Sydney Libertarianism – R. Smilde 1960

Arbitration and the New Seamen’s Accord

Source: Broadsheet no. 6, June 1960;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.

Working life in this year of 1960 has boon marked by a series of disputes in a wide range of industries. The disputes follow three or four years of peace; not the- peace which flows from contentment but rather from an uneasy defensiveness on the part of the unions.

NSW has seen stoppages and strikes by busmen, milk carters, miners, firemen, abattoir employees et al. Reaction to the fines imposed at the direction of “penalty-happy” Maloney, Minister for Labour, has been very strong, including a threat by the Miners Federation to disaffiliate from the ALP.

On the federal level, the main trigger for unrest was the finalisation of new awards for seamen and wharf labourers.

The chief feature of the seamen’s award was the view it took of week-end penalty rates. The whole industry has been put on a now basis, something akin to the 40-hour week. This does not make any difference to the amount of work done on ships, but it did enable the shipowners successfully to argue for a different weekend penalty rate, with the result that the rate has been cut by about 40%. It makes a difference of about 5 per week

to the seaman who works Saturday and Sunday.

Neither the shipowners nor the authorities expected this to be accepted calmly. Foster, the Arbitration Judge for the seamen’s industry, actually sent the union a telegram on the same day the award was finalised warning it that any act of protest would be taken as a breach of the award.

The crew of one particular ship replied with another telegram. Its strong language was confined to printable words only by the requirements of PMG censorship, and seamen’s secretary Elliott found himself hauled into court to apologise for the unseemly behaviour of his union’s members.

Apart from verbal protests and demonstration marches and stop-work meetings the only concrete stop in retaliation was the refusal by the union to sail ships during the weekend. This move got some backing from the fact that a dispute over Sunday work existed in Victoria, concerning originally the Railways, and then the wharves.

The courts and the owners were well prepared for such a move. Both in the case of the seamen and of the wharfies the new awards sustained bans clauses. The way these clauses work: the offended party (who but the owners?) informs the Industrial court that a ban or limitation on normal work exists and that the other party is responsible. If the court agrees that this is so, the bans clause in invoked and any continuation of the ban makes the union liable to a maximum fine of 500 each time (i.e. each day) it occurs.

The seamen were fined, 300 three times and the wharfies 500 twice (for their refusal to work Sundays in Melbourne). Court costs roughly double this total.

In the wharfies’ case the Federation argued that the ban on Sunday work by the Melbourne branch was not a Federation matter since it was the branch’s own decision, and that, in any case, it was not a true ban since Sunday work is not compulsory (neither Adelaide nor Brisbane work this day). The court refused to countenance these arguments. The chief judge of the Industrial Court, Spicer, was responsible while in Parliament for the legislation which created that court. Throughout the proceedings he showed a fatherly concern for the plight of the shipowners who had made several technical mistakes in filling out their applications.

Further summonses were taken out against both unions but were suspended while the groups negotiated, with the ACTU taking part. As a result, Melbourne is again working Sundays (while maintaining the individual right to refuse), and the seamen have lifted their ban following the ACTU recommendation that they apply for a variation of the award.

Following the usual pattern of these sort of deals, one can expect that the seamen will gain a slight concession, enough to enable the leadership to save face. Even if their penalty rates were. completely restored nothing will have been grained with regard to a working man’s “right” to use his labour power to improve or defend his position.

This basic question is one which the ACTU, particularly, and the unions individually are just not game to tackle. Aided by this avoidance of the issue, the authorities have spent the last few years legislating and streamlining court procedures to such a point that any stoppage is almost immediately met by the threat of penalty. At least it is coming out into the open that Arbitration without teeth is no arbitration at all.