affair is most complicated and mutual recriminations, charges and counter-charges after the defeat have hopelessly distorted the true details. It is now impossible to disentangle from the conflicting accounts of participants and eye-witnesses any reliable story of the inner events of the struggle. Fortunately that is irrelevant. A brief sketch of the external happenings will indicate where the main lessons of the upheaval are to be found.
Even before the N.S.W. Labour Government had “ratted,” the Railway Commissioners had sought to introduce a “jobcard” system into the tramway workshops at Randwick. The object of the cards was to show the exact time taken over each specific job. There had been, no doubt, a deliberate slowing down and reduction of output at these shops under the influence of the many I.W.W. sympathisers in them. But the men regarded the cards as part of a speeding-up device, and an instalment of the notorious Taylor system. The union representatives had secured from the Labour Government the withdrawal of the objectionable system. But in 1917 there was no longer a Labour Government in office, and Holman had left his Chief Secretary, George Fuller, a member of the old “Liberal” Party, as head of the Cabinet. So despite the protests of the engineers, the same old card system was unearthed and introduced at Randwick on July 20th.
After deputations to Commissioners and Ministers had proved useless, the men determined to strike. The leaders of the unions concerned informed the Executive of the N.S.W. Labour Council that they were unable any longer to control their members, and therefore the Council refused formally to take the lead in the negotiations. The unions concerned met among themselves on July 31st, and resolved to cease work unless the card system was immediately withdrawn. Fuller replied to this ultimatum next day with a bellicose statement. The Government, he said, intended to govern, and would not allow any outside unauthorised bodies to dictate to them. So on Thursday, August 2nd, 1,100 men at Randwick ceased work, while the majority of those employed in the railway workshops at Eveleigh, to the number of 3,000, marched out. Some shop-men at Newcastle and in other depots on the northern line also downed tools.
A defence committee, consisting of the metal trades unions, the A.R.& T.S.A., and the Tramways Union, was now set up. To make sure of the conflict Fuller came out with a yet wilder statement on the 3rd, which we may quote in parts:
“There are in this State a limited number of men for the time being in control of several trade unions, who have lost all sense of patriotism and responsibility, and who are deliberately contributing to the success of the enemies of civilisation...
“Nine-tenths of the men do not know what the strike is really about, but are being blindly led into this appalling conflict by a few dangerous leaders. I now solemnly appeal to every workman in the State to consider seriously the direction in which he is drifting and to stand by the Government in its determination to resist to the utmost the challenge which has been so wickedly made by thoughtless leaders... .”
Next day the fuelmen at Eveleigh downed tools apparently without orders. As a counterstroke the locomotives were loaded by clerks and officials, so that participation by the Federated Locomotive Engine-drivers and Firemen became inevitable. The Defence Committee offered to let the men return on the conditions existing on June 1st, and to submit the whole question to a Royal Commission. The Government replied that their employees were in revolt, and they could not consider negotiations until the men returned to work unconditionally.
The capitalist press branded the strikers as pro-Germans and, on the other hand, set out to minimise the extent of support the strike was receiving. Its testimony is therefore worthless, but there does, in fact, seem to have been a lack of unanimity among the unionists directly concerned, and after the first few days men began to scab. At the same time there was a vague desire broadcast among unionists for a general strike. The brilliant victory of the miners and minor successes by other unions had inspired a general belief in the efficacy of direct action, while the older unionists, who remembered the dark days of the 'nineties, were overborne by younger men or recent arrivals.
On Saturday the L.E.D. & F. resolved to cease work – a decision rendered inevitable by the strike of the union fuelment - and on Monday the other traffic employees on both trams and trains were called out, and left their jobs at midnight. The electricians at the power-house, too, ceased work this time. Yet despite a tremendous spirit of solidarity the stoppage was half-hearted and traffic was not completely paralysed except on the first day. The men who were not in the A.R. & T.S.A. did not all leave work, but took a ballot. On the 7th, Fuller, in the name of the Government, issued an ultimatum to the strikers. They must return to work by Friday, or be dismissed from the public service, losing all their privileges. On the other hand, he guaranteed full protection to those who remained “ loyal.” The Defence Committee replied by repeating their offer to resume work without the card-system. Next day the Strike Committee was reinforced by delegates from the A.W.U., C. & S.E.F. (Coal Miners), A.M.I.E.U. (Meat Industry Employees), Seamen, Waterside Workers, and Gas Employees. Most of these unions were impulsively anxious to strike, and some of the mines on the northern field had been already laid idle through a sympathetic strike of the engine-drivers.
Rail-borne goods were now regarded as “black” and few unionists cared to handle them. The wharf labourers knocked off on the 9th, and the same day the coke-workers at Port Kembla refused to handle rail-borne coal. A number of carters and other transport employees on their own account began to boycott the railways. So, too, the boilermakers and other engineering unions working at the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard refused to use the electric current because it was generated by the Railway Department, and so walked out. On the other hand, a certain number of the original strikers on the railways, especially in the traffic branch, returned to work on the 10th in compliance with the Government ultimatum, while the authorities scoured the country for scabs to fill the vacancies.
On Saturday the seamen struck, and on the following Monday as a result, the ship painters and dockers in Sydney and the waterside workers in Melbourne failed to resume work. On the 11th all the unions connected with the food-supply met to discuss the situation, but postponed the question of a strike till the following Friday. However, the Defence Committee declared rail-borne wheat and flour “black.” The employees at the Government Dockyards of Cockatoo and Garden Islands, following the lead of the painters and dockers and their comrades at Newcastle, as well as many of the employees of private yards, ceased work on the 14th.
On its side the Government had imposed stringent restrictions on the use of coal, gas, and electricity, and took power to commandeer all kinds of vehicles. An amendment of the Coal Mines Regulation Act, to allow inexperienced miners to work at the coal face, was bludgeoned through Parliament in one sitting. A camp of strike-breakers brought down from the country – they were largely the sons of farmers and suchlike persons – was established on the Agricultural Society's show grounds, and later on another at the Zoo site at Taronga Park. In these the scabs were treated royally, even being fed, clothed, and housed by the State, supplied with free beer, and described by Ministers and the daily Press as “loyalists” and “ patriots.” Three members of the Defence Committee, Hon. E. J. Kavanagh, M.L.C., Secretary of the Labour Council, Claude Thompson, of the Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Association, and A. C. Willis, of the Miners, were arrested and charged with conspiring to cause sedition. To these were joined A. W. Buckley, M.L.A. The Government seemed to hope that the arrest of the leaders would check the spread of the strike. As a matter of fact the three first-named, at any rate, had done their best to restrict the area of the dispute, so that the arrests only complicated the issue and increased the general bitterness.
Now the slaughtermen section of the A.M.I.E.U. struck work on the pretext of a dispute of their own without consulting the Defence Committee. On August 20th the Barrier A.M.A. declared all coal “black,” and decided to cease work until the arrested members of the Strike Committee should be released. Further sections of the A.M.I.E.U. and several other smaller unions or groups also came out. On the other hand, the Defence Committee now offered to recommend a general resumption under a modified card-system provided there was no victimisation. Cabinet refused to make any modification in the cards or to guarantee re-employment to the strikers, since it was pledged to retain the “loyalists” in the service. Next day, therefore, further unions came out at Broken Hill and the retail butchers ceased work in a body.
On the 23rd the Arbitration Court cancelled the registrations of the striking railway unions. Judge Heydon declared it must be one thing or the other - the Act or no Act. By striking, the unions implicitly said “No Act,” and so they would get no Act any more. The latter had argued that the card-system constituted a “change of working conditions,” and therefore should not have been introduced without the necessary variation of the awards having first been obtained from the Court. But technically such a system was regarded as a mere detail of workshop management which could not come within the purview of the Court under the State Act as interpreted by Heydon, J.
On this same day the Government issued a Proclamation taking over the coal mines in terms of a small Act hastily rushed through the Assembly. They announced their intention of working the mines with non-unionists under police protection, guaranteeing the owners against all loss. Four days later the work of producing coal by strike-breakers was actually begun. Strong camps of these were established on the Maitland Field, and at Newcastle in the Sailors' Home. On August 24th the Acting-Premier announced that he would carry on no further negotiations with the Strike Committee or their intermediaries. “These negotiations,” he added, “were being carried on solely with a view to encouraging the unions to believe that the Government would yield.”
The Federal Government now intervened more drastically. On the 29th Regulations were issued under the War Precautions Act, empowering the Governor-General to de-register from the Commonwealth Arbitration Court any union participating in the strike, and making it a criminal offence to impede the shearing or the transportation of wool. This had instant effect. The heads of the A.W.U. determined on the 31st that the union should not participate actively in the strike, but confine its energies to contributing to the strike funds. However, on the last-named date the gas-workers announced their intention of refusing to handle non-union coal.
This further extension was suspended, however, to allow of fresh negotiations for a settlement. The Defence Committee being excluded from access to the Government, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, R. D. Meagher, who had been expelled from the Labour Party over conscription, but was anxious to return to the fold, now offered himself as mediator. After consultation with the Defence Committee, he suggested that work should be resumed on the conditions prevailing at the date of cessation-i.e., under the card-system-but that an independent tribunal be immediately appointed to investigate the grievances of railway and tramway men, and after three months to report on the workings of the card-system. In the meantime certain safeguards were to be afforded the men to prevent an abuse of the cards. Cabinet, however, bluntly refused to modify its previous position.
In the light of this rebuff the Defence Committee announced its resolve to fight to the bitter end, and declared its intention to invite all unions, including the A.W.U., to refuse to handle anything that had been touched by “black” labour. In response to this appeal the gas- workers struck at all the retort houses in Sydney and suburbs on September 3rd, and next day the glass-bottle workers, timber-workers, and all the employees of the Clyde Engineering Co. ceased work, but the A.W.U. did not reconsider its previous decision.
In fact, the back of the strike was broken. Twelve mines were producing coal with non-union labour. The two mines of John Brown, Pelaw and Richmond Main, had been definitely taken over by the N.SW. Government. The latter arranged with the Victorian Government to provide labour for one of these mines and police protection. Non-union crews had been scraped together for several colliers and coastal steamers. Higgins, J., had cancelled the clause in his award which granted preference to members of the Waterside Workers' Federation on August 30th, and the shipping companies, thus given a free hand, had enrolled a tolerably efficient force of “blacklegs,” for whom the Government provided accommodation in the premises granted to the waterside workers by the See Ministry fifteen years previously. At the same time steps were taken to prevent the families of strikers from receiving State relief when in distress.
Hence, on September 6th, the Defence Committee was forced to accept the offers of mediation made by J. B. Holme, Special Commissioner for Conciliation in the Department of Labour and Industry. On September 8th they agreed upon terms of surrender. The card-system was to be retained, subject to certain safeguards to prevent a falsification of the record, and an inquiry by a Royal Commission at the end of three months' trial. Other grievances were to be submitted to Mr. Holme, and by him to the Arbitration Court, where possible. The Railway Commissioners were to have discretion in re-employing strikers to fill vacancies, but employment was to be “offered without vindictiveness.” The Committee recommended the acceptance of these terms to the men on September 10th. Serious hitches still occurred. The men objected to having to fill in humiliating forms in applying for reinstatement. These were generally considered to be a contravention of the terms of settlement and many refused to fill them in, but many others gave way under pressure of hunger. By the 17th the Timber-workers', Engine-drivers', Gas-workers', and other unions had resolved to return to work, but in all too many cases found their places filled. The engineering trades did the same, but even here by no means all the unionists got back.
On the waterfront and the coal-fields, however, the official strike dragged on for nearly a month. On the 20th most of the transport workers returned to work where it was available. The wharf labourers, however, were completely locked out. The shipping companies and the Governments had set up National Service Bureaux to recruit scabs, and by now had organised a body of some 2,000 non-unionists for constant work. They would only engage men for casual jobs through the Bureaux, and the latter required from applicants a signed declaration that they were not members of the Waterside-workers Federation. That was to avoid the operation of the Federal Award which still stipulated a high hourly wage for members of that organisation. The wharf labourers have never quite recovered. The companies kept up the bureaux after the war was over, and organised their loyalists into a tame union, which was awarded preference in place of the Federation. After many months some of the old hands were allowed to get stray jobs, but till the return of the Storey Government they were out of employment.
The seamen in turn refused to work with non-unionists, and it was not till October 17th that both parties modified their positions and so re-opened navigation.
Finally, the coal-miners remained on strike for another month after the other unions had abandoned the struggle. Negotiations were indeed opened up on September 12th through J. B . Holme, but there was the trouble of the loyalists employed on the northern field and the “ scabs” imported from Victoria. Willis had done his best to keep the men out of the strike, and when released did his best to get them back to work, but the first terms offered by the Government were intolerable. By the 25th, however, adjustments had been made and the Delegate Board were prepared to recommend a resumption on the following terms:
“The unionists were to agree to work with non unionists and to admit them to membership of the Federation. In future, no permits to work at the coal face were to be issued to unqualified persons save in the event of a strike. But in re-employing miners preference was to be given to 'loyalists,' and the colliery managers were to have the right to select labour without, however, showing unfair discrimination against unionists, and guided in general by the principle, 'last to come, first to go.' The cases of men who considered themselves victimised were to be examined by an industrial court judge, Local and regional conciliation committees were to be set up to supervise the re-establishment of local customs and to try and prevent minor stoppages.
On September 28th the Western District Branch of the Federation accepted these terms and resumed work, and a few days later the miners on the southern field followed suit, but in neither of these districts had there been any large influx of non-union labour. In the north there was much dissension. The Delegation Board recommended a resumption on October 2nd, but many lodges recorded an adverse vote. It was not until the 15th that the strike was officially declared off on the Maitland seam. And even then Richmond Main was manned wholly by the Victorian strike-breakers, while many members of the Federation who had been prominent in the strike, or who had belonged to the I.W.W. or the Socialists, were locked out. These men were long supported by levies on their fellows. But in the end the free labourers from Victoria found themselves quite incapable of earning a decent wage on piece-work and, despite their revolvers and their police bodyguard, grew weary of living in constant terror from the unionists. So they elected to be repatriated, and most of the unionists gradually drifted back to the pits.
This account must suffice to give some idea of the progress of the great strike at its centre. Its eddies affected more or less all the States. The net result, in N.S.W. at any rate, was that unionism was virtually crippled in almost every industry. The railway, engineering, and many other unions were de-registered and so excluded from the Arbitration Courts, and that was a serious matter in a country where the preparation and argument of claims for the Court had become the chief function of unionism. In the railways and tramways “yellow” unions were organised by the Commissioners to take over these functions, and men were given special leave and free passes to organise these bogus bodies; for, as the Chief Commissioner explained to the Royal Commission in 1921, it was necessary to have some body to “represent” the men before the Court! These bodies were deliberately organised so as to break up the railwaymen into as many small sections as possible. Similarly the “loyalists” on the waterfront were registered as an industrial union and supplanted the old Federation before the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. Bogus unions were also set up in several other industries.
The aftermath lasted long. The working-class of Sydney experienced a period of distress and actual starvation which had not been paralleled in their generation. Thousands of families were driven to subsist on public charity which was given with no generous hand. On the railways and tramways despite promises of no vindictiveness, those strikers who were lucky enough to get back at all were shown no mercy. All their accumulated privileges and seniority were forfeited, and they were treated worse than fresh recruits to the service. For instance, on the railways first-class drivers on returning to duty were put to fire for men who had not even been first-class firemen before the strike. The whole seniority lists were revised so as to degrade the strikers. In fact eyesight and hearing tests were altered in the interests of the loyalists and strike breakers, and this had the effect, according to Mr. justice Edmonds, “of securing permanent employment to a number of persons (loyalists) who would not otherwise have been retained in the Commissioners' service, and therefore keeping out of employment an equal number of strikers who were eligible in all respects.” The same judge draws attention to a number of other points in which the settlement terms were disregarded by the Commissioners in some cases under political pressure.
It is worth while pausing here to consider the two most generally accepted views of the origin of the strike as beautiful illustrations of the myth-making instinct in politics. The official view, as set forth in the daily Press, and enunciated by the N.S.W. Government of the day, is that the strike was a deliberate bid by the extremists within the Labour Movement to obtain by direct action the power which the people refused them at the ballot box in May, 1917. Fuller claimed to believe that it was a carefully-planned conspiracy to overthrow or supersede the constitutional Government of the country by paralysing its industrial life. So in the statement, already quoted, of August 3rd he says:
“The Government is convinced that a section of the men were determined to have a strike under any circumstances. There can be no compromise on the part of the Government when an issue of this kind is raised. The time is now come for the people of this State to take a stand against those extremist's who have for a long time been deliberately conspiring against the public interest, and who have been responsible for the industrial ferment which has disgraced this State since the beginning of the war.”
By the 8th the Acting-Premier was able to say:
“It is absolutely more important that the Government should run the country than those irresponsible people who are behind the trade unions at the present time should get a withdrawal of the card-system... . The main question was whether the irresponsible gentlemen who are trying to run the country shall run it or whether the Government shall run it.”
On the following day the myth had grown, and Fuller now told a deputation of women, introduced by James Dooley, M.L.A.:
“This is not a revolt against the card-system, but against the National Government. We will not allow the Government to be taken out of the hands of those who have been elected in the proper way to run the country, and to be handed over, not to the unions, but to the irresponsible men who are endeavouring to force the Government out of the hands of those responsible to the people and get possession of it themselves.”
And eventually all idea of proportion was lost, and the official advertisements Fuller inserted, calling for strike, breakers, end:
“Who is for Australia and the Allies?”
Finally we get the theory perfected, and are assured that the Government held ample evidence to prove that the strike had long been premeditated and was political or even revolutionary in character.
This evidence has never been published. Even a carefully chosen capitalist jury was unable to convict Kavanagh, Willis, Thompson, and Buckley of conspiring to bring about a strike in the railway service (November 9th). Some colour was certainly given to the Government's pretensions by some stray utterances of strike leaders-especially Buckley-at Domain meetings; but no historical critic would take seriously the utterances of leaders endeavouring to hearten a body of strikers in a losing battle. More plausible were Beeby's references to the abortive O.B.U. Congress in Sydney the previous year, and to the proposals before the Melbourne T.U.C., summoned to consider conscription in September, 1916. But in view of the manifest disorganisation of the strikers, it was necessary to modify the official view and assume that the deeper plans of the “conspirators” had been wrecked by their inability to hold back the wilder elements within the unions until the “plot” was perfected.
Now, a belief that a general strike would prove invincible no doubt existed very widely, and the general idea of direct action had been popularised by the I.W.W. But that these sentiments had crystallised into a conspiracy to use those weapons on a large scale is incredible in the light of the facts, and there is not a tittle of evidence that a single responsible Labour leader wanted a big strike at that time. If he did, he would have been a lunatic in view of the vast quantity of coal stored at grass since 1916. On the other hand, it is likely that the leaders did want to be in a position to carry out a big industrial stoppage if occasion should require it. Hence the conferences and plans.
Beyond this the official theory is sufficiently refuted by the patent lack of any defined plan in the conduct of the struggle. For example, in the official statement issued on behalf of the Defence Committee on August 4th, when the fuel-men struck, Kavanagh says:
“It had been originally intended to confine the strike to those directly affected by the card-system, but this was found to be impossible owing to the general dissatisfaction which existed throughout the railway service due to the failure to remedy long-standing grievances and to the limited scope of the Arbitration Act.”
All the evidence goes to show that many unions simply rushed into the fray from a mistaken spirit of solidarity without any encouragement from the Labour leaders – in fact, against their advice. It was not till September, when too many unions were already embroiled, that the Defence Committee deliberately invited an extension of the area of the conflict.
In reply to the official version the unions evolved an amazing myth of their own. In its final elaboration, the Labour thesis was that the whole dispute was deliberately engineered by the Government, in conjunction with the Employers' Federation, with a view to dealing a knock-out blow to unionism. It was contended that the Government waited till ample reserves of coal had been accumulated and the cessation of public works had thrown large numbers of men upon the Labour market. Then a step was taken which the Ministry knew meant an upheaval-the card-system was revived, and to make sure of the desired breach occurring the Acting-Premier refused point-blank to meet the men.
“Every subsequent step,” says the Annual Report of the P.L.L. Executive, December, 1917, “proved that the plausible Acting-Premier, Mr. Fuller, was simply a willing tool in the hands of the Employers' Federation which met daily to advise the Government. That the Government and the employers' organisations were all parties to a conspiracy to break the power of unionism and force conscription upon the working-class has been proved up to the hilt by the discovery of the Secret Memorandum prepared by Premier Holman, and circulated among his colleagues prior to his departure for Great Britain.” (p. 17).
Now this pretty theory might fit in very well with post-strike events, but is otherwise self-contradictory. In the first place, the Secret Memorandum proves nothing of the sort. It was a series of suggestions for aids to recruiting, drawn up under Holman's instructions and circulated among his colleagues for consideration by Cabinet in the ordinary way. A copy was stolen, and published in the Press by the Anti-Conscription Committee on the morning of the polling for the second referendum on that subject (December, 1917). For the purposes of discrediting conscriptionists, it was highly effective; for it contained a whole series of most Prussian suggestions – racing and amusements were to be rigorously curtailed; picture shows were to be flooded with recruiting films; the Press-censorship was to be yet further tightened, and all papers were to be obliged to publish columns of official war “news” and propaganda articles; pacifist papers were to be watched with a view to complete suppression; eligible single men were to be discharged from the public service, and employers were to be encouraged to adopt a similar policy of economic compulsion. All this is reactionary in the extreme, but where is there a hint of any plan for crushing unionism?
Of course the Labour theory is untenable. It proves, or seeks to prove, too much. How could the Government or the Employers' Federation foresee the ramifications which the strike would assume? On their own confession, those who were responsible for the conduct of the strike had no intention of letting it spread beyond the workshops. If the union leaders could not foretell the expansion of the strike and did their best to limit it, how was any one outside the unions to foresee the implication of the coal-miners or waterside workers? Really the acceptance of the Labour thesis would involve adherence also to the version of Fuller and Co.
On the other hand it is probable that the new anti-Labour Ministry were resolved to challenge the authority of the unions within their own employ. The card-system did constitute such a challenge, but there is no evidence to show that that challenge was deliberately timed to suit the other employers. It was more likely that it was just a coincidence that it came at such a convenient juncture. Nevertheless, when they saw men coming out on all sides at a disadvantage, the shipping and coal interests resolved to seize the opportunity to draw the fangs of the militant unions. They had long writhed under the repeated stoppages and interruptions inflicted upon industry by the waterside workers and the coalminers. Now, these unions struck when there was plenty of coal at grass and trade was slack. The employers were assured of the fullest support from the Ministry, and pushed home their advantage ruthlessly. A happy combination of circumstances- superfluity of labour, ample reserves of coal, a war emergency (which was not an emergency in this sense in Australia except in the capitalist dailies), a pannicky fear of Germans and I.W.W. incendiaries among the cocky farmers and middle classes, and a spirit of undisciplined and misguided solidarity among the proletariat-had delivered the unions into their hands. Government and employers were united in driving home their advantage, but that was all.
The lesson of the strike, so pitilessly driven home on the starving unionists of Australia, was the complement of that of the Bank-to-Bank Strike the preceding year, the futility of mere solidarity without direction, of strikes alone deprived of plan and executive guidance. Unions had rushed out into the fray without consulting anybody, and so complicated the task confronting the hastily formed Defence Committee. Yet the latter lacked the authority to order back to work over-zealous organisations or to call out others. Still less could it conduct the strike on the scientific lines that persons wise after the event subsequently recommended. The urgent need of reorganising the forces of unionism was, therefore, made clear to all.
The Secretary of the Labour Council, in his report for December, 1917, draws attention to this. In future, he argues such matters must be controlled by a responsible body, not a scratch organisation without permanent existence like the Defence Committee. He therefore outlines a sort of federal scheme to this end. All unions should be grouped on lines of trade affinity into Industrial Federations governed by Industrial Councils, on which each union would be represented by from one to three delegates according to membership. These Councils should in turn be linked up to a State Council, and over all would be an Australian Labour Council. The State Council would consist of one delegate for each union and would send two delegates to the Australian Council. Voting was to be on the card-system, and no union might strike without the approval of the Industrial Council to which it belonged.
Kavanagh's scheme did not meet with the approval of the industrial unionists on the Labour Council. It was referred to a sub-committee, on which the industrialists secured a majority dominated by men like E. E. Judd, S.L.P., A. Macpherson, an ex-member of the I.W.W., and J. S. Garden.
The latter rejected the Secretary's scheme on account of its craft basis, and outlined a plan for One Big Union in accordance with American theories. They did not, however, propose to scrap political action altogether, or even to abandon arbitration. The new plan, known as the O.B.U., was approved by the Council after a protracted debate. and a committee was appointed to explain the proposal to the unions. Meanwhile the Secretary of the Council, E. J. Kavanagh, was appointed to the Board of Trade, and the industrialist, Garden, elected in his place. Had the scheme been ripened and ratified a little earlier while the lessons of the Big Strike were still fresh in the minds of unionists, it would have had a far better chance of acceptance. This psychological moment was lost in talk.
However, a Trade Union Congress was called and met in Sydney on August 5th, 1918. A. C. Willis was in the chair, and nearly 150 organisations sent delegates. The scheme of industrial unionism laid before Congress was, of course, opposed by the craft interests and also by the Central Branch of the A.W.U. On the other hand, A. Rae and Cullinan, of the Western (N.S.W.) Branch of that union, supported it enthusiastically. The scheme was preceded by a preamble inspired by the I.W.W. economics. It did not, however, follow slavishly either the 1905 or 1908 preamble. In particular it precisely defined the meaning of the class struggle (“the greater the share which the capitalist class appropriates, the less remains for the workers; therefore the interests of these two classes are in constant conflict”); revolutionary (“a complete change, namely, the abolition of the capitalist ownership of the means of production, whether privately or through the State, and the establishment, instead, of social ownership”); and retains political beside industrial action with the qualification that it must be “revolutionary.”
The actual organisation, too, was a much modified version of Trautmann's plan. The union was to be divided into six departments – (1) Building and Construction, (2) Manufacture, (3) Transportation and Communication, (4) Agriculture and Fisheries, (5) Civil Service and Public Utilities, (6) Mining. The departments were sub-divided into divisionsthree in No. 1, four in Nos. 3, 4 and 6, six in No. 5, and eight in No. 2. For instance, in the Building and Construction Department there were the Ship-and-Boat Building Division, the Railway, Road, Canal, and Sewerage Construction Division, and the Building Division proper. (The construction of locomotives was assigned to Department 2.) The divisions were industrial. For example, the Metalliferous Division of the Mining Department included, beside the miners, clerks and all labour employed about the mines as well as those engaged in treating the ore at the smelters and refiners. But little attempt had been made to adjust the American scheme to actual conditions in Australia. So in Department 4 the three most important industries of Australia pastoral, wheat and cane-growing-were lumped together in one division, while the industrially far less important orchard and vineyard workers had a department to themselves like the cotton-plantation employees, who were non-existent. Again, in the Mining Department a whole division was reserved for oil mining. This had to be glossed in the explanatory pamphlet issued by the Committee: “that is, when we strike oil”!
Within the divisions of the Manufacturing Department there were to be also sub-divisions – five in the Foodstuffs Division-animal foods, cereal and vegetable foods (millers, bakers, sugar refiners, etc.), beverages, tobacco-workers (wholesale and retail), and also hairdressers, and hotel and restaurant employees, including their special butchers and bakers as well as lift-men and chauffeurs.
The government of the union would have been highly complicated. At the top was a Grand Council consisting of a President and Secretary elected by plebiscite of the whole membership, together with two delegates from each department also elected. This body had almost untrammelled power over the finances and policy of the union and could call a general strike. No Department, Division or Section would be permitted to take any action involving the members of the unions without the permission of the Grand Council. All its members were to be fully paid. Departmental and Divisional Councils were similarly constituted. There was also provision for District Councils made up from delegates from each Division in industrial centres like Sydney, Newcastle, Broken Hill, and so on. Sectional Committees to safeguard the interests of allied trades, and Shop Committees on the lines of those operating under the A.M.I.E.U. in the meat works. The whole was designed to constitute a graded hierarchy of controls. But all the officers and councillors were to be subject to the recall, and it was laid down that the highest authority in the union should be a plebiscite vote of all the members. The ballot was to be used to determine all matters of interest to the unions. The extremist section denounced these latter provisions as reactionary, but they were inserted as a sop to democratic prejudices.
While these events were taking place in N.S.W. a similar movement was on foot in the other States. After the Sydney Congress in N.S.W., congresses were held in Victoria and Queensland which adopted the N.S.W. scheme practically unaltered. Finally, an all-Australian Congress in Melbourne ratified these plans. But this grandiose edifice came to nothing. It had officials provisionally appointed at Melbourne, but no members. Craft and sectional prejudices were still too strong. Moreover, the politicians, as we have seen above, opposed the scheme. But above all it had to face the hostility of the A.W.U.