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My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner


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In the early years of the twentieth century, before the declaration of World War One, recovery from the Depression of the late 1890s was slow and slower in reaching such industrial centres as Balmain, especially for labourers and semi-skilled workers . As Greg Patmore's research disclosed in his Australian Labour History (p.101):

While there was a brief return to prosperity in 1900-01, drought prolonged the stagnation of the economy until 1906

Actually, the shipping and ship servicing industry was rife with unemployment for many years prior to the official 1929 Depression. Shipping was always an uncertain industry on which to rely for a steady livelihood, and shipbuilding and ship repair had not yet reached the proportions they achieved after 1918. Unemployment in that industry contributed much to the national average of some 6 per cent and its effects had some permanence in Balmain. Even so, the general upward tendency of the economy became more apparent as the years edged towards the First World War.

Balmain itself was a combined industrial/residential area, with clusters of workmen's cottages standing cheek-by-jowl with the industries in which the tenants eked out a living. It was not yet the time when Balmain was to be declared a slum area, fit only for demolition and rebuilding, but it could be described as workingclass from stem to stern. Every trade and occupation was represented in its population: not only all the waterfront unions, like the wharfies, seamen, coal lumpers, boilermakers, engineers, painters and dockers, etc., but also the wide variety of factory workers, miners, building trades, timber workers, stone masons, etc.

Much of Balmain's housing had been erected during the early to middle 1800s and was still in use in the 1940s. As Walter Bunning, architect, wrote in 1947, in the foreword to a symposium on Housing Problems in Australia,

It was ironical that, while the products of industry made such a vital contribution to our national development, the building of factories helped to create the slums of our towns. Manufactured goods began to drive handcrafts off the market. The machines needed both operatives and shelter. The operatives also needed shelter. Cheap, mean houses were built all round and in between the factories. With no legislative restrictions to set even modest standards of space and light, or even the humanitarian considerations of health and privacy, row upon row of workers' dwellings were jammed into every street.

Though he wrote generally of the industrial areas in Sydney, his remarks were appropriate to the industrialised Balmain which, in the 1940s was being described as sub-standard, in need of substantial slum-clearance and re-development. But in the early part of the twentieth century, the essential need for employment in order to eke out a living thrust aside considerations of hygiene and health, of the environment and community amenity, of controls for such purposes. The poky little stone and weatherboard cottages, with their tiny windows debarring the entry of sunlight, saw large and small families reared in their unhygienic conditions.

Some of the houses which Mort had built for some senior employees (foremen, etc.) were the "dirty dozen" which ran parallel to the lower part of Mort Street and between that street and the boundary of the company's property. The narrow stretch of laneway where these houses sat, leading from Cameron Street to the ferry wharf, became known, after the First World War, as "the Dardenelles".

However, while some of the wealthy and privileged employers found more salubrious suburbs in which to reside, others, like those associated with Mort's Dock (such as co-founder and for a time part-owner of the Mort's Dock company, Captain Thomas Rowntree, and General Manager James Peter Franki) not only stayed in Balmain but became notable figures in the district. Their residences were free-standing mansions in selected areas of Balmain, as distant from their industry as possible and clear of the over-crowding clusters of workmen's cottages. Franki's home was "Montrose", at 13 Thames Street, Balmain and Rowntree's was in Stack Street, a private roadway off Darling Street, whose lower end overlooked his floating dock in Waterview Bay. (re T.S.Mort, see Appendix 4)

Mort's Dock and Engineering Company at this time was a flourishing and influential, and possibly the biggest, industrial concern in the Balmain district. Its founder, Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, died at Bodalla in 1878, at the age of 62, but the company continued to expand and prosper. Through its General Manager, James Peter Franki, who came to the company at an early age and was appointed to senior positions by Mort, and who also became the President of the powerful Iron Trades Employers' Union, the company was a major influence in the determination of wages and conditions throughout its own and other associated industries. The company was also influential in local politics where senior executives of the company held positions on the Balmain Council at various times: T.S.Rowntree, E.W.Cameron, W.Davidson, J.Broomfield, S.Briggs. Of them all, J.P.Franki, the General Manager of the company was the most significant and active local figure.

At the 1900 founding meeting of the reformed union, another business man, the Mayor, H.Mills, had agreed to preside, but at the last minute left this duty to Alderman W.W.Williams.

In the first ten years of the 1900s, many changes were occurring in Balmain: Lever Brothers, founded some three years earlier, was producing the first southern hemisphere soap and its ships could moor at the company's own wharves near Bald Rock passenger ferry wharf to deliver cargoes of copra from the south sea islands. Power houses were opening, the Balmain colliery began operating. Booth's timber mills were flourishing, as was the chemical works of the Elliott Brothers. A variety of foundries, sawmills, engineering workshops and ship repair and shipbuilding firms functioned in the district.

Boatyards, ship repair and ship building yards abounded around the foreshores of Balmain, as well as on Cockatoo Island and Garden Island; Mort's opened its second graving dock at Woolwich. In Balmain, Poole and Steele, Morrison and Sinclair, the ferry yard, the Adelaide Steamship yard, Ward's floating dock, Chapman's slipway and others flourished. On what was referred to as the "Sydney side", the shipping companies had their wharves for loading and unloading cargo and for repair and maintenance to their ships and men travelled from Balmain to seek work along Sussex Street, later to become known as "the Hungry Mile", where they would wait for jobs on the shipping wharves. (see map showing all yards)

Ferries serviced the foreshores of Balmain from a number of ferry passenger wharves at the end of streets which then ran down to the water: Stephen Street, Darling Street, Cove Street, Elliott Street and the Bald Rock Wharf at the end of Mansfield Street. The ferry company operated its own yard in Waterview Bay for repair and maintenance of its vessels and employed painters and dockers among its varied group of employees.

Balmain, in those early years, was recorded as the most populous suburb in Sydney, with a population estimated by the Statistician, Mr. T.A.Coghlan, as some 30,000. It had long since achieved notoriety for its wide variety of political colourations, and, from the turn of the century, continued to be a hive of political awareness and activity. Every shade of political thinking had its adherents and its activists: the Political Labor League (preparing to adopt the title Australian Labor Party), various socialist parties, free thinkers, temperance advocates, I.W.W., the Communist Party, religionists of all kinds. Halls were available for all their activities, especially for lectures, debates, public meetings, as well as for fund-raising social activities. The Workingmen's Institute, the Rozelle Mechanics Institute, the Oddfellows Lodge hall and the Balmain Town Hall were popular venues.

The Balmain Town Hall witnessed the reformation of the Union in 1900, when a large crowd of workers and others attended the inaugurating meeting there. For smaller meetings, such as union meetings, rooms in local hotels were used. And after being pushed from pillar to post, in various parts of Mort Street, the Union became ensconced in its own premises, with its own meeting hall, at 36 Mort Street, Balmain. From its inception in 1883, the Union was a resident of Balmain and for most of its existence, the Union owned its premises and paid rates, first to the Balmain Municipal Council and later to the enlarged Leichhardt Municipal Council of which Balmain became a part.

It was in this busy 1900-01 period, in the mix of a residential and heavily industrialised milieu, with its smokey, grimy, dusty, noisy atmosphere, that the Balmain Laborers Union was re-born, being reformed at the same time as were the Waterside Workers Union and the Sydney Labor Council elsewhere and when the Labor Party was wrestling with a Federal formation and name. It was, too, the period when the unions, officially, were adopting arbitration, though the rank and file remained wary of it as an alternative to strike action and when the employers, initially, were opposing it. It was still a period of cap-in-hand approaches to employers for consideration of small changes in working conditions or wages, when job delegates or union officials would be expected to deferentially "wait upon" employers to make requests; when correspondence usually ended with such phrases as "Your obedient servant"; when the master/servant relationship rode high in industrial relations generally.

In the background of the activities of the small union of ship, slip and dock workers (the Balmain Laborers' Union) loomed their 1890s experiences and those of other waterfront unions, including the closely related waterside workers, all of which had been decimated by the 1890s strikes. As L. F. Fitzhardinge noted in his biography of W. M. Hughes (one-time Secretary of the Waterside Workers Union, later Prime Minister), referring to the Waterside Workers Union, but equally applicable to all waterfront organisations:

Though the union continued to exist, at least in name, its power was broken and it was numerically insignificant. The stevedoring firms and the ship owners, on the other hand, were strong, closely organised and united. Members of the union were blacklisted and its organisers hunted off the wharves. In some cases "company unions" were formed, to which the men had to contribute 1½d out of every shilling earned in order to get employment. Unskilled labour in the nineties was superabundant, and the men dared not resist. Wages were very low, work was irregular, and employment depended wholly on the foreman or superintendent. Men might work for twenty-four hours at a stretch, and then be unemployed for weeks.

This climate persisted in large measure into the twentieth century and could be witnessed in such waterfront industrial districts as Balmain and in such groups of workers as the Balmain Laborers' Union in its reformation period. This reformation led to many improvements in wages and conditions for painters and dockers, but still required strong vigilance for protection and improvement.

In the early period of the Union's formation and reformation, the 1880s to the early 1900s, the painters and dockers lived and worked through a callous climate of disregard for human life, limb and health by employers, courts, governments. This was the basic period during which the Union still struggled for full and proper recognition so that it might adequately press for essential improvements in wages and working conditions for its members.

The Ship Painters and Dockers were fortunate enough to have leaders and activists constantly in tune with their needs and aspirations. In the main, Bob Mahony seemed always present to guide and advise and sympathise. From the outset of the reformed union in 1900 until his retirement from active interest in the organisation in the 1940's, Mahony held the support of the members. The whole attitude of this group of labourers was coloured by the ravages to groups of workers involved in strikes, lockouts, gaolings and victimisations in the 1890s and later. So much so that there was an ingrained anti-boss influence in all their thinking and activity. Militant to a fault, perhaps, and generally radical in approach, the membership held to its anti-bossism even amongst those who would have been regarded as "right-wing". The most conservative among the rank and file held little, if any, regard for "the boss".

Mahony reflected the members' thinking. He, too, having come through the 1890s' experiences, also held to a militant outlook with sympathy towards radical views. At the same time, he stood firmly with the rank and file in supporting the Labor party while at the same time reserving the right to express dissatisfaction with Labor Governments which faltered or fell when required to legislate in the interests of workers.

The Balmain Laborers' Union, having separated from the ironworkers assistants (who formed their own union), and having changed its name to Ship Painters and Dockers Union in August 1900, some months after its reformation (see WITH BANNER UNFURLED by Issy Wyner), set sail on a stormy course. The official minutes of the Union tell much, in the words of the minutes-takers, of the members' hopes, ideas and ideals, of their compassion for the unfortunates in their own and other unions' ranks, their general hostility towards unsympathetic and callous employers, of their floundering but eventually successful efforts to establish an egalitarian method of sharing employment opportunities, of their support for strike action by their own and other unions' members. This present effort to show the next stage in their history provides for a wide expression of the members' own words as recorded in the official minutes of the Union.

Its field of work still covered a wide variety of activities in, on and around ships in docks, on slipways, at wharves and moorings in the Harbour: from ship's truck to keelson, from stem to stern, mostly work associated with chipping, painting, scrubbing, cleaning, working in every size of tanks, cleaning boilers, docking and undocking vessels, and rigging work. Many among the membership were seamen who had come ashore to settle down to a shore job and found that they could apply their seagoing skills and knowledge to the variety of tasks of Painters and Dockers. Seamen, among them some who had spent time on sailing ships as well as steamships, possessed great ability in the use of wire and hempen rope, and they found an important place in rigging gangs. Ships' firemen, too, had a place in the industry in cleaning and servicing ships boilers.

That constant menace to unionism --- demarcation of work --- was always present, involving the Union with other unions covering Ironworkers Assistants, the United Laborers, the Seamen, the Professional Painters and Waterside Workers.

The very nature of the industry, determined largely on the arrivals and sailings of ships and dependent on the tides as to when ships could enter or leave docks or slips, failed to give any guarantee of long-term employment on the work covered by the Union. Nor could work on ships moored at wharves or at buoys in the Harbour be depended on for regular employment as they hurried to load or unload their cargoes and hasten to sea. So that, by its very nature, it was a casual industry and painters and dockers were casual workers moving from one dockyard to another, from one shipping company to another, according to ship movements and needs. As the Union developed, the field of work was broadened and created the possibility of some members obtaining regular work and eventually "permanent" positions, but these were minimal and mostly with the Government dockyards.

The many hazards which existed in the industry are described elsewhere in this document, as well as the efforts to attain workers' compensation for the injured, the sick and the families of those who lost their lives in the industry. A reasonable form of compensation was a long time coming and the great generosity of Painters and Dockers was to be seen in the constant requests dealt with sympathetically at the Union's fortnightly meetings from which assistance was rendered to those who suffered from various causes arising from their employment. This is dealt with more fully in Chapter 9.

The number of cases of industrial widows, of wives whose husbands would never work again, left with many children to fend for, made a dismal picture for those who knew what was needed but could render only limited financial support. The Union's compassion for those in dire need was shown, too, in many cases such as that reported by Mahony to one meeting, concerning Mrs Caldwell who had told him

her husband and her son were in the Asylum & she was left in a destitute state. She had appealed to the Benevolent Society & they had given her 1/3d. she now appealed to the Union for assistance.

And the meeting decided to issue collection lists which two members, Baker and York, volunteered to take around the jobs. (Minutes, 5/3/1906.)

As well, there were other causes which had to be supported such as the twelve I.W.W. men framed and gaoled during the First World War and the gaoling of workers, or their leaders, or others simply seeking to express a point of view, believing in the right of freedom of expression, whether in Darwin or Sydney or elsewhere.

The various forms of financial support rendered regularly at the fortnightly meetings, came from a Union whose membership ranged between 376 members in 1901 and 2,454 members in 1920, falling to 1,427 members in Year Three of the Depression, 1932.

Often support for strikers (and their families) involved the Union not only in financial assistance, but also in supportive action in recognition of black bans, refusal to work with scabs, etc. No strike or other form of action was ever ignored. This was the quintessence of mateship: a mateship which knew no boundaries drawn by any one union or industry. This was that genuine mateship which those ever-changing excresences who inhabit the parliaments constantly seek to legislate out of existence with their laws on "secondary boycotts", "sympathy strikes", individual contracts, accords, etc. But, what the Painters and Dockers possessed in this grand and vital tradition, could not be expunged, until the Union was "legislated" out of existence. It is as powerful a tradition as lending a hand in bushfires, floods, famine and drought. Just as those disasters can, in the main, be sheeted home to the anti-social forces that wreak havoc on the environment in their greedy grasping for ever-greater profits, so, too, do those forces stand indicted for being the cause of strike action by workers seeking only to live and work under hygienic conditions, in dignity and safety as civilised human beings rather than being constantly obliged to defend their few achievements.

The nature of the industry, with its callous disregard for human life and limb, calling up humanitarian concerns by the Union and its members for those struck down with illnesses, injuries or death, or forced into industrial action --- the egalitarian spirit which pervaded every aspect of their work and their lives --- the disgruntlement with parliamentarians, membership in general holding a constant, anti-boss, anti-government, anti-arbitrators and employers who failed to properly and adequately deal with the workers' many and varied problems --- all militated towards the Union's bureaucracy, anti-lawyer/judge/court attitude. Thus the Union supported radical labor-oriented policies. And, as background to this, there remained that essential principle, "MY UNION RIGHT OR WRONG" and woe betide any who breached that principle.

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