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Trade Union influence in the 1920s and 1930s

Turner, I. In Union is Strength 1976

excerpt one

The years 1921-2 saw a brief economic recession, during which unemployment rose to 11.2 per cent. The subsequent years to 1928 saw steady economic growth. The demand for Australian exports. except coal, remained high; there was a strong inflow of capital for both public and private purposes; the manufacturing industries expanded steadily; heavy industry continued to grow; building and public works were buoyant. In these circumstances the trade unions consolidated their position and made some economic advance. Union membership grew from 700000 in 1921 to over 900000 in 1928, although the number of individual unions fell slightly (from 382 to 379). In 1928 nearly 60 per cent of male employees and over 40 per cent of female employees were trade unionists. Overall, they were members of larger unions with stronger national links.

After the upheavals of 1919- 20. these were relatively quiet years industrially. A combination of political pressure and appeals to the industrial tribunals produced some gains for the unions. Except for the continual skirmishes in the coal industry, the only major stoppage was a strike in 1925 of Australian seamen in solidarity with British seamen who had tied up their ships in Australian ports. The Commonwealth Nationalist government, led by Stanley Melbourne Bruce,

tried to deport the seamen's leaders, Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson, both reputed communists and non-Australian born. The High Court, however, declared this attempt unconstitutional.

The major concerns of the unions were the basic wage and the working week. The craft unions were concerned additionally with their margins for skill. The unions were not successful in their application to have the findings of the Piddington Commission adopted by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. Instead, the court in 1921 determined 'to continue the fair and practicable minimum wage [which it] has adopted for so many years'. It did, however, accept the Royal Commission's proposal that the basic wage should be adjusted in accordance with changes in prices; and in 1922 Mr Justice Powers added a 3s loading, the Powers loading, to the basic wage to compensate workers whose wage rises were lagging behind rising prices. The principle applied in these years in the determination of the basic wage was, as the court itself later said, that

…the basic wage …was related, not to what has been termed the 'economic' wage theory, nor to the assessment of work value, but to an ethical standard designed to meet the necessities of a married worker and at least some of his dependants.

To many unionists a reduction in the hours of labour seemed more significant than an increase in wages. Wage rises were commonly eroded by price increases, but a shorter working week was an absolute gain. Not only did it provide welcome additional leisure, but it might help to spread the available work over more workers and thus reduce unemployment. On the hours front, the industrial tribunals generally took the view that this was a matter for parliament rather than for the courts. Some NSW unions had won the 44-hour week by industrial action; of these, the building trades unions had been able to hold their gain. Otherwise in New South Wales an Act of 1920, carried by a Labor government. empowered the government to proclaim the shorter hours in particular industries; this was repealed the next year, following a change of government. The Commonwealth Arbitration Court awarded the 44-hour week in two industries in 1920, but rescinded this award in the following year. Labor governments legislated for 44 hours in Queensland in 1924 and in New South Wales in 1925. The Commonwealth Court adopted the 44-hours standard in 1927. following a campaign by federal unions but. sensing the approach of economic difficulties' reversed its decision in 1928.

Given these reversals of form. it is not surprising that the trade unions should have viewed arbitration with some suspicion. The engineers provide a good example. Mr Justice Higgins gave the Amalgamated Engineering Union its first award in 1921. (It was incidentally his last award: he resigned from the bench after a disagreement with Prime Minister Hughes over the government's interference in matters before the court.) The Higgins award raised the AEU margin from 24S to 36s a week, and reduced hours from 48 to 44. along with other improvements. But a renewed application by metal trades employers in 1922 led Mr Justice Powers to cut margins back again to 24S and to rescind others of the recent gains. A ballot of members supported strike action, but the union's Central Council did not call a national stoppage. In 1927 Mr Justice Beeby brought down a new engineers' award which broke away from the customary craft demarcations and authorised the introduction of piece-work, or 'payment by results'. This time Sydney engineers went on strike, and the court gave its blessing to a compromise settlement which was considerably more favourable to the men.

Despite these difficulties, trade unionists generally supported the continued existence of arbitration. They were evolving a new strategy, a blend of industrial and legal action to secure their objectives. Industrial action might be particularly appropriate when the condition of the labour market was favourable to the unions; the court might be a useful line of defence if the going got tough.

excerpt two

The economic boom reached its peak in 1928, and was beginning to show the first signs of weakening when employers opened a general offensive against the advances made by the unions in the years of relative prosperity.

The first to suffer were the watersiders. Union conditions on the waterfront were still diffcult. The 'free labourers' of 1917 had formed themselves into a Permanent and Casual Wharf Laborers' Union and. although their numbers were declining, the 'P. and Cs.' remained a source of friction and a threat to solidarity. In 1928 the Waterside Workers' Federation sought an award from the Commonwealth Arbitration Court for a guaranteed minimum wage for its members. (Work on the waterfront was 'casual' in the sense that watersiders were 'picked up' for each particular job of loading or unloading a ship; they were paid for the job and received no regular minimum wage.) Mr Justice Beeby made this an occasion to review waterfront conditions generally. He condemned the lack of' discipline on the waterfront. While the WWF had always stated its willingness to accept awards', it had nevertheless maintained the unexpressed reservation that...the collective power of the organisation would be used to extort conditions which the Court had refused or had not been asked to consider', and he concluded that 'decasualisation . . . must carry with it reconsideration of wage rates'. In his award he provided for a reduction in overtime rates, two pick-ups' a day instead of one, and heavy penalties for strike action.

It was the pick-up question which most concerned the watersiders. As the Federal Labor leader, Scullin, said, the Beeby award meant that the men would be 'hanging around all day begging for the opportunity to work'. 5 The men refused to sign on for work. The ship-owners, supported by the Commonwealth government, prepared to recruit 'free labour'. The council of the Waterside Workers' Federation decided to give in and accept the award, but the men in all the main ports except Sydney and Hobart still refused to work. Free labours was enrolled; the union was fined £1 000: the Commonwealth government passed a Transport Workers Act, known to watersiders as the Dog Collar Act', which provided that watersiders should be licensed, the licence being revocable for bad behaviour (such as striking). There was considerable violence during the strike; on one occasion, demonstrating Melbourne watersiders were fired on by police. Eventually, government pressure and the inroads of 'volunteer' labour were too much for the watersiders, and they were forced back to work, alongside the 'volunteers', on the terms of the Beeby award.

The NSW Labor Council, led by Garden, declared that the debacle was due to

…the mishandling of the whole affair …by the W.W.F. committee of management. They entered the fight without any preparation, without any policy, and expected the rank and file to understand what should be done.

But the subsequent attempt by the Labor Council to run a strike on 'scientific' lines produced no better result.

In January 1929 Mr Justice Lukin brought down a new award for timber-workers which provided for longer hours, less pay, piece work, and an increase in the proportion of juvenile labour. This, following closely on the Beeby award, was regarded by the unions as the harbinger of a general attack on working-class conditions. The timber-workers of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia went on strike. Resistance collapsed fairly quickly in the last two States. but the strike was fought bitterly in New South Wales and Victoria. From the outset control of the strike was in the hands of the NSW Labor Council and the ACTU.

Union tactics were to confine the dispute to the timber industry, in order to conserve funds, while stressing its significance for the movement as a whole. Within the industry the union leadership tried to break the employers' front by reaching agreement with individual employers. Mass pickets were unable, however, to prevent the mills re-opening with non-union labour. The union leadership was reluctant to impose a black ban on mill products, fearing that the strike would become over-extended. Individual union leaders were brought before the Commonwealth Arbitration Court and fined heavily.

The court ordered a ballot of the strikers on a return-to-work motion; many ballot papers were burnt in a bonfire outside the Sydney Trades Hall: elsewhere, strikers burned an effigy of a judge, singing 'We'll hang Judge Lukin on a sour apple tree'. Over £120 000 was collected for strike funds. but finally the unions were forced to give in–in June in Victoria and in October in New South Wales. Those who were permitted returned to their jobs, but many found them no longer available and were forced to join the growing ranks of unemployed. The unions had underrated the effects of the oncoming crisis and had miscalculated their strategy. They paid heavily for their mistakes

Cutting across the timber-workers' strike was the lock-out of miners on the northern coalfields of New South Wales. The market for NSW coal had declined gradually in the post-war years, due partly to increased competition on the export market and partly to the opening up of new fields in Victoria. As a result many miners were working short time and many more were not working at all. Rather than be laid off, miners often struck, for then they could at least count on some strike pay from their union.

During 1928 the Militant Minority Movement in the Miners' Federation made a strong bid for an all-out strike to secure a guaranteed minimum wage. This move was narrowly defeated at the 1928 Miners' Convention, A.C. Willis (now a parliamentarian but still an active member of the union) declaring that there was never a more inopportune time in the history of the organisation in which to have a general strike'. The mine-owners agreed with this assessment. Determined to cut costs. and convinced that they were in a good tactical position the owners on the northern fields in February 1929 gave the miners fourteen days notice, saying that they would re-open the mines when the men agreed to take a 20 per cent wage cut. The union accepted the challenge and declared a 12.5 per cent levy on the wages of miners in other districts, so that the men out of work might be given regular relief. So began the 'longest and most devastating stoppage' in the mining industry, during which ten thousand men were out of work for sixteen months.

The efforts of the prime minister, the NSW premier and the Commonwealth Court to settle the dispute all failed. The mine-owners refused to re-open the pits on the conditions provided in the miners' award. The Bruce government had refused to prosecute the leading northern mine-owner, John ('Baron') Brown, for breach of the award (as watersiders and timber-workers had been already prosecuted). The government's handling of the dispute became an issue in the Federal election of October 1929 and E.G. Theodore, deputy leader of the ALP, told the miners that 'if Labor was returned to govern, their first action would be to secure a re-opening of the locked out collieries on the pre-lockout basis'. The Miners' Federation voted £1000 to ALP election funds. But the Scullin government proved no more successful than its predecessor. Two decisions of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court favourable to the miners were thrown out by the High Court on the application of the mine-owners, while Scullin found the pressures too great and decided not to prosecute Brown. The miners bitterly condemned this betrayal'.

In December, the stationary-engine drivers, who manned the engines at the pit-heads, decided to return to work. This made it possible for the mines to be worked with non-union labour, and the NSW government announced that it would re-open three pits with 'free' labour. At Rothbury police fired on a miners' demonstration against the 'scabs'. One miner, Norman Brown, was killed and many others were wounded From then on? there was a virtual police occupation of the northern fields, while the NSW government put further pressure on the already hungry miners by stopping unemployment relief. The miners now had only two alternatives– to spread the strike to the other fields, or to concede defeat. Under the influence of the Minority Movement, the rank and file favoured an 'all out' policy, but the leaders finally persuaded the men to cut their losses. Work was resumed in June 1930, substantially on the owners' terms. The miners' only consolation was that, unlike the watersiders and the timber-workers, their union survived the defeat.

excerpt three

From 1933 there was a gradual recovery of the economy and the unions began to make up their lost ground. By 1939 trade union membership was almost back to the pre-depression figure, although the proportion of organised workers was still below that of 1928 because recruitment to trade unions had not caught up with the growth in population. Unemployment fell steadily from the 1932 peak to 8.7 per cent in 1938; it showed an upwards movement to 9.7 per cent in 1939 which, many observers feared. presaged a return to crisis conditions. Trade union applications for the restoration of the 10 per cent wage cut were rejected by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in 1932 and 1933. In 1934, however, the court agreed that. 'having regard to the economic position of the Commonwealth', an increase might be granted, and a new wage of £3 5s per week was established. This did not fully restore pre-depression standards, and the unions applied for a further increase in 1937. The court declined to increase the basic wage; instead' acting cautiously, it added a 5s 'prosperity loading' to the wage which was not to be subject to cost-of-living adjustment. The court was maintaining the 'economic' rather than the 'living wage' standard in making its determination.

The unions had suffered badly and the post-depression years were a time of rebuilding rather than of aggressive industrial action. Only in 1938 did the number of man-days lost in strikes reach substantial proportions. Two significant events should nevertheless be noted.

In 1934 two communists. W. Orr and C. Nelson, became secretary and president respectively of the Miners' Federation. This was the beginning of a lone series of communist successes in trade union elections. Among those who first came to prominence in these years and who later became major figures in the trade union movement were J. Healy of the Waterside Workers, E. Thornton of the Ironworkers and E.V. Elliott of the Seamen. The Communist Party had abandoned the narrowly sectarian strategy which had isolated it from the mass of the labour movement during the depression years. It now advocated a 'united front' of the working class domestically, against 'monopoly capitalism', internationally against 'fascism' (the generic term for the right-wing, antilabour dictatorships of Mussolini, Hitler and later Franco). The Militant Minority Movement was disbanded; in its place, communist 'fractions' in the trade unions set out to win general support for militant programmes of economic demands, and leading positions for their own members. The new miners' leaders formulated a programme for their union which included a 30-hour week underground and a guaranteed minimum wage, and began to organise for its realisation. A log of claims was presented to the mine-owners, bypassing the arbitration process, in June 1937. Stop-work meetings and demonstrations supported these demands, and the first 'stay-down' strikes were held on the northern fields. The union leaders made it clear that, unless substantial concessions were made, there would be an 'all-out' strike. The NSW Industrial Commission called a compulsory conference at which a compromise was negotiated, awarding the miners a wage increase but not their other demands. For the moment the Miners' Federation accepted this partial victory in their 'first round'. It was enough to enhance greatly the reputation of communists as union leaders.

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